I have a question regarding terminology.

In English, we can say "I filled the container with water", in which the subject is an agent. But you may also say "The water filled the container" -- in this case, there is no agent. The subject is a theme that does the act of filling involuntarily.

What do we call the latter construction? Is it similar to the so-called middle construction?

  • @all: Please don't comment if you actually have an answer. Write it in the answer box.
    – Andrew Leach
    Jan 22 at 10:51
  • (This isn't an answer. I don't know the answer! :) Here's a link to one of the highest-upvoted answers writing about the middle construction - which I assume is intransitive The container filled for OP's example. That's not the same, because OP's examples involve (1) I as subject + container / water as (direct / indirect?) objects, and (2) water as subject + container as object. But my "middle construction" just has container as (reflexive?) subject, so it's completely different. Jan 22 at 11:49
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    Can we really rule out that water is the agent when "The water filled," for being inanimate? Jan 22 at 14:08
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    Does this answer your question? "Your order has shipped" Though there are two meanings to 'The water filled the container' (dynamic and stative), I'd say neither is the true middle voice (eg 'Ice melts at 0 degrees C.') where a universal property is described. Hence, the ergative usage. Jan 22 at 14:56
  • I think you have over-thought this. 1. Water fills things via gravity combined with a lack of porosity in the thing. 2. “The water washed the houses away.” In "I filled the container with water", “with water” is an instrumental adverbial complement rather than agentive. In “The water filled the container.” The subject, water, is the agent and the container is the patient and object. --If pressed, I would describe “fill” as patientive ambitransitive - the subject is the instigator and recipient of the action in the intransitive but in the transitive, the object becomes the recipient.
    – Greybeard
    Jan 22 at 16:09

1 Answer 1


It can be added to user FumbleFingers' comment that "fill" in the first case means "to make full", whereas in the second it means "to occupy space", and that the two verbs are different. This fact, that is apparently not stressed in the literature of the subject, as it seems obvious, is nevertheless a first requirement. So it is not possible to speak of middle construction.

  • There are two ways to interpret the water filled the container. The interpretation to make full is not likely in this sentence, but in some sentences, like the rain poured down and filled the dam, it's the only possible interpretation. Jan 22 at 13:39
  • Generally, there's three: the stative (full), the inchoative (change-of-state: fill), and the causative (transitive agent-subject: fill). Quite often, as here, the inchoative and causative both use the same verb form but in different structures. Dead, die, kill is a case where there are 3 different predicates, but in general one can use normally inchoatives as causatives -- and vice versa -- and be understood with no difficulty. I recall when first encountering grow a business thinking that it wasn't like grow blueberries because you didn't harvest businesses. Jan 22 at 16:23
  • @JohnLawler It is a peculiar thing that for the figurative counterpart of "dead,die,kill" the root is the same for all three: "the sound is dead, the sound died away, a carpeted room deadens the sound", although "kill" is still a possible variant. // "Grow blueberries" sounds natural, but "grow a business" sounds strange, too much (maybe this is because of the recent addition of this type of middle construction books.google.com/ngrams/…).
    – LPH
    Jan 22 at 17:11

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