This book reads very well.

The usage of the verb read is unusual. Because it doesn't say here that the book reads something, but someone reads the book. Can you give me a hint what is this grammar point called?

Can I say these?

This story tells very well.

This wine drinks smoothly.

This show watches well.

  • 2
    Possible duplicate of "...the document read like a statement..." - Is this just a mistake?
    – Ben Kovitz
    Commented Jun 15, 2017 at 17:40
  • You asked 'Can you give me a hint what is this grammar point called?'. You or someone (?Ben Kovitz) tagged this question 'middle-voice'. This term and 'middle verb' are both used, but are not common.
    – Sydney
    Commented Jun 15, 2017 at 22:03
  • @Sydney I know it's not obvious, but you can click on any tag (e.g. middle-voice) and you will see a page that explains the tag's meaning. Commented Jun 16, 2017 at 0:41
  • I wouldn’t expect This/a/the/etc story tells well. * *This/a/the/etc show watches (adv) seems uncommon to me, but I might imagine it in some contexts. I can’t say why. Commented Apr 13, 2022 at 1:40

4 Answers 4


I would say, when in doubt, check a dictionary.

As for the initial example ("This book reads very well"), that's clearly an acceptable use of the word – as indicated by Collins Def. #7:

If you refer to how a piece of writing reads, you are referring to its style.
    · The book reads like a ballad.
    · It reads very awkwardly.

As for your second example ("This wine drinks smoothly"), I understand what you're saying, and English is flexible enough to let you get away with non-standard usages like that. However, it's worth knowing when such a usage is recognized by a dictionary, and when it isn't. Collins' entry for drink shows some interesting uses of the verb:

   ⇒  he drank in the speaker's every word
   ⇒  he drank away his fortune

but "This wine drinks smoothly" is not included among the recognized, valid uses.

So, here's my bottom-line advice: Know what you're doing. Language evolves; someone has to be the innovator and use the verb intransitively first, if "...and the wine drank smoothly" is to ever start showing up on the pages of restaurant reviews. However, if you use a word that way, you should know that you're using it in a non-standard way, and be sure the context doesn't demand you switch to a more standard wording. You may think you're being clever with the language, but for every reader who agrees with you, there will probably be some pedant dubbing you "illiterate," claiming you don't know how to write. (As an example, there was once a hullabaloo over at ELU when someone – gasp! – dared used the word "fun" as an adjective).

English has ways of allowing someone to turn nouns into adjectives, and transitive verbs into intransitive verbs – but just because we can doesn't always mean we should.

  • ~THAT was a great answer!
    – Msfolly
    Commented Jan 10, 2016 at 16:25
  • A well-written answer, as usual @J.R. Plus, your initials alone suggest high intelligence and every good human quality. 😐 At the same time: 1) The wine drinks usage is perfectly standard; 2) Dictionaries can’t reliably tell us that a form or use isn’t standard just because it’s not exemplified; 3. The OP, primary question, What do we call this kind of use, is not responded to. Affectionately, your admirer, etc, etc, — JR Jr 🙂 Commented Apr 13, 2022 at 1:22

I couldn't tell you for sure about your three examples (tell, drink, watch). However, I believe that you will find this entry from Practical English Grammar by Michael Swan, really helpful.

609 verbs with both active and passive meanings

1 She opened the door / The door opened

Some verbs are used transitively and intransitively with different kinds of subject. The intransitive use has a meaning rather like a passive (see 412) or reflexive (see 493) verb.
- She opened the door.
  The door opened.
- We're selling a lot of copies of your book.
  Your book's selling well.

2 It scratches easily

The intransitive structure is used with a lot of verbs that refer to things we can do to materials: for example bend, break, crack, melt, polish, scratch, stain, tear, unscrew.
    Be careful what you put on the table - it scratches easily. (= You can easily scratch it.)
    These glasses are so fragile: they break if you look at them.
    The carpet's made of a special material that doesn't stain.
    The handle won't unscrew - can you help me?


Your example

This wine drinks smoothly.

is felicitous.

verb (past drank /draŋk/; past participle drunk /drʌŋk/)

1.4 [NO OBJECT] (Of wine) have a specified flavour or character when drunk:
'this wine is really drinking beautifully'

From http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/drink


I think that here, in this case, it is the special use of an intransitive verb with adverb/preposition.

read (v): [intransitive] + adverb/preposition - to give a particular impression when read.

All your examples sound okay to me!

Not a part of this answer but...

"Because it doesn't say here that the book reads something..."

A tongue in cheek example includes - English is the language where your feet smell and nose runs!

  • 1
    Your example is easily proven wrong, as in Dutch your nose and feet do the same :P (Je neus loopt en je voeten ruiken)
    – oerkelens
    Commented Feb 3, 2014 at 9:48
  • Oh! I wasn't aware of it!
    – Maulik V
    Commented Feb 3, 2014 at 9:49
  • 1
    Well, one can hardly expect you to be aware of all intricacies of all languages :) For now, focus on your English as you are doing great there :)
    – oerkelens
    Commented Feb 3, 2014 at 9:52
  • @DamkerngT. Mea culpa! Blundre it was.
    – Maulik V
    Commented Feb 3, 2014 at 10:43
  • 1
    @oerkelens - So, are you sanctioning that example? ;^)
    – J.R.
    Commented Feb 3, 2014 at 11:01

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