Category Archives: Grammar & style

Where Words Go, What They Say…

Ever noticed that certain words and phrases change a sentence’s meaning as much by where they appear as by what the words themselves mean? Today’s case in point: The august New York Times tells us, concerning the recent attempted mass murder on a European high-speed train:

The assault was described as a terrorist attack by the Belgian prime minister…

Those darned Belgian prime ministers!

Obviously, the prime minister of Belgium did not take after a bunch of European tourists and commuters with his streetsweeper. But the misplaced modifier creates an effect that’s arresting enough to break the reader’s attention, even if briefly. Distracting readers from our story is not what we, as writers, want to accomplish.

If we were a New York Times editor, what could we do to fix this?

Well, the obvious fix is to get rid of the passive voice (another journalistic misdemeanor, BTW):

The Belgian prime minister described the assault as a terrorist attack…

Possibly the reporter wished not to lay the blame for a premature rush to judgment on Monsieur Michel and so tried to hide him at the far end of a passive construction. A paragraph later, we learn that “French officials were refusing to characterize the episode as terrorism….” Pulling these together, we might try something  like this:

Although French officials refused to characterize the episode as terrorism, the Belgian government described it as a terrorist attack.

Mealy-mouthed, but at least it doesn’t turn the prime minister of Belgium into a terrorist fanatic, nor does it draw attention to him specifically as jumping to a conclusion about the gunman.

In English, meaning is largely determined by word order. Even though native speakers intuit this basic fact, all of us commit the word order misdemeanor now and again. It’s just so easy! All those loose adverbs and participial phrases rattling around, like so many billiard balls shooting across a pool table after a break.

Consider the word only, for example. Where you choose to place it in an utterance subtly determines your meaning:

Only he said he dented the fender. [No one else said that.]
He only said he dented the fender. [He said nothing more than that.]
He said only he dented the fender. [No one else did it.]
He said he only dented the fender. [That was all he did.]
He said he dented only the fender. [Nothing else was damaged.]

A dangling modifier (a phrase or clause that doesn’t logically relate to the main part of the sentence) can create some unintentionally funny effects.

Walking on the ceiling, he noticed a very large insect.

Although our hero might have been walking on the ceiling (if he’s Spiderman), it’s not likely.  This makes better sense:

He noticed a very large insect walking on the ceiling.

What’s the take-away message here? Because English relies on word order for meaning, place modifiers as close as possible to the word or phrase they refer to. 



w00t! ESCAPED from yesterday’s miasma

Managed to break free from yesterday’s craziness and finally finish Chapter 2 for the Boob Book. Not gonna rehearse today’s little triumph because it’s described in detail over here.

More of interest to the writerly set: The word count for the introduction, two chapters, and two appendices is right at 10,600.

The chapters plus the intro average 2800 words apiece. The appendices (all two of them): 1090 words each.

So, if those numbers stay consistent throughout, the 11 chapters and 5 appendices should add up to a total word count of just under 40,000 words.

That’s not very long; one would like to be closer to 80,000, for a book-length work. However, there’s a glossary — heaven only knows how long that will run. I found a large cache of definitions at a government site; ergo in the public domain. I’ll probably use most or all of those, which will inflate the word count significantly. And as we speak, I have 21 pages of references, single-spaced, set up in Chicago style. That stands at 4874 words just now.

So the references alone push the word count to around 45,000 words. If the glossary comes in at around 3,000 words (???), that would make it 48,000. Add an index, maybe another thousand words (counting numbers as words…). Hm.

Well, they say shorter is better these days, moderns not being much on reading. We shall see.

Spent this afternoon studying and outlining downloads from Kindle Unlimited, by way of building the new racy-novel enterprise.

My goodness, there’s some bad writing out there! These things are awful. Full of dangling modifiers (some of them truly hilarious), typos, unidiomatic language (“grinded”; “withering” for “writhing”; and on and on), lapses in point of view, characters dissolving pointlessly in laughter, eye-glazing clichés…

Oh, well. Clearly literature is not what people are buying the things for. 😀

A few of them do display fairly workmanlike writing, and some are even done with style and humor. But even those self-consciously deploy tried-and-true tropes. There’s quite a sameness to these things, especially where the female characters are concerned:

The female character almost invariably is said to be lonely: either she describes herself as lonely, explicitly, or some other character observes or speculates that she’s lonely.

As the story unwinds, the woman is “rescued” in some way from an unhappy relationship with a former husband/boyfriend. Male lover(s) sex is better, kinder, hotter, more positive all the way around.

Female character yearns for change or sometimes simply for an outrageous spree.

She often is described as feeling self-conscious or insecure about herself.

Attraction is immediate, as you’d expect in such short pieces – the characters lust after each other at first glance.

Men are described as “gods”

Men are often described as cooking or doing some other domestic activity; this seems to be part of his appeal or at least a repeating trope.

Hm. We’ll redact some of these other observations, lest the young, the impressionable, or the tender be reading. Suffice it to say that all the way across the board, a kind of monotony reigns.

It explains why some very, very silly things rise to the top in this genre. Like the series about the woman who gets it on with Bigfoot.

Heee! Yes. That one is said to be authored by a SAHM who home-schools the kiddies.

And that factoid also explains something. I suppose.

Write Tight! Part III: Techniques of Economical Composition and Style

Yesterday we discussed a few mechanical tricks to achieve “tight writing“: economical, readable, non-time-sucking style.

