Re: Computers aren't hammers (more on passives)

Subject: Re: Computers aren't hammers (more on passives)
From: Richard Burnham <ww -at- WISEWORD -dot- DEMON -dot- CO -dot- UK>
Date: Tue, 24 May 1994 17:41:12 GMT

I entirely agree that, in complex processes, we may wish to place
the emphasis on one particular part of a causal chain, so that
we treat one part of the system as the agent for the purpose of a
particular argument. We have already seen in the discussion on
passives how language can be used to deflect blame.

The question is, which is the appropriate "agent" to emphasise
in a given case? I think we would be more likely to say "I cut
the wood with the saw" than "the saw cut the wood", although,
perhaps, if we were explaining the operations of a factory, we
might then concentrate on that particular part of the process
and say "Now the wood moves to the ... where it is cut with the
circular saw" or "... where the circular saw cuts it".

On the other hand, people will tend to say "the saw cut my hand"
when they want to deflect attention from how careless they've

Which brings me back to the point I was trying to make, that
is, that in manuals the important relationship is normally
between the user and the final result: "Do this ... to achieve

On a related point, one of my clients has a style guide that
prohibits the use of modal verbs (can, may, should etc.) Now, I
appreciate that they often introduce ambiguity, especially "may"
and "should", but do other readers think that modal verbs should
be banned altogether? I actually *like* the word "can" where it
is unambiguous, with its suggestion of "empowerment" (vogue
word) of the user:

"You can [achieve xxxxx].

[step-by-step instructions to achieve xxxxx]"


Richard Burnham, Wise Words ww -at- wiseword -dot- demon -dot- co -dot- uk
Documentation and training from the user's point of view
4 Roundway, Shrewsbury, Shropshire SY3 7TG, UK
Tel/Fax 0743 272354 Int'l +44 743 272 354 CompuServe 100327,2011

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