As adults we confidently grasp the concept of searching for context when information in a few words spoken to us is not enough. Moreover, we apply logic and cause-effect dependencies, filtering out meanings that do not make sense. But the problem arises when grammatical construction of the sentence does not represent any context. That is when we, as adults, use logic, even when we are not aware of it. But what if you take away the logical reasoning? Does this mean I would be stuck with 2 or more possivle interpretations of spoken words?

"Hey, please be careful on the edge of the bed. You may fall and hit yourself."

Can you spot the problem?

I have a 2-year old bilingual daughter, speaking english and russian. The social surroundings are russian, but from me, her father, she rarely hears russian speech. In russian language the verb transforming to the form of passive voice grammatically changes acquiring a very special ending, which roughly translates to "self".

RU: ударить <--> ударить[ся] (written without square brackets, duh :)) EN: to hit <--> to hit yourself

In russian language any verb (95-98%) in the passive voice has this ending. When the verb has no chance to acquire this ending, it transforms in some way, all to serve a specific purpose - to make the verb in the form of a passive voice unique, not only grammatically, but also logically. English language does not have this "feature", some irregular verbs do not change their form at all.


When my baby daughter gets carried away while playing, I of course immediately verbally warn her of the implications of this behavior. Once she got 2 she started having pretty weird and shocking reactions to scolding, when she either misbehaves or is being carried away while playing. She starts to knock her head with her hand, usually the palm. As a parent I have a policy of talking out any problem and communicate my thoughts to another person in a way he/she understands. I was absolutely stumbled by reasoning of a kid, hitting herself in a nervous situation.

All of a sudden I have figured out why she is doing that. Exactly because the english verb "to hit" does not change. Devoid of logical reasoning, a child will interpret the meaning of a parent literally. Every time I'm telling my daughter "Careful, you may fall and hit yourself" she hears exactly that, if she falls down she would have to [actively] hit herself.

Let this sink for a minute.

Would appreciate hearing any constructive thoughts on how to explain this linguistical quirk to my daughter, lest she hits herself thinking she was told to, despite not understanding why.

  • 3
    Sorry, I don't understand what you're saying here. Your example English sentence does not use the passive voice.
    – curiousdannii
    Aug 8 at 14:12
  • 5
    I'd bring it up with an early childhood development specialist.
    – Alex B.
    Aug 8 at 15:46
  • 2
    I think it's extremely unlikely that the reason your daughter is hitting herself when you scold her is that she's misunderstood an English sentence. Seconding @AlexB., this doesn't look like a linguistics question.
    – TKR
    Aug 8 at 20:50
  • Heh, of course it's not scolding, she knows that. When the case is something she did knowing she was not supposed to, she makes a very upset face and starts to sob, nothing more, exactly because she understands what's going on. But there are those rare occasions, when I am missing the context and fail to see the reasoning of baby's actions.
    – Rhow
    Sep 13 at 16:26

It is a bit difficult to respond to your question, as it involves some false assumptions. “You may fall and hit yourself” is not what you are trying to say. You mean: “You might fall and hurt yourself”. “Hurt yourself” is not passive voice; it is active voice with a reflexive pronoun. It appears that your daughter’s English is somewhat better than yours: she understands your “you may hit yourself” as permission to hit herself, which is what these words actually mean in English.

  • 1
    Apart from the bit about ‘hit yourself’ being reflexive rather than passive, this is just plain wrong. To the extent that the distinction between epistemic may and might is upheld, “you may fall” is absolutely what is meant, not “you might fall”. You are mixing up the deontic and epistemic senses of may. Aug 8 at 11:11
  • 1
    @JanusBahsJacquet. You are not really claiming that "you may hit yourself" is correct English, are you?
    – fdb
    Aug 8 at 11:19
  • 2
    Yes, of course it is. It is perfectly correct, idiomatic and natural English, in exactly the same way that “it may rain tomorrow” is. If I were editing a text, I would correct “[don’t do that, because] you might hurt yourself” to the present-tense form, since the past-tense form would be considered incorrect by some. I have never come across anyone who would consider the present-tense form incorrect. Aug 8 at 11:22
  • 1
    "Hit yourself" does not mean "get hit".
    – fdb
    Aug 8 at 11:24
  • 3
    Oh! I only just noticed now that you changed the verb from hit to hurt in the answer. I had only noticed the change in the modal verb before. You’re right about that part – the main verb should be hurt, of course. “You may hit yourself” is also fine epistemically, of course, but it means something different and wouldn’t be usable here. (And as I said in the first comment, the bit about reflexive not being passive is also true – though in this case, they’d be semantically equivalent if the correct verb were used: “you may hurt yourself” and “you may get hurt” are both fine options here.) Aug 8 at 11:30

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