Some devices require a little more thought than the knee-jerk devices we just reviewed. These are compositional principles that you should internalize as you internalize the spelling of your own name.

Avoid the passive voice.

Verbs are words that express action, and they come in two voices, “active” and “passive.”

In the active voice, the action moves directly from the subject to the object of the action (the thing that is receiving the action). In our examples, we’ll color subjects red, verbs blue, and (when they exist) objects green:

 Joe shot the bear.

Notice that the receiver of the action here appears as the object of the verb, and the thing that is doing the action is the verb’s subject.

In the passive voice, the action moves in the opposite direction: the thing that receives the action suddenly appears as the verb’s subject, and the doer of the action is hidden in a prepositional phrase starting with “by,” which may or may not be explicitly stated. Let’s color prepositional phrases purple.

 The bear was shot [by Joe].

Because the passive voice always contains a past participle (a verbal that looks like it’s in the past tense, such as “shot”), many writers confuse it with the past tense. Remember, the way to tell whether a verb is in the passive voice is asking whether you can say the action was done by someone or something. If the phrase by xxxmakes sense, then the verb is in the passive voice.

Fix it by converting it to the active voice, unless you’re using the passive voice for a specific reason. In most circumstances, the passive voice is indirect and verbose—that’s why it’s a classic feature of bureaucratese.

 Use verbs conveying action, instead of verbs of being.

These are the verbs of being:

 am is are was were be being been

They’re perfectly fine words, and you can’t get around using them now and again. But they lack punch. Good writers make their verbs carry the weight of their sentences—and a verb of being doesn’t carry much weight. Instead of having the subject of a sentence just “be,” have it “do.”

Here’s a sentence by a real journalist:

Energetic and stimulating, Ríos is a favorite among students.

It conveys a little meaning, but overall, it’s a big Z, dull as white rice. What on earth does “stimulating” mean, anyway? And that fellow Ríos is buried in the middle of the sentence.

We could rewrite it:

 Students love the energetic and stimulating Ríos.

A little better—though insipid. The word “love” sounds too strong; it’s one of those words that have lost meaning from overuse. And the sentence still doesn’t show Ríos in action; it doesn’t show how the words “energetic” and “stimulating” define him.

My edited version—and I was perhaps guilty of going after this scribe with a heavy hand—read like this when it finally went to print:

 Ríos projects a sense of excitement and energy that charms his students.

Does it improve on the original? Maybe so; maybe not. As you can see, though, an insipid sentence inspires an insipid response in the reader, something you decidedly do not want to inspire.

Write in complete sentences. . .most of the time.

A complete sentence has a subject and a verb. It will not harm your style or bore your reader if you include a subject and a verb in every sentence.

Beginning writers seem to think it’s arty to cast their thoughts in fragments. Maybe they think it sounds dramatic.

In fact, though, sentence fragments have a function: they’re like exclamation points. They’re emphatic. Too many exclamation points make your copy sound like you’re panting.

Good writers use sentence fragments in the same way the use exclamation points: sparingly. To pepper a piece of writing with either fragments or exclamation points is bad style.

Want to be a better writer? Internalize these principles and tricks for tighter writing.Use Anglo-Saxon instead of Latinate words.

Prefer the short word to the long one. Some folks apparently believe that the more syllables a word has, the more important it sounds. Not so. Think about the most common mouth-fillers, and consider their plain-English alternatives:

numerous (many)
donation (gift)
illustrate (show)
accountability (duty)
merchandise (stock)
acquiesce (agree)
communicate (say)
conference (meeting)
indicate (say, imply)
knowledgeable (trained)
optimal (best)
restructure (change)
institute (start)

This is what happens when you lard your language with important-sounding, Latinate words:

Members of the species homo sapiens who maintain an abode within a permanent or semipermanent structure composed at least partially or wholly of vitreous, transparent material would find it sagacious to refrain from hurling projectiles of natural material.

 Figured out what this means yet?

 People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. top

 Cut the jargon.

Of AIDS, a high-ranking bureaucrat once said, “The disease has heterosexualized, proletarianized, and ruralized.” So has the plague of gobbledygook.

Jargon is mishmash language. It obscures meaning while it implies that the speaker is an insider. Don’t confuse this term with “shop talk.” Some terms that are current in specific trades and industries have real meaning and need not be translated into verbose alternatives. Doctors and nurses, for example, know what an “EMT” is, and they know what has happened when someone has administered CPR. No—we’re talking about phony shop talk, fake insider language, ersatz sophistication.

You can learn to recognize jargon, which, like computer viruses, evolves constantly. For example, suspect any word that ends in -ize or -ate:

…even concertize!

Nouns and adjectives usually convert to jargon when they surface as brand-new verbs. Thus, the word “conference” becomes jargon when it’s used as a verb: “They conferenced about the computer program.” We’ve all heard these words several times too often:

to parent
to office
to network
to obsolete

Some jargon slithers into the language from baleful sources like admanese, educationese, political doublethink, and shop talk. They buzz interestingly but don’t mean much:

fast track
dog and pony show
world class
meaningful dialogue
revolution (as in “a marketing revolution”)
experience (as in “a dining experience”)

 The word “multiple”—meaning “many” or “more than one”—has suddenly cropped up like chicken pox on a six-year-old’s belly. There is nothing wrong with the word “many.” And “more than one” is far preferable to the mumbly “multiple.”

