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My Grammar be gettin' better

Hi,

I can't remember what started me on it, but I was looking at websites last night on the subject of grammar, specifically the passive vs. active voice. Here's an example of what I'm talking about;

http://owl.english.purdue.edu/handouts/grammar/g_actpass.html

Over the past little while I've been working on a website in my spare time. This article and others made me look again at what I was writing, and it really made me notice that my grammar, while not incorrect, certainly wasn't as strong as it could have been.

Are there any other resources that discuss these subjects for us non-literary types? Can someone help make me a better person, or at least help me pretend to be one?

Nigel
Friday, January 16, 2004

One quibble: Passive voice isn't *bad* grammar.  It's just not necessarily good communication.

Flamebait Sr.
Friday, January 16, 2004

Yes, I agree. I did say my grammar wasn't "incorrect", just not as good as it could have been.

Nigel
Friday, January 16, 2004

If you are looking to become a better writer (rather than just learn nitpicky grammar rules), I highly recommend the following books:

1. Joseph Williams' "Style: Toward Clarity and Grace" (this book changed my entire outlook on writing!)

2. Strunk and White's "The Elements of Style" (this is a classic writing book and very short!)

runtime
Friday, January 16, 2004

Somebody (Prakah?) posted a link to "Elements of style" on-line. Search for it.

Floridian
Friday, January 16, 2004

My favorite grammar book is, "Woe is I: The Grammarphobe's Guide to Better English in Plain English", by Patricia T. O'Conner:

http://tinyurl.com/3f8dy

Good advice, and highly amusing.  Well, OK -- slightly amusing.

Alex Chernavsky
Friday, January 16, 2004

One book that summarizes all of the actual rules is "The Copyeditor's Handbook" by Amy Einsohn.  It's a great reference to have on hand, as it takes a rule, and looks at the viewpoints of all the major style guides, instead of picking a style guide, and then seeing what it has to say about the rules.

As far as actual style of writing goes, and not grammar rules, I recommend Sin and Syntax by Constance Hale.  She's the editor of Wired Style, and provides some really good examples on the use of effective prose.

I've read and used both, and they have proved invaluable resources to have.

Elephant
Saturday, January 17, 2004

And I'll say that taking the time to copyedit someone elses work goes a _very_ long way to improving your own writing.  Taking in active look at someone elses grammar structure, and figuring out how to make it better gives invaluable insight into your own style.  Many of the changes and decisions that you make to improve the grammar will start to trickle into your own writing.

Unfortunately, I find that reviewing your own work, although beneficial, doesn't have the same result.  Your brain knows what you meant, even if you didn't write it.  It's the same reason you have someone else review your code to find that pesky bug, becuase you know what you meant, even if you didn't write it.

Elephant
Saturday, January 17, 2004

English grammar is a problem for me, too.

I am not a native speaker, but I'm trying to improve.

MX
Saturday, January 17, 2004

The issue with passive grammar, especially in the workplace, is that it tends to avoid accountability:

"The files were changed on the server."
vs.
"John changed the files on the server."

"The wrong email was sent to the client"
vs.
"I sent the wrong email to the client."

If you catch yourself using passive voice and instead say that people performed actions, your writing will come across more strongly and (IMHO) your boss and peers will tend to respect what you say more.

Philo

Philo
Saturday, January 17, 2004

---"The issue with passive grammar, especially in the workplace, is that it tends to avoid accountability:"----

That's not an issue, that's a feature!

Stephen Jones
Saturday, January 17, 2004

I think the organizational structure of many companies is conducive to the use of passive voice and indirect equivocation in general.

One finds a large emphasis on the use the word "we" when it's not appropriate, and the politically-motivated desire to avoid attributing any idea to someone else.  Where I work, it's not uncommon to hear "the thought is ..." when describing an idea from upper management, as opposed to "big shot y thinks x."

The blame-dodging game does indeed permeate corporate America, even in our basic units of grammar. :)

grammar_and_politics
Saturday, January 17, 2004

Another leadership tip - it's not "bigshot x thinks y", it's "*I* think y"

When the boss issues a directive, when you give it to subordinates then it's coming from you.

Philo

Philo
Saturday, January 17, 2004

Glad to hear grammar's feeling better.  How about gramps?

Mike
Saturday, January 17, 2004

I agree that's not a bug.  It's a feature.

It's my conviction that blame-fixing is often a very unproductive exercise.

Alyosha`
Saturday, January 17, 2004

I take special glee in hearing the passive voice by people who fail to understand that their audience may not share their concern.  "It is stupendously important that the TPS forms be filed."  Funny, I don't seem to care.  To whom is it important exactly?  Let us think clearly for a moment.

One of my favorite expositions of dreadfully poor writing is George Orwell's wonderful essay called "Politics and the English Language".  I recall it often when rereading my own writing -- alas, often too late.  Reading it will, I think, forever change your writing, speaking, and reading.

veal
Saturday, January 17, 2004

> Politics and the English Language

Double Plus Good Essay.

www.MarkTAW.com
Saturday, January 17, 2004

Alyosha`, it's not about blame-fixing, it's about not avoiding blame and accuracy in writing. In addition, in some cases passive voice can cloud the issue by allowing the reader to get sidetracked into wondering how an action happened instead of the ramifications of the action.

Philo

Philo
Saturday, January 17, 2004

Philo, do you think the boss really gives a shit who sent the email to the client. He just wants to know whether it was sent or not. it's precisely for that reason you use the passive voice. Every example you've given for using the active is in fact an example where the passive is preferable.

Stephen Jones
Sunday, January 18, 2004

How do you know who to fire if you don't identify who screwed up?

