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Verbal Voice: Active, Middle or Passive

Every Greek verbal form has a "voice" - active voice, or middle voice, or passive voice.

For English speakers, the active and passive voices are fairly easy to understand.

Active. The subject of the verb is the actor, the person or thing that performs the action of the verb.

The mouse ate the cheese.

Passive. The subject of the verb is the recipient of the action, the person or thing that gets acted upon.

The cheese was eaten by the mouse.

In middle voice the subject of the verb combines both of these roles, so that the subject of the middle voice verb is both the actor AND the recipient of the action.

Now, this is very difficult for us to understand in English. We just do not have a space in our brains for this kind of distinction. In English, the subject of a verb is one or the other - either the subject is the actor, or the subject is acted upon. We do not have a "middle" space in-between. So, my best advice to you is to meditate upon the profundity of the middle voice! It is like a new way of thinking about the world. And it is indeed profound. If you want to be able to read Greek, you must learn to love the middle voice. It is an essential part of the Greek language, and it deserves your close attention.

You will be tempted to think of the middle as a variation on the passive. Please do not do that! Even though the middle and passive forms are often identical, they do not mean the same thing! And throughout the aorist system, the middle and passive forms are distinctly different from each other. You need to always remember that the middle and the passive are DIFFERENT voices even when they may have some of the same forms.

Practically speaking, here are some basic differences between the middle and the passive voices. These differences hold true even when the form of the verbs is the same:

Passive verbs CANNOT take objects. Just like English passive verbs, Greek passive verbs are intransitive. In other words, a passive verb in Greek cannot take an object.

Middle verbs CAN take objects. Unlike passive verbs, some Greek middle verbs are transitive. In other words, a middle verb in Greek can take an object. Note, however, that not all middle verbs take objects. Some middle verbs are intransitive, that is, they do not take objects.

Passive verbs CAN have an "agent". Just like English passive verbs, Greek passive verbs can have an agent. The agent of the verb is put into a prepositional phrase, as in English. In Greek, the preposition used for the agent of a passive verb is ὑπό plus the genitive. Note, however, that a passive verb does not have to have an agent expressed. A verb can be passive even without an expressed agent.

Middle verbs CANNOT have an "agent". Remember that the subject of the middle verb is the actor performing the verbal action, so there is no separate "agent" for a middle verb. It is impossible for a middle verb to have an agent.

If you keep these differences in mind, it can help you distinguish between a middle form and a passive form. Does the verb take an object? Then it must be a middle form, not a passive. Does the verb have an agent expressed with the preposition ὑπό? Then it must be a passive form, not a middle.

Also, there is a large group of verbs in Greek that have no active forms at all - and they also do not have passive forms either. They exist only in the middle. These verbs are sometimes called deponent verbs because they have "put aside" (Latin de-ponere) their other forms. You know that a verb is deponent if the dictionary form of the verb is in the middle. Make sure you familiarize yourself with these deponent verbs! Some of the very most common verbs in Biblical Greek are deponent verbs. (You can find a list of all the deponent verbs in Croy on this vocabulary page).

Biblical Greek Online. Laura Gibbs, Ph.D. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License. You must give the original author credit. You may not use this work for commercial purposes. If you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under a license identical to this one. Page last updated: April 9, 2005 8:06 PM

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