RE: Hocus Pocus (was "appears" vs. "is displayed")

Subject: RE: Hocus Pocus (was "appears" vs. "is displayed")
From: Sandra Charker <scharker -at- connectives -dot- com>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Tue, 21 Nov 2000 03:40:15 +1100

At 05:18 AM 2000-11-16, you wrote:

[Thom Quine writes] Sorry to belabour a point, and not wanting to squabble,
but I meant it when I said this problem confuses me, and I do believe that
some mistaken constructions end up confusing the reader, or at least giving
the reader pause. So I'm driving on in the hope of achieving clarity...
Sandra Charker writes:

Oh Good Grief!!!!

I'm sorry if that offended anyone, and particularly if it offended Thom. It was not directed at him, or specifically at anyone else here. So, also in the hope of achieving clarity, here's some more thoughts on the same and related issues.

[Thom Quine writes] In the sentence, "The New Customer window appears", the
apparent subject and actor are the same - New Customer window itself. If
this sentence is actually in the active voice, as Sandra argues, the New
Customer window is a self-animated wraith.
I felt the construction was passive because, in Sandra's own words, "the
subject of the sentence is acted upon by something else that might or might
not be identified." Perhaps I was wrong, but the confusion is there because
the true actor is missing from the sentence. If I had time, I'm sure I could
find an example of instructions that are confusing because the true actor
cannot be identified.

As several people have pointed out, voice is grammatical term that refers to the structure of the sentence, not to what the sentence is about. However, I'd like to pick up the more substantial issue Thom raises, of identifying who does what.

I suggest that the absence of a true actor from a sentence, regardless of the voice, is not necessarily confusing. To take a mundane example:

(Passive voice) The dog was hit by the ball.
(Active voice) The ball hit the dog.

Unless context provides some reason for using the passive, most of us would prefer the active form of that statement, but both forms provide exactly the same amount of information. The dog and the mishitter (should that be hyphenated? is the dog anal-retentive?) might both think that the ball is bewitched, but active voice neither enlightens nor confuses either of them.

Sandra wrote: Actually, I have a superstitious belief that Strunk & White
are responsible (no that's NOT a passive construction) for this inane taboo.
[Thom Quine writes] Being able to clearly identify the actor is at the heart
of technical writing, which is why the form is not well suited to the
passive voice.

I agree that enabling users to identify what they need to do and what they can expect to happen is at the heart of writing many instructions, but I think it's too strong to say that being able to identify the actor is at the heart of technical writing. Sometimes the actor is not as important as the result. What about troubleshooting? First step for users is to identify the problem, and frequently the way to help them do that is to provide a checklist of symptoms which deliberately avoids discussions of why the symptoms arise or who is to blame (who was the actor) for them. In the context of a yelping hound, "The dog has been hit by a ball" is the appropriate way to express the symptom.

So does all this nitpicking matter? Obviously I think it does, but not because freedom from nits is an overriding virtue. Partly it matters because Techwhirl is a social grouping and nitpicking is a social lubricant - ask any chimp. Partly it matters because it takes a writer (OK, or a good editor) to appreciate that the nitty gritty of communicating in written words is more subtle and more complex than a set of aphorisms. And on the third hand, it matters because the problems of communicating information are getting so gritty that nits might be an endangered species.

Last week, while the civility and apparition threads were running, two other issues came up that might have huge impact on how to write for readers.

One was in the Techwriter's bookshelf thread, where 2 people talked about the significance of "Understanding Comics". I haven't read it (Yet. Thanks people), but it seems to resonate with the notion that a visual language is emerging that enables rich, multi-level communication by employing parallel information streams. I met this idea recently in Robert Horn's book "Visual Language" (Which I also found because someone posted a msg about it here. Thanks again.), but I've been following it up a bit in other places. Just imagine writing user's manuals as comic scripts: an animated window that opens and closes on its own volition might become as easy to accept as a beagle philosophising on the roof of a kennel.

The other is Bill Hall's detailed descriptions of his company's implementation of a structured documentation environment. I've been tantalised by the possibilities of such a system for at least 10 years, but cost justification and implementation have always been too difficult. Now we have someone presenting a detailed case from which he can "...argue that SGML/XML structured authoring and content management would be cost effective today for most organisations employing more than 5 full time authors - subject to <factors discussed earlier>". Structured authoring of comic scripts? Why not? (Bill??)

Passive voice in comic scripts?? Heck yes, if it's the best way to get the message across. Comic words are competing with pictures for strictly limited space. Any nit in that frame has earned its keep.

Sandra Charker

mailto:scharker -at- connectives -dot- com

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