Avoid clichés like the plague. . . .

Clichés are aging quips that have worn thin with overuse. You can usually tell if a golden phrase is hackneyed by saying the first few words aloud. If the last few follow automatically, you’ve got a cliché.

Raining cats and…
Filled to the…
Fit as a…
Sell like…

 Use specific terms, not mush words.

Everyday language is awash in words devoid of solid meaning—such as “area” and “field.” That’s not my area; he’s an expert in the field. What do these things mean? Discipline? Concern? Meadow? Say what you mean!

Watch out for words like thing, idea, situation, experience, and group, which may mean anything from the Boy Scouts to a witches’ coven.

Use the right word.

Some words sound as though they mean something other than what they do mean.

fortuitous does not mean fortunate
appraised is not apprised
revenge is not to avenge
award is not to reward
verbal is not quite the same as oral

 Shun euphemisms.

Euphemism is prettified speech that supposedly softens blunt reality (“she passed away”) or replaces frank words with allegedly acceptable language (“little girls’ room”). Don’t be crude, but don’t be nicey-nice, either. A task force is a committee, a recreation facility is a gym, and an environmental engineer in education is a school janitor. top

Cut redundancies.Any unnecessary word is redundant. In the patter of every day speech, we repeat ourselves all the time. For example:

hot water heater
close proximity
one and only
more and more
single most
free gift
sworn affidavit
completely surrounded
future plans
return again
completely unable

 This may be O.K. when you’re talking, but don’t do it in writing. You can edit the written word—and you should.

Sometimes writers indulge in larger kinds of redundancy. We may accidentally repeat a phrase, sentence, or paragraph that appeared earlier in the document. Or we may have been taught a particularly pernicious method of composition, the “Tell them what you’re going to say; say it; and tell them what you said” approach. This is plain bad writing—don’t do it. In writing (as opposed to public speaking), you need say it just once.

Avoid portmanteau sentences.

This term was coined by James Kilpatrick, after Lewis Carroll. It compares an overburdened sentence to a stuffed suitcase. Consider, for example, this astonishing example from Editor & Publisher, the trade journal of the newspaper industry—and ironically, a repository of bad writing:

Achorn suggested that women set the ground rules early and stick to them, not underestimate themselves or set their goals too low, be prepared for a certain amount of loneliness as they get to the top (it goes with the job), not carry a chip on their shoulders, take advantage of every educational and training opportunity, make sure their company has a sound policy against sexual harassment, not assume all women working with them are for them, be optimistic and not expect the workplace to solve all the problems and change cultural attitudes that have built up over the centuries.

Amazing. There was no need to recite every hackneyed aphorism the speaker uttered. But even if the advice were not trite, the sentence would still be overstuffed.

Use correct punctuation.

It’s does not mean its, and there’s no such thing as its’. Sentences slopped together with a comma instead of a conjunction or a semicolon just look…well, sloppy. Learn the difference between the plural and the possessive, and distinguish between the plural possessive and the singular possessive. You can learn these things. Get a second-hand freshman comp handbook to teach yourself details of punctuation and grammar that you might have missed in grade school, high school, or freshman composition. top


Remember to run the spellchecker as the second-to-last step in revising your work. But after that, always proofread with the brain! We’re still smarter than our computers.

Write Tight! Part II: Mechanical Tricks

So yesterday I started chatting about economical writing and how to achieve it. One strategy is by applying a few simple tricks, easily memorized and requiring no more than a basic understanding of English grammar. Though these little strategies are no substitute for thoughtful composition, they’re good habits to adapt.

Cut adverbs and adjectives.

Be brief. Writing habits that will help improve your writing. (Cut adverbs and adjectives, watch for wordy habits, and more.)The words very, quite, a little, a lot, a bit, somewhat, rather, and really can usually go. So can many—perhaps even most—words ending in -ly. Ask yourself if you need that adverb, or if you can find a verb that carries the meaning of two words.

For example, what does “talk very fast” mean? We can list a half-dozen single words that may mean this without even thinking about it: chatter, jabber, babble, blurt, prattle, chit-chat, gab. Each of these is a verb that encompasses within its meaning “talk” and “very fast.”

A little thought will certainly lead to more and maybe better terms. But notice that each of these verbs adds meaning and vividness to the idea of fast talk—they all have slightly different senses. The strong verb, when preferred to a weaker verb plus an adverb or two, gives strength and meaning to your language.

 Watch for wordy habits.

I nearly said, “Keep your eye out for. . . .” Verbose constructions are everywhere, and we can always find one or two words to take their place:

has the capability to (can)
is capable of (can)
is able to (can)
was able to (could)
can be compared to (resembles)
are forced to (must)
is a product of Japan (comes from Japan)

Never use two or three words when one or two will do the job.

Look for the hidden verb.

Some verbosities are long constructions that hide a verb that, when uncovered, can be made to pull the sentences entire weight.

has a great influence on (influences)
has a lack of (lacks)

Look for verbs hidden inside thickets of verbosity, and whenever you find one, set it free.

Beware the “there is/there are” construction.

This idiom is a blot upon our language, because it is so universally overused. Consider, for example, the following:

 There has been an increasing number of court cases about. . .

