If I throw a ball at someone; that is active. If someone throws a ball at me - and it hits me in the face; that is passive.

But if someone throws a ball at me, and I catch it; that is 'responsive'. Should there not be, then, a 'responsive' voice?

This is not theoretical. I am writing an article about 'deponent' Greek verbs which, it is argued, are passive in form, but active in meaning. I do not agree and I believe that they are 'responsive' in meaning.

But, if so, then it must be true in all languages, English included, that there is a voice which indicates a response to someone else's active-ness.


Edited after Answers

My problem, I think, is a matter of relativity.

In the example above (I throw, I am hit, I catch) I am looking at everything from my own point of view.

But language construction observes all the events objectively.

Nigel threw. John threw and hit Nigel. John threw and Nigel caught.

closed as off-topic by tchrist Oct 9 '17 at 0:55

This question appears to be off-topic. The users who voted to close gave this specific reason:

If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

  • 1
    Related Linguistics SE question: What is the difference between mediopassive VP's and anti-causative VP's? Categorizing verbs according to their meaning is tricky and there are likely to be many possible classifications, much more than just two or three – sumelic Oct 7 '17 at 23:39
  • 4
    You may have pointed out a semantic nuance, but I can't tell if there is a syntactic phenomenon that corresponds. Your example "I catch it' sounds like it fits the active voice syntax – Mitch Oct 7 '17 at 23:41
  • 3
    See e.g. the Wikipedia article on thematic relation for an idea of the different kinds of relationships verbs can express. The term "active" in "active voice" should not be interpreted as implying "active-ness" in the colloquial sense. – sumelic Oct 7 '17 at 23:43
  • 7
    Why must something which is true in Greek be true in all languages? For example, Greek has masculine, feminine, and neuter nouns. English doesn't. – Peter Shor Oct 8 '17 at 0:59
  • 2
    Your "responsive" case involves two separate verbs, and each is in the active voice (someone threw a ball, and you caught a ball). The connection between the two isn't a question of grammar. – chepner Oct 8 '17 at 15:34

I think it would be best to avoid trying to talk about meaning in terms of voice at all. It's confusing, like talking about time reference in terms of "tense", because people often use terms like "voice" and "tense" to refer to purely morphological categories. I would advise only using the term "voice" to talk about the morphological form of verbs, since that seems easier to determine. There are so many different types of thematic relations that a complete classification of verbs according to their meanings would need much more than two or three categories.

English only distinguishes two forms that I am aware of for voice: active and passive. Some verbs have an intransitive construction that is sometimes called "middle voice" or "mediopassive" due to its meaning, although it takes the form of the active voice: things like "the water froze" (vs "the cold of the night froze the water") and "the water boiled". While these words are maybe valid as technical terminology with defined meanings as applied to English, I don't think it is particularly wise to use this terminology to associate the English expressions with Greek expressions, or with other English verbs with somewhat similar meanings like "catch". My impression is that the thing called "middle voice" in Greek is not really the same as the thing that some people call "middle voice" in English.

When people say that Greek deponent verbs are "active in meaning", I hope the main point they're trying to make is that they cannot be converted into an active-voice equivalent. I don't speak Greek of any kind, but that is what I gather from the Wikipedia article Ancient Greek verbs. The sources I have looked at also indicate that Greek distinguishes between a passive and middle voice in the inflection of the aorist (although not in the present, imperfect, or perfect), and some deponent verbs have passive-voice aorist forms while others have middle-voice aorist forms; so it seems like the description of deponent verbs as "passive in form" is a bit of a simplification (although passive-form deponents are apparently more common than middle-voice deponents).

A less charitable interpretation that I've seen in some of the sources referenced below is that "active in meaning" is simply based on the fact that Greek deponent verbs are often translated into English using English active-voice verbs—this would be an erroneous basis for a description of Greek grammar, since a description of a term used in Greek grammar should not be defined based on English categories of voice.

Anyway, I agree with you that this common definition of "deponent" seems like sloppy, unnecessary wording.

So, I would recommend saying something like

Although some describe Greek deponent verbs as 'active in meaning', I do not agree with this description. The distinction between deponent verbs and non-deponent verbs is simply that

  • deponent verbs have no active-voice forms. [optionally specify what time period or corpus you are talking about here e.g. a number of sources I found talking about Biblical Greek specify "no active-voice form found in the Greek New Testament"]

  • non-deponent verbs have active-voice forms.

The meaning of a deponent verb, like the meaning of any verb, depends on the specific word.

