A question about passive voice

Is this sentence in the active or passive voice?

Dolls sold for lots of money.

“Dolls were sold for lots of money,” is passive, but does removing the “were” from the sentence make it active? Shouldn’t it be something like, “Merchants sold dolls for lots of money,” or “People sold dolls for lots of money,” or maybe even, “Dolls sold their shoes for lots of money”? Is it missing its agent? Maybe that is what is throwing me off.

The sentence as is doesn’t read right for some reason.

You’re correct. “Dolls sold for lots of money” is almost certainly a headline, in which the auxiliary verb has been dropped. Almost certainly “sold” is a past passive participle. Headlinese is an art in itself, as “Cops Help Dog Bite Victim” illustrates.

As an active past tense, it almost demands an object: what did the dolls sell: real estate, junk bonds, used cars? And of course doesn’t make a whole lot of real-world sense.

As an example of actual English prose, the only instance in which it makes a lick of sense is as a headline.

Unless it’s in the sense that "dolls sold (something) for lots of money, then it’s passive. The dolls are suffering the action of the verb. The dolls would have to be doing the selling for it to be active.

Oh, no! Day of the Tycoon dolls!!


Idiomatically, I’d be happy with “Dolls sold for lots of money at the recent auction” to be perfectly valid and meaningful prose. It would tell me that dolls, as a class, were fetching unusually high prices; and not quite the same as “Some dolls were sold for lots of money…”. In other words, I don’t mind the verb “to sell” occasionally being intransitive (or maybe more like reflexive, like in French, in which ISTR that se vendre and s’acheter are both equally valid and describe the same thing.

Disclaimer: I consider myself a pretty hot amateur wordsmith, but I’ve no professional qualification whatever.


Actually, there is a sense of “sell” (hm, two actually) that is grammatically correct in the OP’s sentence:

The Hummer sells for $100,000. (Past tense: The Hummer sold for $100,000.)

This example actually fits both senses: as a substitute for “was sold for” and also meaning “has a selling price of.”

I agree that the doll sentence is probably headlinese, but it also works as a stand-alone sentence.

And another favourite example: “6th Regiment Push Bottles Up Germans”.

To answer the OP: it’s a sentence written in the passive voice. The subject is ‘dolls’. The dolls were not doing the selling, they were the items sold, ergo passive voice. The sentence is terser than it would normally be, presumably to serve as a headline.

Scarlett67 has it; the sentence can be read as passive (with the “were” omitted), but the 2nd and 3rd definitions she(?) gives indicate “sold” could be active. The situation is ambiguous since the past tense of “sell” and the past participle (used to form the passive) are both “sold”.

If English were a language like ancient Greek, I’d argue that as a stand-alone sentence (rather than “headlinese”) this is an example of the middle voice. This is the form of the verb where subject and object are the same; some tenses in Greek have separate forms for this specific voice alongside active and passive (for Latin scholars, there may have also been a middle voice in this language–it’s a good explanation for the existence of deponent verbs–but the forms were eventually assimilated with the passive).

English has some verbs I would characterize as middle voice. “To lie”, “to sit”, and “to rise”, for example, are the same as “to lay myself”, “to set myself”, and “to raise myself”. Based strictly on forms, one could argue e.g. “lie” is the middle-voice form of “lay”, etc. I sincerely doubt there ever was a strict middle voice in English, but these verbs are examples I use whenever I discuss middle voice with my beginning Greek classes.

There’s certainly some intransitive uses (like the above poster, I’d be inclined to call it middle voice) - it’s perfectly natural to say, “Man, the dolls are really selling today!” Clearly not passive, clearly an intransitive construction. While English doesn’t mark the middle voice morphologically like some languages, English sentences are definitely treated as middle voice occasionally.

And of course if our half-time candy girls were shifting the merchandise at an unusually impressive rate, we could use the above sentence with the verb being clearly transitive! What a joy English is for the uninitiated.

(I also like the story of the ESL student who after suffering through the contortions of English spelling was given a nervous breakdown by the headline “Bazaar Pronounced Success”.)

You can even have an implied agent, for instance in

“Dolls sold out for lots of money”

where it it clear they sold themselves.