I wonder what the reason is to say These cakes sell well instead of These cakes are being sold well.

I understand that it’s shorter but it doesn’t work with any verb, does it? For example, The house is being built can’t be substituted by The house is building.

So, what justifies and makes it acceptable to compose such a sentence which we can see in the example with the verb sell? Does it have something to do with the verb used or something else? If so, are there many verbs which can be used that way?

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    This is an example of what is sometimes called the middle voice. It is very common in English, particularly in the commercial world; but as you point out, it can't be used with all verbs.
    – Colin Fine
    Jul 20, 2014 at 12:06
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    "That car is being driven well" means something different from "that car drives well". The first says the car has a good driver, and the second says it's a good car. Jul 20, 2014 at 12:38
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    In fact, the house is building was the ordinary way of expressing this before the passive progressive was picked up, possibly from Bristol usage, by the Coleridge circle around the turn of the 19th century and popularized in the face of fierce hostility from the Grammatical Establishment. Jul 20, 2014 at 13:39

2 Answers 2


The question touches on several issues. Stated as it is, there's no single answer.
However, many of the issues touched on are fairly well understood.

First, terminology. Passive refers to a syntactic process only. It does not refer to meaning. Consequently one cannot "express the Passive voice by means of the active voice". Or by any means.

Passive is not "expressed". A Passive clause is determined by inspection. If a clause has
  1. a be auxiliary verb, followed by the past participle of the main verb, and
  2. a patient subject that could be the object of the active verb, and
  3. an optional by-phrase agent that could be the subject of the active verb,
  then it's Passive. Otherwise, it's not Passive. What it means or doesn't mean is irrelevant.

That's so you understand what I'm talking about, which is variation in Subject and Object.
Passive is just one of a number of ways English has to vary what nouns appear as Su and DO.
  (which I suspect is what is meant in the original question, or I wouldn't answer it this way)

Two ways in particular are mentioned in the question.

One way is what Colin Fine points out is called the Middle construction, or alternation.
It's the first topic taken up, on p.26, in Beth Levin's book English Verb Classes and Alternations.

It has a lot of quirks; as Levin puts it,

The middle construction is characterized by a lack of specific time reference and by an understood but unexpressed agent. More often than not, a middle construction includes an adverbial or modal element.

Some other Middle examples (asterisk * before a sentence indicates an ungrammatical sentence):

  • This book reads easily = This book can be read easily = Unspec can read this book easily
  • This book sells fast = This book sells itself = Unspec can sell (many copies of) this book easily
  • This dress travels well = It is easy (for Unspec) to travel with this dress
  • *French fabrics adore easily It is easy (for Unspec) to adore French fabrics

Another way to vary Su and DO is to use a present participle, instead of a Passive:

  • The bridge is still being built = The bridge is still building = Unspec is still building the bridge
    The second one of these is an areal variant, dating back to an earlier construction.
    In some areas of the Anglophone world, one might even say The bridge is still a-building.

This is similar to the areal usages of present and past participles with need:

  • This car needs washing = This car needs washed = Unspec needs to wash this car

the second example above is, again, areal.

  • 1
    I was going to criticise you calling these middle, but then you went a quoted Levin. (At least you call it a construction rather than a voice!) Does she distinguish between this and unaccusatives? It's a while since I've read her. Jul 21, 2014 at 1:58
  • She may use ergative terminology here and there; I just bleep over them, since I never know which kind is which. I use ergative terminology typologically, not lexically. Jul 21, 2014 at 14:27
  • I just want to add that this is also called an intransitive construction. Here's one example: sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/0024384180900182 May 29, 2020 at 2:50
  • Well, yes, it is intransitive. Things have been done to the transitive base clause; like Passive, Middle transforms a transitive to an intransitive clause. May 29, 2020 at 14:24

Well-built houses can sell themselves without human intervention, but they cannot build themselves.

Vegetables grow themselves with help from the farmer who "grows" them.

We are on the verge of technology where circuits build themselves, so that soon we would be able to say, These ICs build efficiently. Circuits will one day have spontaneous contribution to their being built.

Today, we could only say, *These IC wafers grow efficiently, because we do provide conditions for circuit foundation layers to grow spontaneously."

The question lies on the concept of spontaneous contribution.

  • Can a jungle grow itself? Can a jungle system contribute spontaneously to its own growth?
  • Can a garden grow itself?
  • Can a vegetable grow itself?
  • Can a product be designed to contribute spontaneously to its own manufacture?
  • "This pot variety sells very quickly." Due to the fact that the marijuana shop carries some highly desirable varieties of pot?

This question is obviously a matter common sense, and if not common sense then the reasoning, to justify the spontaneous contribution towards a subject's own process.

To the nay sayers below
A car that drives well, does provide spontaneous contribution to its being driven. By its construction and design.

Like a cupcake that sells great. An airplane that flies well. A submarine that navigates efficiently. A war that fights on many fronts.

As I said, provide your justification to even the faintest possibility of its spontaneous contribution. At this moment, we have not yet had the technology to provide the faintest possibility for house to provide spontaneous contribution to build itself.

However, we can say, a house design that builds quickly - because the design of a house can contribute spontaneously to the building of its houses.

  • 3
    No. This is only part of the answer, which is about language, not about the real world. It polishes up beautifully is an example of a parallel phrase where activity from outside is required to achieve the result.
    – Colin Fine
    Jul 20, 2014 at 12:28
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    That car drives well is another counterexample.
    – Colin Fine
    Jul 20, 2014 at 12:31
  • Colin, no, it is not. Jul 20, 2014 at 15:44
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    I see nothing wrong with an ad copy that reads something like, “The houses build in about two months and are ready for habitation in three”, where the houses apparently do contribute to their own building (despite being nonexistent entities throughout most of the building stage). On the other hand, babies do help along quite a bit when they are born, but something like “*Smaller babies bear more easily” is not even remotely possible to me—and yet “Summer babies conceive the fastest” is fine. I’d love to know how a not-yet-conceived baby contributes to his own conception. Jul 20, 2014 at 16:01
  • 'Modern Prefab Tiny House Assembles Easily but is still Pricey'. 'Childs Single Bed Frame Metal Timber Assembles easily'. 'Pneumatic grommet setter from CS Osborne assembles easily'. At this moment, we have not yet had the technology to provide the faintest possibility for pneumatic grommet setter to provide spontaneous contribution to assemble itself. [sic x n] Jul 20, 2014 at 22:09

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