This description also seems in line with some resources I found online talking about Greek deponent verbs:

  • Many thanks. Much appreciated. Upvoted as the answer. – Nigel J Oct 8 '17 at 2:18
  • As I understand it, the insistence on Greek having deponent verbs is that Latin has them and some demand that Greek can only be understood through Latin. – Nigel J Oct 8 '17 at 7:01
  • @NigelJ Latin doesn’t really have deponent verbs any more than Greek does. They basically function the same way. English has completely lost all traces of a morphological mediopassive, but even those Germanic languages that have morphological mediopassives, like the Scandinavian languages, have ‘deponent’ verbs as well, which usually developed from either reciprocative or impersonal constructions; e.g., Danish de slås ‘they fight’ (lit. ‘they hit-each-other’, reciprocative) or jeg synes ‘I think/opine’ (from earlier mig synes ‘meseems’—compare ‘methinks’ in English). – Janus Bahs Jacquet Oct 8 '17 at 11:07
  • 1
    … Those last two are in opposition to de slår ‘they hit’ (active) and jeg syner ‘I inspect [a car, for vehicle safety inspection]’ or ‘I appear [on the horizon, etc.]’ (the active voice having been narrowed down in meaning). The once-mediopassive forms are still conjugated in the mediopassive, but their meaning is no longer mediopassive, and children especially tend to conjugate them as regular, active verbs (creating past tense forms like slåssede ‘fought’ instead of standard sloges). – Janus Bahs Jacquet Oct 8 '17 at 11:12
  • @JanusBahsJacquet Your comment about 'reciprocative' and 'impersonal' is very helpful. It is exactly that mode of expression which I am studying in the Greek. Very helpful. Thank you. – Nigel J Oct 8 '17 at 13:38

If I throw a ball at someone; that is active.

Correct. Throw a ball is an active predicate.

If someone throws a ball at me - and it hits me in the face; that is passive.

Incorrect. Throw a ball is an active predicate (see above), and so is hit me in the face.

Active and Passive are grammatical terms in English that describe constructions; they don't have to do with what happens to the speaker, or with emotions.

A Passive construction is one in which a transitive verb appears with its semantic object as its grammatical subject, in the form of a past participle preceded by a form of be, like

  • She was hit in the face by a tomato.

Any predicate that does not meet these criteria is (syntactically) active, not passive. And those are the only Voice-like constructions in English (they're not voices because they're not inflections like Latin voices).

As for deponent Greek verbs, unless you're a native speaker, you have no data on what they "mean". But go right ahead anyway.

  • 1
    Passives don't always have to use be. You could say for instance that She got hit in the face by a tomato. Geoffrey Pullum at Language log has a good lengthy explanation of the passive voice that goes into more detail on this point.languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=2922 – bdsl Oct 8 '17 at 10:24
  • Who says that voice has to be inflection? Latin voice is expressed through inflection in the present, but through periphrasis in the perfect, just like English—with the exact same basic structure, even: be + passive participle. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Oct 8 '17 at 11:05
  • 1
    You're right that the constructions given are active. However, there's no call to say English doesn't have a passive voice. Just because it's analytic rather than synthetic doesn't mean it doesn't exist. – SirTechSpec Oct 8 '17 at 13:31
  • English has a passive construction. It has no active construction; only the absence of a passive construction (which can use get, too, since get is the inchoative of be). There are thousands of constructions in English; it is pointless to give separate names to their absence as well as their presence. Oh, and calling it a "voice" makes it linguistic terminology, and linguistic terminology in English grammar and usage does not use active in this way (which is a good thing, because it's already used in several other ways as well; that's why I said syntactically active above). – John Lawler Oct 8 '17 at 14:19
  • 1
    "There are thousands of constructions in English; it is pointless to give separate names to their absence as well as their presence." That seems too strong a statement: for instance, it's sometimes useful to be able to talk about positive and negative statements, rather than negative statements and "statements containing no negative". – psmears Oct 8 '17 at 21:29

English transitive verbs only have active and passive voices. This is a grammatical term and has nothing to do with the meanings of the words in a sentences. The main use is to provide emphasis on a different entity from that of using the active voice. (A different noun or pronoun or noun phrase can be put at the beginning of a sentence.) For example: "John hit the ball," and "The ball was hit by John," describe the same event but with different emphasis. The passive voice also allows for the performer ("agent" in some linguistic descriptions) to be deleted, a extreme form of emphasis: "The ball was hit."

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.