Re: Challenge to active-verb advocates

Subject: Re: Challenge to active-verb advocates
From: Jane Bergen <janeb -at- AIRMAIL -dot- NET>
Date: Thu, 25 Jan 1996 22:15:40 +0000

Donna Ellis wrote:
> The original sentence:

> The leaves on the sidewalk were kicked and scattered by passing feet.

> A number of people have recast the sentence with an active verb, i.e.:
> The people walking by kicked the leaves on the sidewalk, scattering them tp
> the four winds.

> What if "leaves" constitute the focus of the sentence? In other words, what

Donna, you have just pointed out one of the most important elements
of any writing, whether technical or other. As technical writers we
tend to get so carried away with the "rules" that we forget about the
overall picture. As a technical writing student, we centered an
entire class on a book by Joseph M. Williams, titled "Style: Ten
Lessons in Clarity and Grace." He now has several editions out, but
in the third edition he goes into some detail about passive voice. He
says that the main use of the passive is "to improve cohesion and
emphasis. Textbooks regularly tell us to avoid passives on general
principle. That's more bad advice." (p. 45) In your sentence, the
focus is clearly on the leaves and it is entirely appropriate.

This book is absolutely wonderful for helping us understand that
using language is much more than just blind rules applied across the
board. For example, suppose you are writing about a lab experiment
conducted by nameless and unimportant (to the sentence) lab workers.
The sentence, "Samples were collected every seven hours and stored at
100 degrees fahrenheit until the desired results were detected." As
technical writers, our first instinct is to jump on this sentence and
say "Lab assistants collected samples....." but that may destroy the
cohesiveness of the whole. After all the emphasis is on the samples
and the methodology, not the lab assistants. If, however, you're
trying to show that perhaps the labbies should have collected the
samples every ten hours instead, then yes....make them the agents.

Jane Bergen


............................................................................
Jane Bergen Technical Writer
janeb -at- answersoft -dot- com or janeb -at- airmail -dot- net
"The difference between the right word and the almost right word
is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug"
(Mark Twain)
............................................................................

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