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I broke my arm.

In my language (Persian), if I say this to one of my friends, her response would be like this: “Are you out of your mind? Why did you break your arm?” because it implies that I broke my arm on purpose. And we usually say this in passive voice.

So I actually think passive is more correct. I mean, you fell down and your arm was broken. You didn't want to break your arm. So I don't get why we say this in the active voice.

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    You can break your arm while playing sports. It was not on purpose, but it was still you who broke it. Similarly with "I fell over", which is quite tricky to say in a passive voice. Mar 9 at 19:17
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    In English, the active is correct, and it's understood that "I broke my arm" does not mean you purposefully broke it. The passive voice is not as popular in English, and it has some negative connotations to it. Mar 9 at 19:33
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    In Russian passive voice is very rare. We always say "I broke my arm" in active voice. Language is not just a set of different letters and words. This is the most important thing to understand to be good at foreign languages.
    – Gherman
    Mar 11 at 11:36
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    The oddity of this mode of expression has not escaped native English speakers; there is a minor cliché along the lines of "I broke my arm, or rather, had it broken for me" that plays on the mismatch between what is literally said and the intended meaning. Mar 11 at 18:35
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I don't get why we say this in an active voice.

English is not Persian. There is no sense of "on purpose" when saying "I broke my arm". It refers to the cause of the breakage, not the reasons.

  • I broke my arm → My actions caused my arm to be broken.
  • A criminal broke my arm → A criminal's actions caused my arm to be broken.

There is nothing intrinsically in the above that says either action is deliberate. People might assume that the criminal did it on purpose but that is not necessarily true.

Examples

  • I needed money so I broke my arm to get an insurance pay-out. (deliberate)
  • I broke my arm when I slipped on some ice. (accidental)
  • A criminal broke my arm by hitting it with an iron bar. (deliberate)
  • A criminal broke my arm by accidentally knocking me over when running from the police. (accidental)
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    Even if a criminal broke my arm, I'd still probably say "I broke my arm", which would basically be synonymous with "My arm is broken". Mar 10 at 3:20
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    Yes, I think that's the only thing that this answer is missing - there is a colloquial usage of "I broke my arm" which is just a generic statement referring to the status of arm and does not necessarily imply that I am directly or indirectly responsible for the breakage. To elaborate a bit on when you might use this: I might say "I broke my arm" when I care not to divulge the details or don't really have time to add the additional context or it isn't relevant enough to the conversation to elaborate upon.
    – Conor
    Mar 10 at 3:45
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    Maybe others won’t think this, but for me, ‘my arm was broken’ is actually fairly likely to elicit the response ‘oh, by who(m)’ — in other words, the passive seems more active than the active :D Mar 10 at 6:34
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    My feeling is that "I broke my arm" makes no sense and must be accepted as usage rather than logic. "I was attacked by thugs. I made it out alive but I broke my arm" would be a very normal turn of phrase. But it makes no logical sense.
    – PatrickT
    Mar 10 at 9:14
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    @PatrickT - That may be your feeling but feelings are subjective. When I read your example, I don't see it that way. I see it that you did some action, e.g. "I made it out alive but I broke my arm when I fell during the escape" versus "I was attacked by thugs. I made it out alive but they broke my arm" Speaking personally I would never say, "I broke my arm" if someone else did it to me. Mar 10 at 10:24
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It is a bit odd to say it like this, but it's simply accepted idiom.

To add to the other answers, if we felt no agency at all in the act, we might say, "My arm was broken in a car crash" or "I had my arm broken in a fight".

There are some diseases which cause bones to fracture essentially spontaneously. For those cases, or where you really wanted to be neutral about an event, you could say "I've had a broken arm".

It's grammatical to say "my arm broke" but a bit uncommon in isolation. It would make sense to say "my arm broke in a fall" or "I fell, my arm broke, by ankle twisted, and my head hit the pavement". It does come across a bit like you're dissociating from it.

If you did want to convey a higher degree of fault, you could say "I broke my own arm". For example, "I hit the wall to make a hole in it, but I just broke my own arm".

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    No, you definitely can't say "I've had a broken arm" in that context. What that would mean is that at some time in your life, perhaps fifty years ago, you had a broken arm; but that it is not broken now.
    – TonyK
    Mar 10 at 20:26
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    @TonyK All examples in this whole thread are past-tense and I took that to be the context. Certainly if it hasn't healed yet, you'd say "I've got a broken arm".
    – CCTO
    Mar 10 at 22:44
  • But it's a strange thing to say. Like "My life hasn't been easy, you know. I've had a broken arm, and a burst appendix, and who knows what else."
    – TonyK
    Mar 11 at 10:05
  • Saying "I broke my arm" isn't necessarily odd. It might just be that the person doesn't want to talk about it. Maybe they are embarrassed by the situation or they don't want to get in trouble for talking about it with people not involved. Mar 11 at 18:09
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Also, would be useful among those examples to actually add the intentional breaking of one's own arm: "I broke my arm on purpose/purposefully", beyond the case of cause "and so" which become conditional. Also, just like any language, physical presence whilst delivering the spoken work can be accompained by expression and body language, such that further innotation on the 'I' or 'broke' (depending), can make it declarative. "I broke my arm/I broke my arm", will be sufficient to imply the [on purpose/purposefully], with said expressions.

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Either is correct but the active voice carries some element of responsibility for the action, without declaring intent.

I broke my arm for the insurance money (per another answer) ... active, with intent, quite rare, and "Are you crazy?" is a perfectly appropriate answer.

I was cycling too fast and hit a patch of ice, when the bike went down I broke my arm. Active; no intent, but I have some responsibility because I could have slowed down in poor conditions.

A car knocked me off my bike, and my arm was broken. Passive is probably the most appropriate here, though active would be acceptable.

Passive can be used for comic effect...

There was so much beer at the party last night. Mistakes were made... (I don't want to admit to taking any part in what happened!)

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I broke my arm would be preferred because it's in active voice. My arm was broken is in passive voice. Passive voice is generally avoided in English because the subject of the sentence is not performing the action of the verb, which makes the sentence harder to understand in English.

In the I broke my arm it's the I (you) acting on your arm. In the 2nd My arm was broken your arm didn't do the breaking - who did? That's why the 2nd sentence is in passive voice - it leaves out who is doing the action.

We know you didn't mean to break your arm on purpose. It's the same as saying I fell on the ice. You didn't mean to fall, it just happened. You can be acted on by things you don't want to be.

Take a look at the grammarly page about passive voice.

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    In the present simple: "My arm is broken" is perfectly fine in English, and it is very comprehensible. It means the bone in someone's arm has been broken. We may not know when it broke, we may not care how it was broken but what we do know is the person cannot use their arm.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Mar 10 at 16:35
  • @Mari-LouA's last sentence of the comment demonstrates a third approach: Active-voice intransitive My arm broke (which appears as it broke in Mari-Lou's usage)
    – Ben Voigt
    Mar 10 at 19:40
  • @Mari-LouA - the last sentence says "the passive is more correct", but the active voice is correct in this case. The post is about active vs. passive voice, which is why I focused on why the active voice will be easier to understand for speakers. Mar 10 at 20:02
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"I broke my arm." is correct in the example you gave. It does not mean you wanted to break your arm, just like you can say, "I tripped" without meaning you did it on purpose.

"My arm was broken." is not correct in your example. Passive voice means there was another party involved. Leaving out the actor(s) means the actor(s) are unknown or unimportant.

Passive voice also usually means that the subject was a victim of some sort. If you add in the actor you'll get see better why this would be wrong. "My arm was broken by me."

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