In Jane Austen's 1815 novel Emma, she writes (Volume 2, Chapter 6):

They went in; and while the sleek, well-tied parcels of 'Men's Beavers' and 'York Tan' were bringing down and displaying on the counter, he said ...

This verb form is peculiar. I would have expected to read that the parcels "were brought down" or "were being brought down". But as written, it looks like the parcels themselves are doing the bringing, rather than having it done to them. What is going on here?

  • I'm certain if you or I were to write that in a submitted text then it would be marked as incorrect. Jul 21, 2011 at 0:03
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    Middle construction?
    – RegDwigнt
    Jul 21, 2011 at 0:25
  • @Charles Goodwin, this is Jane Austen!
    – user10798
    Jul 21, 2011 at 0:45
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    @RegDwight - interesting! Is this definitely a case of the middle voice, being applied to verbs that would not normally be used that way in contemporary English? Perhaps the construction was more widely applicable in Austen's day.
    – user10798
    Jul 21, 2011 at 1:20
  • (I guess PLL and I were writing the very same thing at the very same time)
    – nohat
    Jul 21, 2011 at 6:38

3 Answers 3


This is the passival, not the middle voice. This Language Log entry covers the issue pretty well. Read it—it’s very entertaining and full of information.

The summary is that before the 18th century, the passival (“were bringing down”) was the only way to express this in English. Around the middle of the 18th century, the progressive passive (“were being brought down”) first appeared as an alternative to the passival. The progressive passive was still being criticized (or should I say was still criticizing) in favor of the passival during the early part of the 20th century, but by then it had completely supplanted the passival. In contemporary English, as Charles Goodwin implied in his comment, the passival is completely ungrammatical.

  • Snap: looking at timestamps, we submitted our answers about 20 seconds apart! Parallel thinking…
    – PLL
    Jul 21, 2011 at 8:12
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    I'm still confused. How does the...parcels...were bringing down differ from the ticket is printing? The first seems unnacceptable to me, but the second seems okay; a couple centuries ago I think I'd have said they should be a-bringing and a-printing, but I can't see why Austen's usage is now obsolete but the ticket machine is still current. @PLL suggests middle voice/passival either overlap or are equivalent, and I'm inclined to agree. Unless maybe passival means those middle voice usages we no longer accept. Jul 21, 2011 at 14:39
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    @FumbleFingers, you know, it really is a good question. None of the comments on the LL entry mention middle voice. They do seem to be very similar, if not the same. I would hypothesize that passival is a name for a productive general process that could be applied to most any verb, and middle voice refers to a lexical feature of a small set of verbs that can be used this way—i.e. printing specifically has a meaning “being printed” that would be listed separately in a dictionary. Which is basically what you suggest in the last sentence of your comment.
    – nohat
    Jul 21, 2011 at 20:29
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    If you search the LL thread you'll find a couple of dozen middles, many explicitly voice or construction. But I was well out of my depth when I got to the sogennante "middle" construction is not "the middle voice". I soldiered on, but I knew in my heart I wasn't going to grasp the whole thing in the pitifully few minutes I intended to spend there before coming back here and asking you my specific question. I really do want to understand this one better though, especially now it's got even more of my/our attention. Jul 21, 2011 at 21:32

It’s an archaic form; the given sentence is not grammatical in modern English.

It’s an example of the passival, an archaic construction of certain passives (described well in this Language Log post). Apparently, at the time Austen was writing, “the trunks were being brought down” would only barely (if at all) have been considered grammatical; that construction (the progessive passive) first appeared in the late 18th century. The passival was the standard form, then, for what we would now express with a progressive passive.

As @RegDwight and @FumbleFingers point out, the passival is at least very close to the middle voice, the construction we use today in sentences like “dinner is cooking”, “the books are selling well”, and “you’re looking good!” Honestly, I don’t understand if there’s a clear distinction between the passival and the middle voice. Some sources I can find online (older ones) seem to regard them as the same thing, simply saying that this construction was acceptable in many more contexts in the past than it is today. Others (eg the linked LL post above) seem to suggest that historical linguists now regard them as two separate constructions. I’m afraid I am not au fait with modern historical linguistics; can anyone more knowledgeable clear this up?

  • 3
    Perhaps you should ask this as a separate question. I would also like to know the answer.
    – user10798
    Jul 21, 2011 at 10:16

Per @RegDwight's comment, it's an example of the "Middle Construction/Voice", so-called because it's not the passive voice (that would be "the parcels were brought down"). Nor is it the active voice ("the parcels" aren't doing the "bringing").

If you don't grasp that, and haven't yet followed the above link, first reassure yourself you don't have a problem with the display on a ticket vending machine saying "The ticket is printing", then check out the link. @Kosmonaut explains it better than me.

Here's the Wiktionary take on it. English no longer has a distinct verb form for the middle voice (many languages have one), but we can still force the construction using existing verb forms, sometimes with the help of a reflexive pronoun...

active : I charged the battery overnight.

passive : The battery was charged overnight.

middle : The battery charged [itself?] overnight.

  • 2
    Cambridge Grammar of the English Language agrees that "middle" is not syntactically distinct in English, but is a term applicable to verbs that are active but have "some semantic affinity with the passive". They are rather more restrictive about where it can be used, but I am satisfied with chalking that up to linguistic evolution during the past 200 years.
    – user10798
    Jul 21, 2011 at 2:51

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