If you take the thing that “there has been” (in this case, number) and make it the subject of the sentence, and then come up with a verb that has some meaning, such as concern or address, you create a decent sentence that gets straight to the point:

 An increasing number of court cases concern….

 Delete relative pronouns, where possible.

Sometimes you can delete certain subordinators, such as that, who, and which, creating tighter phrasing:

the foods that people eat. . . .
the foods people eat. . . .

Sgt. Preston, who is a Vietnam veteran, said. . . .
Sgt. Preston, a Vietnam veteran, said. . . .

The canyon, which is a wildlife sanctuary, runs north and south.
The canyon, a wildlife sanctuary, runs north and south.

 Get rid of as many prepositional phrases as you can.

You can often replace prepositional phrases with possessives (my aunt’s pen, not the pen of my aunt) or with noun phrases (a coffee cup, not a cup for coffee):

The laughter of children
Children’s laughter

A spokeswoman for Honeywell
A Honeywell spokeswoman

 But be careful not to get tangled up in noun phrases: A phrase like “victims of violent crime” ceases to make sense when it’s put as “violent crime victims.”

This is all tight writing lite. Tomorrow we’ll talk about more sophisticated compositional strategies to achieve economical style.

Write Tight! Part I

Write Tight!

–E. B. White

Kinda doubt that E. B. White ever put it quite that way, but the message is the gist of William Strunk and E. B. White’s Elements of Style, the bible of journalistic and business writers. Write tight! is a marginal note I paste into student papers, over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and o…

Well, to be fair, few of my students have ever heard of Strunk and White. And even they did, it wouldn’t do them much good. Creatures of an earlier era, when children learned basic English grammar in grade school (yeah: back in the day, grade school was actually called “grammar school”!) , Bill Strunk and E. B. White wrote their indispensable guide under the assumption that readers understood what was meant by terms like “subject” and “predicate,” and that they could tell the difference between an independent and a dependent clause. That, alas, is no longer true.

If you’ve found your way here because you want to be a Writer with a Capital W, or because you are already such a creature, you probably own a copy of Strunk and White. If you don’t, buy it: you can get a paperback copy for something between five and seven dollars. It’s short and it’s just not that hard to figure out. You need it.

The admonition to write tight means that a good writer tries to express ideas in as few words as possible without sounding like she or he is texting. Write economically. Always write as economically as possible.

Readers in general are happy to find prose of any kind written clearly, in concise, interesting, easy-to-follow language. This applies across the board, to all kinds of writing. It applies to technical writing, for example, where you may write a manual that explains how a computer program or a technical device works. It applies to business writing, from daily correspondence to the annual report. It applies to journalistic nonfiction. It applies to fiction (think Hemingway!).

To make every word count is to “write tight.” The principles of tight writing are described in brief in William Strunk and E.B. White’s short and famous book, The Elements of Style. You should read it and come to know it well. If you plan on a career that requires a lot of writing—or if you’d just like to write for the fun of it—you should memorize this book. In particular, check out “Rule 17,” which says:

A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all details and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.

Over time, two strategies for developing a “tight,” economical writing style have coalesced in my schemes to communicate the whole idea to grammar-blind, style-innocent classmates. One consists of a few very simple mechanical tricks, things anyone can easily memorize and apply. The other: techniques of what I call “composition and style.” The second does require you to understand a little bit of how language works, and to engage your brain to make your language work the way you want it to work.

Tomorrow I’ll offer a few mechanical devices to help build economy into your writing style. And later this week, we can look at techniques of composition and style that, once internalized, you can apply to make your writing more effective and engaging.

Watch this space!    


Plurals & Possessives…PLEASE!

Oh, dear. This is making me nuts. Some of my  poor li’l students are so flummoxed by the complications of the English plural and the English possessive, they can barely crank out a sentence that isn’t unwittingly hilarious. So even though most of the thousand or so of you who follow this blog NO DOUBT know all about the plural and the possessive, please let’s review the basic principles here, for the sake of future generations.

How to form PLURALS

Form a plural simply by adding -s. If the word ends in -y, change the y to -ies. If it ends in -s or-x, add -es.

one dog
two dogs
one kitty
two kitties

one Xerox
two Xeroxes

one business
two businesses

The only time you need an apostrophe to form a plural is when you want to express plurals of numbers, letters, and strange sounds used as words:

Mind your p’s and q’s.
Count off by 3’s.
His speech is riddled with well’s and uh’s.

Surprising Exception

1980s, 1990s, the 20s
No apostrophe for decades!

Proper names work just like regular nouns, except that if the proper name ends in -y, you keep the -y in the plural (don’t change a proper name to -ies).

How many Smiths can there be in the world?
How many Kennedys can run for public office?
How many Adamses can perform on television?
Here come the Joneses in their new Mazarati!

 Remember: one medium; two or more media

The entertainment media are fun.
Radio is a medium; television is a medium; radio and television are media
. The term news media is plural, despite the commonplace use of it as singular


Use an apostrophe to show possession (that is, “belonging”).

To form a singular possessive (one person or thing owns something):

First write the word in its singular form

the dog
the house
the woman
the child

Then add an apostrophe and an s

the dog’s bowl
the house’s shingles
the woman’s car
the child’s toy
Maria Jones’s Mazarati

To form a plural possessive (more than one person or thing owns something):

First write the word in its plural form

the dogs
the houses
the women
the children

Then, if the plural ends in -s or a z sound, just add an apostrophe

the dogs’ bowls
the houses’ shingles
the Valdezes’ family car
Yes, that is the Joneses’ Mazarati.