Oh yeah, that's right, we don't fire incompetent people any more in the US, because that might incur legal costs.  We just let them harm the company over a 20-year interval and generate stress for everyone else, to *hide* the costs of that awful hiring decision.  Plus it gives management a consistent source of "panic-mode" opportunities, to justify their own salaries.

Jeez, it all would sound downright devious if consciously done.

veal
Sunday, January 18, 2004

Elements of Style is available online at:

http://www.bartleby.com/141/

Vivek
Sunday, January 18, 2004

Passive voice creates an additional type of ambiguity (besides who the subject is), when describing a process. For instance, if I write:

      The temperature is stored in variable X

It's not clear whether I mean
      The next step is to assign the temperature to X
or
      By the way, you can inspect X to find the temperature

To me, this is as bad a side effect as the ambiguity of subject -- it calls into question the entire meaning of the sentence.

Zahid
Sunday, January 18, 2004

And regarding assignment of blame: I agree that some situations call for judicious use of the passive voice.

For instance, if one of my employees sent the email to the wrong address, I as the supervisor am responsible for responding (either via "one-minute reprimand", or disciplinary action, or whatever).

But as a team leader, I must also take responsibility for the error -- so, when I tell my boss about it, it's either "we sent the email to the wrong address" or "the email was sent to the wrong address". If the boss wants to know who exactly made the mistake, I'll tell them, but using unambiguous language initially would emphasize the screw-up, rather than the problem to be solved.

Zahid
Sunday, January 18, 2004

"The files were changed on the server and..."
"Hold on - HOW did the files get changed on the server? Was it an automated process? Were we hacked? Is there a permissions problem?"

You have now lost control of the conversation.

Philo

Philo
Sunday, January 18, 2004

"Bob changed the files on the server and..."

"Hold on - WHY did he do that? Why does he have access to change those files? Was it malicious? Do we need to fire him?"

You have now lost control of the conversation. Just like in any situation where the other party interrupts you after one sentence to ask you four questions.

But you're more likely to be able to guide the conversation if you start with what you consider important -- that the files were changed -- than if you started with what is less important -- who changed them.

Note that I said "judicious use". If, for instance, your point is that Bob needs to be fired, active voice is better. And when in doubt, use active voice because it's more direct.

Zahid
Sunday, January 18, 2004

Any ambiguity in the sentence given is not the result of the passive being chosen.

The passive is used when the agent is unknown or not important,

e.g Toyota cars are made in Japan
      The offices are cleaned on Saturdays


or when the agent is the most important new information in the sentence

e.g. This entirely impractical requrement was insisted on by Marketing.

We use the active where the agent is known and is the theme of the sentences

"Philo contacts clients interested in Sharepoint, writes technical documentation in response to their queries, makes follow up visits, keeps up to date with articles on the cutting edge of technology and reality TV, and leaves no truth unanswered on JOS."

Where the object is the theme of the sentence we have the passive.

"The client's initial enquiry was received on Wednesday afternoon and a follow up visit was arranged for Friday. The sale was clinched on Monday, after a substantial discount was offered, and the software was installed on the following Thursday, in anticipation of the bug fix being released on the Friday, the service pack the following Monday, and tech support to be found hanging from the ceiling by a telephone cord later that evening."
                          **************

And a related rant.

The use of the modal passive should be banned :)

You know the tning; "Safety Shoes must be worn in the warehouse at all times"
"The building should be evacuated immediately if smoke is seen to be coming from the dynamo".

I have to teach this rubbish all the time to students who can just about manage "Whisky is drunk in Bahrain by teacher". When I point out the tens of thousands of dollars it is costing to misteach an obscure and unnecessary point of grammar I am told it is necessary they understand the safety notices in the factory. when I suggest they write them all in Arabic they tell me there are problems. When I suggest  that they rephrase all their notices to say "You must wear safety shoes at all times2 or "Leave the building immediately if you see smoke" , they look on me like I'm some kind of impractical idealist.

Which leaves me with the only admissable use of the modal passive:

"All training managers should be dumped into the electric arc furnace to improve the carbon content of the steel."

Stephen Jones
Sunday, January 18, 2004

The primary objection to using the passive tense on the web is that it is wordier than the the active tense in English:

"The passive tense *should never be used*..."

"*Never use* the passive tense..."

The passive tense is also more complicated, especially for people who learned English as a second language.

Even most Americans naturally *speak* in the active tense and struggle with reading sentences in the passive tense.

*** Know your audience.

*** Write to be understood.

For bonus points, try rewriting that last sentence in a different tense!

tw
Sunday, January 18, 2004

Just a quick thanks to all those who gave some references. I'll look into them.

Regards,

Nigel
Sunday, January 18, 2004

"or when the agent is the most important new information in the sentence

e.g. This entirely impractical requrement was insisted on by Marketing."

I'm sorry, but I would never, ever write that sentence. I can't think of any reason not to write
"Marketing insisted on this entirely impractical requirement."

However, if I was SPEAKING to someone, then I may go with the first construction with the appropriate emphasis.

BTW, one other point - I don't avoid passive voice because "passive voice is bad"; I generally avoid it for the other reasons stated/implied in this thread - it's inaccurate, uninformative, and bland.

Philo

Philo
Sunday, January 18, 2004

well, that, and also because you're a lawyer (aren't you?) Even prior to law school, I generally avoided the use of passive voice, but in my Legal Writing class they really beat this particular rule into us.

Zahid
Monday, January 19, 2004

Elephant wrote:

"Taking in active look at someone elses grammar structure ..."

O tempora, o mores!

Rhaetor
Thursday, January 22, 2004

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