[I've overhauled this question.]

I guess I'm asking about the semantic differences, if any, between mediopassives and anticausatives.

  1. Here's a definition of anticausative verb from definitions.net: "anticausative(Adjective) (Of an intransitive verb) which shows an action affecting its subject, without indicating the cause"

Examples of verbs that have anticausative readings include "break," "sink," & "move." For example, consider these sentences: The window broke. The ship sank. The snail moved.

Contrast the latter with these causative sentences: Timmy broke the window. The torpedo sank the ship. The little boy moved the snail.

  1. Here's a definition of mediopassive that I got from the SIL glossary. "Mediopassive voice is a passive voice in which the verb has stative meaning, and actor is not expressed.

Example (Chichewa Bantu): In the following example, mediopassive voice is indicated by the suffix -ka:

mwana wangu wapandi-ka

child my beat -MEDIOPASSIVE

‘My child has been beaten.’"

I have also heard such constructions as "The shirt irons easily" and "The book reads well" called mediopassive.

2 Answers 2


Do either of these terms have definitive definitions among linguists?

No. I have yet to meet structural categories in linguistics that have single, universally agreed upon definitions. Even "word" is not strictly defined in any way.

You can compare terms only within the same framework. "Mediopassive" is a term used generally in historical linguistics for a certain kind of language-particular constructions/forms - anticausative is a term i know from typology.

Unless given a precise definition of the terms, I don't think it is possible to answer your question.


Levin calls it a middle construction in English Verb Classes and Alternations. She provides lots of references. Of the two names you're asking about, only "mediopassive" seems to be used in the titles, while "middle" is far more common.

Condoravdi, C. (1989) "The Middle: Where Semantics and Morphology Meet," Student Conference in Linguistics 1989, MIT Working Papers in Linguistics 11, MIT, Cambridge, MA, 16-30.

Croft, W.A. (1991) Syntactic Categories and Grammatical Relations, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL.

Curme, G.O. (1931) A Grammar of the English Language, D.C. Heath, Boston. Reprinted 1977 by Verbatim, Essex, CT.

Davidse, K. (1992) "Transitivity/Ergativity: The Janus-Headed Grammar of Actions and Events," in M. Davies and L. Ravelli, eds., Advances in Systemic Linguistics, Pinter, London, 105-135.

Dezso, L. (1980) "Middle and Causative Constructions in English and Hungarian," in W. Nemser, Studies in English and Hungarian Contrastive Linguistics, Akademiai Kiado, Budapest, 207-231.

Dixon, R.M.W. (1991) A New Approach to English Grammar, On Semantic Principles, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Doran, E. and M. Rappaport Hovav (1991) "Affectedness and Extemalization," NELS 21, 81-94.

Emonds, J.E. (1976) A Transformational Approach to English Syntax, Academic Press, New York.

Erades, P.A. (1950) "Points of Modern English Syntax," English Studies 31, 153-157.

Fagan, S. (1988) "The English Middle," Linguistic Inquiry 19, 181-203.

Fagan, S.M.B. (1992) The Syntax and Semantics of Middle Constructions, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Fellbaum, C. (1985) "Adverbs in Agentless Actives and Passives," Papers from the Parasession on Causatives and Agentivity, CLS 21 , Part 2, 21-31 .

Fellbaum, C . (1992) "Review of R.M.W. Dixon: A New Approach to English Grammar. On Semantic Principles," Language 68, 642-645.

Gawron, M.J. (1983) Lexical Representations and the Semantics of Complementation, Doctoral dissertation, University of California, Berkeley, CA.

Geniusiene, E. (1987) The Typology of Reflexives, Mouton de Gruyter, Berlin.

Grady, M. (1965) "The Medio-Passive Voice in Modern English," Word 21, 270-272.

Hale, K.L. and S.J. Keyser (1986) "Some Transitivity Alternations in English," Lexicon Project Working Papers 7, Center for Cognitive Science, MIT, Cambridge, MA.

Hale, K.L. and S.J. Keyser (1987) "A View from the Middle," Lexicon Project Working Papers 1 0, Center for Cognitive Science, MIT, Cambridge, MA.

Hale, K.L. and S.J. Keyser (1988) "Explaining and Constraining the English Middle," in C. Tenny, ed. (1988), 41-58.

Halliday, M.A.K. (1967) "Notes on Transitivity and Theme in English Part I," Journal ofLinguistics 3, 37-81.

Halliday, M.A.K. (1968) "Notes on Transitivity and Theme in English Part III," Journal ofLinguistics 4, 179-215.

Hatcher, A.G. (1943) "'Mr. Howard Amuses Easy'," Modern Language Notes 58, 8-17.

Jaeggli, O.A. (1986) "Passive," Linguistic Inquiry 17, 587-622.

Jespersen, 0. (1927) A Modern English Grammar on Historical Principles, Part 3 Syntax, Vol. 2, Carl Winter, Heidelberg.

Keyser, S.J. and T. Roeper (1984) "On the Middle and Ergative Constructions in English," Linguistic Inquiry 15, 381--416.

Keyser, S.J. and T. Roeper (1992) "Re: The Abstract Clitic Hypothesis," Linguistic Inquiry 23, 89-125.

Poutsma, H. (1904) A Grammar of Late Modern English, P. Noordhoff, Groningen.

Roberts, I.G. (1987) The Representation of Implicit and Dethematized Subjects, Foris, Dordrecht.

Stroik, T. (1992) "Middles and Movement, "Linguistic Inquiry 23, 127-137.

Sunden, K.F. (1916a) The Predicational Categories in English (Essay 1), The University Press, Uppsala.

Sunden, K.F. (l916b) A Category of Predicational Change in English (Essay II), The University Press, Uppsala. (Published together with Sunden (1916a).)

Van Oosten, J. (1977) "Subjects and Agenthood in English," CLS 13 , 459-47 1.

Wilkins, W. (1987) "On the Linguistic Function of Event Roles," BLS 13, 460-472.

Williams, E. (1981) "Argument Structure and Morphology," The Linguistic Review 1, 81-114.

Zubizarreta, M.L. (1987) Levels of Representation in the Lexicon and in the Syntax, Foris, Dordrecht.

  • What about anticausatives? Jul 16, 2013 at 18:20
  • @JamesGrossmann: Well, what about them? Where did you come by the term, and what do you think it means? It doesn't mean anything specific to me, though it's a term a linguist might use for a particular construction type in a particular language.
    – jlawler
    Jul 16, 2013 at 19:12
  • @jlawler: See the revisions that I've made in the question. Jul 17, 2013 at 3:40
  • Well, anticausative isn't a general term, the definition doesn't make sense, and it really appears like definitions.net is not a reliable source for linguistic terminology. So mediopassive is a useful term (though it means different things in different languages), and anticausative isn't.
    – jlawler
    Jul 17, 2013 at 4:33
  • @jlawler: Okay. Jul 17, 2013 at 19:54

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