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Saturday, November 05, 2005

Passive Writing

The previous post referred to the unfortunate side-effects that passive behaviors of the consumer culture, such as smoking and driving, have unloaded on the unwitting masses. Monbiot smartly extended the confined and annoying passive smoking to the open and routinely accepted practice of passive driving. The passivity of both exercises allows one to defer much of the responsibilities of his or her actions to an unspecified "everyone's doing it" rationale -- the sociological equivalent of gaseous diffusion.

If you haven't noticed by now, at least in a meta-blogging sense, I write completely in an active voice. Over the last year, I have completely dispensed with any passive writing constructs in my prose, eliminating all the words "is", "was", "were", "am", and the members of the "be" family. If you look through any past posts, you will find the passive constructs relegated strictly to quotes or in comments. Whether this means that I actually write actively, I couldn't tell you, and you would have to ask a grammarian if the language police should lock me up. I go by what my favorite all-time book, The Elements of Style by Strunk&White, says and they say "omit needless words" and "use the active voice". So I do.

Now you may ask, why attempt such a strategy on a stupid blog? To that I defer to the law of unintended consequences and what I have learned from the engineering requirements world. First, using the passive voice often prevents me from assigning responsibility for every action taken. For example, I can say "oil was found a few days ago", and you would have to click on the link to find out who found the oil. If I didn't have that link, you never would have figured out who actually found the oil. In general, using the active voice prevents that from happening and the unwitting masses do not get implicated by the spewing of passive declarations. I reduce the risk of unintended consequences by owning up to what I should naturally assume responsibility for and removing ambiguities from everything else.

Which brings me to the realization that link blogging in general suffers from a passive malady. As the vast majority of bloggers go link-happy while sitting in their passive-voice worlds, saying "it's so easy", I notice, sadly, that Strunk&White writing has gone out of style. Bob Somerby from the Daily Howler comes closest, while James Wolcott mixes it up so well that you don't care.

Whether constantly writing in an active voice causes displeasure to the reader, I can't say. When I read what I write, it may look stilted, but months from now I will have no problem figuring out the objects and subjects in my analyses.

But while I write it, it sure remains a pain.


Professor Blogger monkeygrinder said...

You are doing fine with it. One need not eliminate every passive verb, but too many passive constructs can be deadly (boring).

The key, as you pointed out, lies in eliminating extra words.

This generally jumpstarts one out of the passive voice.

1:12 AM  

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