 If the plural ends in something other than -s, add an apostrophe and an s:

the women’s cars
the children’s toys

What if the singular ends in s or a z sound?

Then add an apostrophe and an s, unless the extra s creates an awkward pronunciation:

The car of John Jones
John Jones’s car

The Mazarati of Maria Valdez
Maria Valdez’s Mazarati

The poetry of Keats
Keats’s poetry

Moses’ word
Euripedes’ plays


it’s = it is
its = possessive of it (belonging to “it”)

THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS its’ !!!!!!!!!!!

And while we’re remembering things, don’t forget to buy my book, Slave Labor: The  New State of American Higher Education! And kindly leave a review at Amazon. 🙂


Verbs: The Passive Voice

logoOne of the things that even my brightest students have the toughest time understanding is the passive voice, and why they should prefer the active voice. For those who want to learn to write effectively, either in a business setting or creatively, the distinction between active and passive voice matters.

And one roadblock to grasping that distinction, I’ve discovered, is that often other instructors don’t know what the passive voice is, and so they teach their students outright errors. There are many misconceptions about this.

Let’s start with the biggest one: THE PASSIVE VOICE IS NOT THE SAME AS THE PAST TENSE! Although the passive voice always uses a past participle, passive can express all the various permutations of past, present, future, subjunctive, and conditional.

Can you add 'by dinosaurs' after the verb? It's passive voice. (Easy way for writers and students to tell active voice and passive voice apart.)Here’s an example of the passive voice:

The trash is collected today.

Here’s an example of the past tense, having to do with trash collection, but set in the active voice:

The dinosaurs collected the trash today.

So let’s compare those in some other tenses:

Passive in the present tense: The trash is collected today.
Active in the present tense: The dinosaurs collect the trash today.

Passive in the past tense: The trash was collected today.
Active in the past tense: The dinosaurs collected the trash today.

Passive in the future tense: The trash will be collected today.
Active in the future tense: The dinosaurs will collect the trash today.

Passive in the past perfect: The trash has been collected today.
Active in the past perfect: The dinosaurs have collected the trash today.

Passive in the past pluperfect: The trash had been collected before I got home.
Active in the past pluperfect: The dinosaurs had collected the trash before I got home.

Passive in the future perfect: The trash will have been collected this morning.
Active in the future perfect: The dinosaurs will have collected the trash this morning.

Notice the difference? In the passive voice you can’t tell WHO did the action (the “collecting” in this example) without adding a bunch more words.

The active voice is straightforward. The verb (collect) moves from the doer of the action (dinosaurs: the subject of the verb) to the receiver of the action (trash: the object of the verb).

The active voice always makes the DOER OF THE ACTION the subject of the verb: X did Y. So…

ActiveThe dinosaurs collected the trash today.

To tell the reader who collected the trash when you use the passive, you do this:

The trash was collected today by dinosaurs.

Notice the direction of the action. The target of the action — trash — appears at the front of the sentence, as the sentence’s subject. The thing that’s doing the action — dinosaurs — appears at the end of the sentence. Normally, one would expect the subject of a verb — collect, in this case — to be doing the action. But the passive voice flips that around, so that the subject of the verb receives the action.:

PassiveThe trash was collected today by dinosaurs.

That’s two additional words, contained in a prepositional phrase (a grammatical device that can be needlessly verbose): by the dinosaurs: X was done by Y. The passive voice always hides the doer of the action inside a prepositional phrase, which may or may not be made explicit:

Mistakes were made.

Uh huh! Surely not by us, eh? 😉

Here is the structure of the active voice, as plain and simple as it gets:

Subject (= doer of the action) + verb
Subject + verb + object of verb (the thing the verb acts on)


Olivia sees. (subject + verb)
Olivia speaks. (subject + verb)

Olivia sees a tree. (subject + verb + object)
Olivia speaks the truth. (subject + verb + object)

The passive voice turns things around, so that the subject is not the doer but the receiver of the action. The real object (receiver) of the action ends up as the verb’s subject, and the thing or person that does the action is hidden inside a prepositional phrase, by XXX. The prep phrase may or may not be uttered aloud.

Subject (= receiver of action) + a verb of being + a past participle (let’s call this an “-ed word”) + prep phrase

The verbs of being are am, is, was, were, be, being, been. A “past participle” is a descriptive word based on a verb set in any of the various past forms seen in English (-ed, -en, and various irregulars). Verbs of being are not in themselves “passive”; in the passive voice, a verb of being is simply used as a “helping verb” with a past participle to express a phrase’s action.


The tree is watered. (Subjectbe verb + -ed word + implicit prep phrase)
The tree is watered by Olivia. (Subject + be verb + -ed word + explicit prep phrase)

The truth was spoken. (Subject + be verb + -ed word + implicit prep phrase)
The truth was spoken by Olivia (Subject + be verb + -ed word + explicit prep phrase)

The advantages of the active voice are these:

1) It transmits more information faster than the passive voice. It’s more succinct and less verbose.

2) Because it doesn’t hide information in a prepositional phrase, making the reader wait until the end of the utterance to find out who-done-it — or even leave that detail out altogether — it promotes clarity. Clarity is what you as a writer must demand. It is what you strive for. It is what makes your readers love you.

