Re: Active verbs (was: Basic Voice)

Subject: Re: Active verbs (was: Basic Voice)
From: Chris <cud -at- telecable -dot- es>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Thu, 13 Feb 2003 10:52:25 +0100

A function is a process - when something goes in, something else comes out. In that sense the process does something, just like your toaster does. Now, you could say your toaster *lets* you toast your bread, but that puts you in league with Zippy the Pinhead, cowtowing to and worshipping your household appliances. (Don't knock it 'till you try it...) You could also say that you *use* your toaster to toast your bread, and this is also true - you might and may use other things to toast your bread on other occasions.

But it's no less true to say that once you put the bread in the toaster and push the lever down, the *toaster* actually toasts your bread. The toaster doesn't need to be alive to do that. By your volition you have handed your bread over to the toaster and are expecting certain results. Once you'rve done that, I defy you to demonstrate that anything other than the toaster is toasting your bread. (I suppose Superman could do it without a toaster - heat vision and all that.)

In other words, when you use your toaster, the toaster toasts your bread.

This actually opens up some interesting considerations about prosthetics and their boundaries of effect. When you have a prosthetic leg, do you walk or does the leg walk? You do, of course. But that's because walking or even standing is far more complicated than anything the prosthetic is designed to do. However, when you lean on the leg, are you supporting your weight, or is the prosthetic supporting it? I say the prosthetic is supporting your weight - the issue is in defining the limits of the prosthetic effect. In this case the prosthetic is designed to support your weight, and that's what it does.

Now, the marketing dept will say this leg allows you to walk, and they're more or less correct to say so. With this prosthesis you have the capacity to overcome a specific obstacle - you can walk. But more strictly, the prosthesis doesn't grant you permission, so you still have to be careful about the nuance. And the prosthesis most certainly doesn't allow you to put your weight on it. It simply supports your weight. (Your insurance policy is what allows you to put your weight on the prosthetic.) So if the marketeers want to get down to that level of detail, they had better start talking to the tech writers and engineers before they put their prosthetic feet in their mouths.

All this blather actually leads to a decent conclusion. A full understand of the device you're describing leads you to criteria for choice of active verb, passive verb, or conditionals such as allow, let, might, may, and can. In other words, technical writing demands a technical understanding of the subject. The job is to remove mystery - as you do so the criteria for this type of decision become obvious. The decisions you make determine how much mystery (or clarity and precision) you transmit to your readers.

"<snip> but the function doesn't really "do" anything by itself, other
than just sit there. The user implements the function as a tool in order
to carry out his or her bidding (i.e., it allows him or her to save

Aha! Herein lies the precise reason I find myself using "lets",
"allows", "provides" etc. Thanks for reminding me! The code is not
alive. It cannot do anything by itself. They say the first step to
recovery is identifying the problem.=20

"<snip> there's no reason to put "allows you to" in every single
description. Just clutters things up and states the obvious."

I'll repeat this to myself every morning. Eventually, it will sink in.
At the least, everybody's help has been fantastic. I'm over my little
"tech writer's block".=20

Chris Despopoulos, maker of CudSpan Freeware...
Plugins to Enhance FrameMaker & FrameMaker+SGML
cud -at- telecable -dot- es


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