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This usually occurs for objects that are used by a person, and in English often feels to me like an Americanism. Examples:

The sofa sits five.

The wine drinks very smoothly.

The car drives very responsively.

The food tastes good.

This sentence reads clunkily.

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    “The food tastes good” feels like an Americanism to you? I wouldn’t have said it’s equivalent to the other examples at all. The others are clear dispositional middles (well, perhaps not the first one – that’s just a different transitive usage), but taste good isn’t a middle restructuring of any underlying transitive construction. Oct 27 at 19:15
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    That' s a good point. That example didn't sound like an Americanism to me, but I included it because I thought it was part of the same phenomenon. Upon reflection, if it were the same construction then it would have to be "The food tastes well" or "The food tastes deliciously" with an adverb as opposed to an adjective. Oct 27 at 19:34
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These are called dispositional middles. The term stems from languages which have a morphological middle voice besides active and passive, of which dispositional middles are often one of the functions. For English the term is slightly odd because the active morphology is used.

The classical work on this is Suzanne Kemmer (1993), The Middle Voice. Wikipedia also has a brief section on it.

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  • Thanks! Searching for "dispositional middles" leads me to find that they might also be called "personal middles," but perhaps this is a case of non-standardized academic terminology? Oct 27 at 18:48
  • @JasonEliot I believe that's a matter of whether the disposition is attributed to the subject or to sth unexpressed. So e.g. the book reads pleasantly vs. the atmosphere makes for pleasant reading. The first is 'personal', because it attributes a disposition to the subject; the second 'impersonal', because it attributes a disposition to something not expressed (books, journals, ...). I would both call them dispositional middles. But the terminology is somewhat free because the kind of functions that middle voice encompasses are not discrete anyway; they form a multidimensional continuum.
    – Keelan
    Oct 27 at 18:59
  • That stuff is amazing! Never looked at it at that angle. Thank you!
    – Yellow Sky
    Oct 27 at 21:47
  • The Middle Alternation is the first one in the classic book on English Verb Alternations. It's almost entirely governed by the matrix verb, but there's significant adverbial participation.
    – jlawler
    Oct 28 at 21:35

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