The passive voice, however, has its uses. Let’s consider a little story to illustrate.

Our friend Joe is hiking in the mountains. He likes to take his blunderbuss with him, so he’s tromping along with his long gun in hand. He is happy.

The passive voice has its uses -- such as if you're telling a story about a bear.Suddenly he hears a rustling in the brush. What should pop up but…EEEEK! A bear!!

Joe takes his blunderbluss and blows the bear away!

Now he’s mighty proud. Though he wonders in passing how he’s going to drag this 600-pound trophy five miles back down the trail to his pick-up, just this moment he’s celebrating. He’s perched his foot on the deceased’s head and is pounding his chest, bellowing Kreeegah! Tarzan bundolo!

Now comes another rustling in the brush. Joe, who’s not the dimmest bulb despite the present appearances, quickly shoves his rifle under the nearest jojoba bush and stands aside. Now what should pop out but, heaven help us, the game warden!

Bears happen to be out of season today. And even if it were bear season, Joe is such a cheapskate he wouldn’t spring for a hunting permit, anyway.

“Heavens to Betsey!” the game warden exclaims. “What happened here?”

“Officer,” Joe replies, “this bear was shot!”

Joe, a retired career non-com, now works in a government office. He is a past master of the passive voice. He knows how to use it, he knows when to use it, and he knows why to use it.

Here, he uses it to pass the buck: he obscures his part in the event. It’s a deliberate ploy to confuse the game warden and throw him off the track.

Now, during all of this, we happen to have been hiding in the shrubbery, and we’ve witnessed this entire series of shenanigans. We are tree-huggers, and we are outraged! So, we jump out of the bushes, point our fingers at the perp, and holler, “Officer, that bear was shot by Joe!”

Notice what happens here. When we make our accusation, we also use the passive voice, but we do it to emphasize our finger-pointing.

In the English language, the most emphatic position is usually at the end of an utterance. The second most emphatic position is at the beginning. This is true on the sentence level as well as on the paragraph and the thematic level.

When we jump up and tell the game warden that the bear was shot by Joe, we not only say the bear was shot, we emphasize in no uncertain terms that JOE shot the bear.

This brings us to the second misconception about the passive: that you should never, ever use a passive construction. No. 🙄

There are two good reasons to use the passive voice:

1) To obscure the truth; and
2) To emphasize a point about who did something.

Otherwise, though, the passive voice is wordy and mealy-mouthed. If you must use it, do so only for a good reason.

Image: Brown bear in Norway. Taral Jansen/Soldatnytt. Wikipedia Commons. Originally posted to Flickr as Landskonferansen 2010.

Verbs: Pick Your Weapon! Carefully…

6 strategies for effectively using verbs - improve your writingWith permission from the author, I’m going to share a few phrases from one of my favorite clients. This material comes from a chapter of a novel set in the Antebellum South.

Spring was on the verge of turning into summer in East Georgia.
The sun was changing from pale yellow to a more intense incandescent hue…
The sky was changing from a pale blue to a deeper shade.
Life seemed more vibrant and pulsating…
…sounds and scents grew stronger.
Hawks floated silently in the sky,… searching the earth below for dinner.
Dogs could be heard, some near, some in the distance, barking and yelping, adding their measure to nature’s strange cacophony…
…cats, like the hawks aloft, simply moved about stealthily, preferring not to announce their presence but rather to strike by surprise…

A lot could be said about these fragments of description. But let’s focus on one aspect of the copy — possibly the crucial aspect: its verbs.

As you know, a verb is a part of speech that expresses the action going on in an utterance. In daily speech, we tend to be fairly loose with our verbs: we use verbs of being to form unnecessarily verbose turns of phrase (“she was of the opinion that” when “she thought” would do the job faster and better); we cling to the passive voice (“mistakes were made“); we use vague or bland or squishy terms when a stronger verb would get the idea across more directly, more clearly, and more memorably…oh, we could go on and on.

None of those misdemeanors is ungrammatical or unidiomatic. But as writers, we get to edit our language before the reader has to “listen” to it. And so, we can do better.

Here are six strategies to accomplish that goal:

1. Whenever possible, use action verbs, not verbs of being (am, is, are, was, were, be, being, been)

2. Avoid analogues to verbs of being, such as seem or appear, unless there’s a good reason to use one.

3. Instead of a verb + an adverb (a word ending in -ly, or other modifiers of action such as rather, somewhat, quite, and the like), try to pick a verb that carries the meaning of the action plus the adverb. For example: instead of “she walked slowly across the campus,” try “she ambled, she strolled, she meandered, she plodded, she wandered, she dawdled….”

4. Prefer strong, expressive verbs to wishy-washy ones.

5. Avoid the passive voice unless there’s a good reason to use it.

6. Use the simple present (he goes) or the simple past (he went) rather than the progressive tenses (he is going; he was going), unless there’s a good reason for it.

Uh huh…isn’t that enlightening? Well…let’s see if we can make it enlightening by applying these principles to Author’s gilded words. With a little alchemy and those six tips, we can turn that chapter from gold-plate to 14-carat.

Spring was on the verge of turning into summer…

Zzzzzzzz…snort! Oh, sorry. I dozed off there.

