The evil writer’s guide to writing in the middle voice (and the nice writer’s guide to effective voice)

My last blog post explained how to write in the active voice – but what’s far less well known is the middle voice, not to mention the effective voice.

To bring you up to speed, active voice is when the subject performs the action of the verb – ie The mighty Kaufman Eagles won the football match. By writing in the active voice, the subject does something to the object of the sentence.

Passive voice is about the subject receiving the verb’s action – ie The football match was won by the mighty Kaufman Eagles. Here, the object of the active sentence (the football match) has now become the subject.

What a lot of people don’t realise, however, is that in addition to subjects and objects, there are agents – and the agent isn’t always the subject.

Instead, the agent is the person (or entity) that causes a process to happen – in our case, the agent is the mighty Kaufman Eagles.

In an active sentence, the subject is the agent – which places it at the front of the sentence. In a passive sentence, however, the agent gets pushed to the back of the sentence – or gets left out altogether.

For example, let’s look at the line: The car was firebombed.

In this case, we have no idea of who did the firebombing since no agent is mentioned at all. When this happens, it’s called writing in the middle voice.

It’s usually used by people who deliberately want to hide the perpetrator. While writing an article for Macquarie University on how language can be manipulated, I interviewed linguist Dr Annabelle Lukin, who said that middle voice is often used in war reportage when journalists want to appear neutral.

As such, instead of saying The US has escalated the war they will simply say The war has escalated.

Effective voice is when the agent is mentioned. Writing in the active voice ensures the agent is not only mentioned but is (usually) at the front of the sentence. A sentence written in the passive voice isn’t as snappy as the active voice, but it can still nevertheless be in the effective voice, as long as the agent is at the back of the sentence – as it is in the line: The football match was won by the mighty Kaufman Eagles.

Confused? I hope not – but if so, just remember this: if you want to be evil and hide the perpetuator/agent, then start a sentence in the passive voice and then drop the agent out of the sentence. As such, instead of writing The cyclist was run over by myself just write The cyclist was run over.

On the other hand, if you want to tell readers the whole picture – and be direct about it – then put the agent at the front of the sentence, as in: I ran over the cyclist.

Ok, that’s enough for now.

 

PS Please don’t run over cyclists.

PS 2 If you’ve never heard of middle and effective voice before, then don’t worry – most people haven’t, and if you Google it you’ll only find a few references (although the terms were described in An Introduction to Functional Grammar by Michael Halliday and Christian Matthiessen). Yet even though these terms are not used by most, I do think it’s important to think about whether or not the agent – as opposed to the subject – of a sentence is mentioned.

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