Voice Verbs

David Cowles

Jan 31, 2022

“I am stuck on Band-Aid ’cause Band-Aid’s stuck on me!”

So says the jingle for one of the world’s most iconic products. But more importantly, and quite unexpectedly, this slogan is one of the best examples of ‘middle voice thinking’ in American pop culture.

“I am stuck on Band-Aid ’cause Band-Aid’s stuck on me!”


So says the jingle for one of the world’s most iconic products. But more importantly, and quite unexpectedly, this slogan is one of the best examples of ‘middle voice thinking’ in American pop culture.


We are used to sentences built around active (or passive) voice verbs. (The passive voice is just the active voice turned around.)


‘Billy hit Tommy’ and ‘Tommy was hit by Billy’ describe the exact same event but each with a different focus. The active voice puts the focus on Billy (the one who hit) while the passive voice focuses on Tommy (the one who was hit).


But what about the more likely scenario that Billy and Tommy are simply fighting. In English, we have to say, “Tommy and Billy hit each other.” Clumsy!


Other languages, especially ancient languages, often include a third voice, the ‘middle voice’. If English had a middle voice, there would be a form of the verb ‘to hit’ that would convey simply the ‘middle voice’ reality of this event. In Icelandic, the language with a middle voice that is closest to English, you usually just add ‘st’ to the end of the root verb to make it middle voice: “Billy and Tommy hitst,” for example.


The band-aid jingle highlights this dilemma. Is the bandage stuck on you (active voice) or are you stuck on the bandage (passive voice)? Or are you and the bandage ‘stuckst’ (middle voice)? See how the active and passive voices distort slightly what happens with a band-aid. It takes a middle voice verb form to properly convey what is actually going on.


So, who cares? Well, we all do or at least we all should. The current active-passive dualism makes us prone to think in categories such as ‘maker-made’, ‘employer-employee’, ‘ruler-ruled’. I’s exploit it’s.


For some purposes, the dominance of active/passive voice verb forms may make practical sense. After all, this is the language of the industrial revolution: skyscrapers and assembly lines. But it is decidedly not the language of interpersonal relations. The philosopher Martin Buber called the proper relationship between two persons ‘I thou’ (rather than ‘I it’). ‘I thou’ is Buber’s way of introducing middle voice thinking into languages (German and English) that do not have a middle voice verb form.


One of the most profound lessons of the New Testament is that what I do to another is simultaneously done to me. I am both the subject and the object of my actions. But without a middle voice verb form, we Anglophones have no easy way to express this ethos – and therefore we tend to lose sight of it in our everyday lives – at immense personal and social cost.

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