Why is this sentence such a snoozer? Because Author missed his chance to engage a vivid, strong verb. Instead, he brazenly flouted Rule 1 and inserted a bland, pablumesque verb of being (was) plus a verbose prepositional phrase (on the verge) plus another verbose prep phrase (of turning) plus yet a THIRD prep phrase (into summer).

What does on the verge of mean? Maybe “about to”? Spring was about to turn into summer. That’s a little bit better. But boring. Still. Booooring.

 We’ve gotta get rid of that verb of being! How can we express the idea that summer is y-cumen in with a single, expressive action word?

Spring was merging into summer
Spring was shifting into summer…
Spring was blending into summer…
Spring was bleeding into summer…
Spring was melting into summer…
Spring was verging into summer…

Some of these possibilities are better than other. “Spring was bleeding…,” for example, might work despite its whiff of the purple because this chapter portrays people in slavery. “To verge” is a little rarified — I personally would avoid it. To my ear, “was shifting” sounds like a Ford Fairlane with four on the floor: jarring in the context. “Merge,” “blend,” “melt”: any of those might work, and any would improve on “was” + prep phrase + prep phrase + prep phrase.

Now what if we apply Rule 6 (prefer simple to progressive tenses)?

Spring merged into summer in East Georgia.
Spring bled into summer in East Georgia.
Spring blended into summer in East Georgia.

Hot dang! This is looking better. Much, much better. Two minor edits — pick a strong verb and put it in a simple instead of a progressive tense — and now we have a pretty arresting opening sentence. And I like the “bleed” verb a lot better. It’s good. Very good.

The sun was changing from pale yellow to a more intense incandescent hue…
The sky was changing from a pale blue to a deeper shade.

All right. Let’s remember de Maupassant’s rule: never use the same word twice on the same page. So: we’d like to get rid of at least one of those changings, without getting too “elegant” about it. And as we can see, we have a Rule 6 issue, too: was changing is in in the past progressive. Kill.

The “changing” choice is painfully bland. Dull. Vanilla’s nice in vanilla ice cream, but folks, we ain’t makin’ ice cream here! How was it changing? What result did the change effect?

The sun’s pale yellow began to heat into an incandescent glare.
The sun’s winter yellow flared into incandescence.
Sunlight intensified, pale yellow heating toward a furnace-like incandescence.
The sun’s disk brightened, winter’s pale yellow shifting into summer’s full incandescence.
The sun shed its pallid winter yellow and took on a burning incandescent glare.
The sun shed its pallid winter yellow and assumed a burning incandescent glare.

Any of these would likely do. The second has brevity to recommend it. The third strikes me as fairly evocative; so does the second. But whatever: any one of them improves on “was changing from.” So would “the weather was getting hot.”

Trying the process on the second example:

The sky shed its wintry pallor and deepened toward azure.
The pale winter sky deepened into a richer, darker blue.
Winter’s pale blue sky grew deeper, as if to make the sun look more brilliant.
Winter’s pale blue sky deepened, as if to make the sun look more brilliant.

Moving on…

Life seemed more vibrant and pulsating…
…sounds and scents grew stronger.

Oh dear. Georgia had rock bands in 1855? Probably not. What can we do with this?

For starters, let’s get rid of the quasi-verb of being, seemed. Then let’s convert the adjectival participles to verbs:

Life vibrated and pulsed.

Uhm…ohhhkaayyyy. I suppose. Or maybe not: brings to mind some sort of alien blob, doesn’t it? It Came from Outer Space! But it does boil three words into one: seemed more vibrant to vibrated; [seemed more] pulsating to pulsed. None too felicitous, though.

Life, vibrant and pulsating, emanated new sounds and scents.

Love those sesquipedalian words! But…unless you have a good reason to emit them, maybe you shouldn’t. The narrator here speaks in the voice of a highly educated Black man. He can get away with the the adjectival participles, and he surely would have the word “emanate” at his fingertips. So…maybe. But would anyone really say that? Maybe not.

Life, vibrant and pulsating, filled the air with new sounds and scents.

Better! Moving on.

Hawks floated silently in the sky,… searching the earth below for dinner.

All right. I mean, sort of OK. “Floated silently” demands two words when one will do. “Searching the earth below” feels like a dull way to anthropomorphize a raptor. Hawks do not have breakfast, lunch, and dinner; they grab what they can get and bolt it down when they can get it. Hate that. It annoys me. Fix.

My favorite image for a raptor or avian scavenger “floating in the sky” is “ride a cold column of air.” Don’t recall where I stole that turn of phrase: probably from Wallace or Page Stegner or maybe from Scott Momaday. Whatever: don’t use it. It’s red-hot. Can we try to come up with an image of our own? At the very least let’s look for something that means “floated silently.”

Hawks brooded overhead, searching the earth for an unwary meal.
Silent hawks gazed down from the sky, searching…
Quiet as owls, hawks hovered above, searching…
Quiet as gentle death, hawks hovered above…

Enough of that. Don’t just sit there: come up with something of your own. You’re supposed to be a writer!

Dogs could be heard, some near, some in the distance, barking and yelping, adding their measure to nature’s strange cacophony…

Passive voice!! Plus a convoluted series of participles, plus a sesquipedalianism. Oh, Lord, spare us, thy hapless readers…

Let’s apply Rule 5 and then also try to empty the marbles out of Author’s mouth:

Dogs, some near and some distant, barked and yelped, adding their measure to Nature’s steel-drum beat.
Dogs near and far barked and yelped, adding…
Barking dogs harmonized in a raucous chorus, sending up a sociable racket that no ears could evade. (Note the infelicitous rhyme here — in a real revision, it would disqualify this effort. The image of the evasive ears is a little weird, too. Remember: it’s usually better to kill than to add words. Thus… “Barking dogs near and far sent up a sociable racket that no one could evade.”)

