Thursday, August 31, 2006

More vigorous and manly writing

The old complaint against the passive is that it is ‘less direct’ and ‘less bold’ (see Strunk and White). My sense is that this complaint stems from the fact that in the passive, the thematic role of agent doesn’t line up with the structural notion of subject. For many people, the canonical role of the sentence is to communicate that X has done something (sometimes to Y). And that means the subject must be the agent of the verb.

Well the passive isn’t the only place where the subject is not the agent of the verb. So if you want to make your writing even more ‘direct’ and ‘vigorous’ here are a few other verbs and constructions to avoid:

Unaccusative verbs—these intransitive verbs have subjects that are not agents. Examples include: arrive, die, and fall. You should certainly avoid these verbs if you want to write vigorously.

Psych verbs—these transitive verbs have subjects that are either experiencers or themes. Examples include: fear and frighten. Again, stay away from these less direct verbs.

Middle construction—In this construction, the theme is the subject. The middle also requires the presence of an adverb. Examples include:
This bread cuts easily.
This book reads well.
This bureaucrats bribe easily.
Seriously, if you know what’s good for your writing you will steer way clear of this indirect and cowardly construction.


boredoom said...

Dude, every time I use a passive construction, a hair falls off my chest.

Shit, there we go again.

liberal elite said...

Ahem, Boredoom. "A hair falls off my chest" is not a passive. It's an unaccusative. The passive would be:
"My chest has been fallen off by a hair."

Or more germanically

"My chest has been offfallen by a hair."

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