Or some such.

...cats, like the hawks aloft, simply moved about stealthily, preferring not to announce their presence but rather to strike by surprise…

Tacking adverbs onto a feeble verb does not make the feeble verb any less feeble. Write that on the blackboard 100 times!

Cats, hunters like the hawks above, skulked in the grass,…
Cats, hunters like the hawks aloft, slunk through the grass…
Cats, hunters like the hawks aloft, stalked their prey through grass and shrubs…

Of these, only “stalked” strikes me as reasonably felicitous. In a single word, it evokes “moved about stealthily,” and it also takes an object (prey), reinforcing the hunter simile between the cats and the hawks. Keep. Throw out the other two.

Notice that often one’s attempts to revise will yield something almost as terrible (oh heck: make that “even worse”!) than the first effort. The business with the raucous chorus ( 😀 ) and the ambulatory ears is probably the most laugh-inducing example here. This is why the writer plans on revising and editing several times, not just as the work progresses but in at least one go-through (preferably two or three) from beginning to end. Specifically on the subject of verbs, though…

Here’s the thing, my loves:

The verb is the most powerful weapon in your writer’s arsenal. Some verbs are .22s, some are .38s, some are .45s…and so on. Pick the weapon that fits your purpose.

In general, try to use something stronger than a BB, but to avoid purple prose, don’t pull out a cannonball until it’s called for. When writing description, select some mid-range calibre, so it sounds like you’re speaking plain English even though the verbs are carrying their full weight in meaning and imagery.

Do not shoot yourself in the foot with the passive voice. Align the verb’s sights with your target and do not imagine a bevy of adverbs will shotgun your meaning into the bull’s-eye. Use the plainest, simplest weapon that will get the job done. And shoot straight.

Write tight.

—E. B. White

Dogged Clichés

Helpful writing tip - How to recognize and avoid cliches.Haven’t been posting here loyally because I’ve been sick as a dog. Heh…which brings to mind the issue of clichés. In specific, dog clichés!

In teaching, I often use the “raining cats and dogs” snoozer to help students figure out how to recognize a cliché: if you can say the first few words and the rest fall into line as the night the ____, you can be pretty sure it’s a cliché. Sooo…

“It’s raining…
“CATS AND DOGS,” they all chorus.

Harder it is to explain to them why we try to avoid cliché (they think of these bons mots as part of the language…and of course, when you’re 18 a lot of the things are new to you and so you think they’re pretty catchy) and what the difference is between cliché and jargon and between a literary allusion and a cliché (Death, where’s thy sting?), and on and on. But I suppose teaching this stuff is neither here nor there.

Dog clichés: How many can you come up with?

Here are a few:

Crooked as a hound’s hind leg
Dog tired (why are dogs always sick and tired in these things?)
Hair of the dog that bit you (and drunk?)
Let sleeping dogs lie
He’s in the dog house
Gone to the dogs
Clean as a hound’s tooth
Lie down with dogs, get up with fleas
The dog ate my homework

It goes without ____ (uhm…I hope) that we don’t salt our copy with clichés. Better a plain turn of phrase than a superannuated metaphor or simile that jars the reader. Or puts her to sleep. It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there in Publishing Land. 🙄



Hilarious! Who Lets These Folks in the Newsroom?

Headlines in the local PlayNooz…

  • Fox 10 News: “Rain Falls Where Phoenix Residents Already Struggling Damage” Who knew? “To struggle” is now a transitive verb?
  • KTAR (local radio station): “Parents Should Embrace Technology When Communicating with Teachers” Hee! Picture that! Take your laptop to parent-teacher conferences so you can hug it like Linus hugging his security blanket.
  • Fox 10 News (again!): “New Drug That Looks Like Lip Balm Hits Atlanta!” Did it break anything?
  • 12 News, The Arizona Republic: “Morning Storms, Rain Will Impact Commute” No… Teeth are impacted. Storms and rain affect, slow, clog, complicate, dampen, drench, flood, make a gawdawful hair-pulling mess of. “Impact” is now a hoary old cliche, recently joined by the endlessly annoying “speak out”:
  • Fox 10 News: “Mother Speaks Out After Mentally Ill Daughter Shot by Police” This would be the woman who’s unhappy because the cops defended themselves when her middle-aged daughter, known for prior violent behavior, came after them with a claw hammer. Have you noticed that everybody and his little sister is always “speaking out” these days? Most of them have nothing to say that anyone cares to hear.

Awful. Arizona’s public schools rank near the bottom among states in the nation, and so the habit of emitting bloopers like these shouldn’t be surprising. That doesn’t make it any less grating.

If you want to be a writer, if you want to be a journalist, please: Learn to use your native language.

How do you do that? Get a decent grammar handbook and study it. And read, read, read, read the best fiction, nonfiction, and poetry in your native language. One constant source of amazement for me is the number of would-be magazine writers who refuse to read magazines; the number of would-be literary and genre writers who don’t read literature.

The Internet is not a good model for an aspiring writer. Read a book today.