Monday, April 21, 2008

Grammar Monday: Two for One

Shiz recently made two Grammar Monday request, one being a discussion of conciseness and the other being an explanation of active and passive voice. (Shiz apparently wants you to be well-educated.) Because the subjects are, in my opinion, related, I'm covering both of them today.

Being concise is important when you want to say what you mean, including necessary details but leaving out all the fluff. To be concise is to be succinct. Say what you mean and get on with it. This is particularly important when it comes to things like business correspondence (whether it be e-mails between staff members or more formal communications) and classified ads. You want to give the recipient all the information they need, but you don't want it to get lost in the shuffle of extra words and ideas. To do this, using active voice is necessary.

Active voice is very direct. Shiz drove the car. I took the chocolates. We need more tape. I would like to discuss the proposal with you. There's a person/place/thing (noun) which is doing an action (verb). Shiz (noun) drove (verb). This is the front door way of saying something. It is direct and no-nonsense.

By contrast, passive voice is indirect. It is often more wordy, and thus less concise. The person who drove the the car is Shiz. The girl who took the chocolates is me. More tape is needed by us. The one who would like to discuss the proposal is me. This is the sneaky, back door way to identify who did something. The who (or what) doing the action is not the subject of the sentence. With passive voice, you must read the whole sentence to find out who did the action.

In general, and particularly when being concise, it is best to use active voice. Passive voice is reserved for those times when you would prefer to reveal something at the end. If in doubt, use active voice. Passive voice can be lovely in good literature and cultured conversation (or, ahem, blogs written by those who have an affection for run-on sentences), but it can bog down communication otherwise. Active voice is much more easily understood.

Of course, being concise doesn't just involve using active voice instead of passive. It also requires that you cut out unnecessary details. Consider the following examples of e-mails regarding transportation to work:

Dear Mr. Boss Man,

Since tomorrow is Earth Day, I feel that it is important to conserve fuel, and in an effort to do just that, I will be joining with many others who are of like mind and will be riding my bicycle to work instead of driving. Because I am doing my part to save the earth, I will possibly be a little late, as I have not ridden my bike-to-work route yet, and I don't know how long it might take. I could end up being early, but it's hard to tell. In any case, I hope you will forgive me if I am late since it is for a good cause. If it will help, I will stay late to make up for time lost by my potential late arrival.

Sincerely,
Long-Winded Employee

P.S. If you would like to join in the Earth Day efforts, perhaps you might consider riding your bicycle to work or perhaps carpooling.


I have a feeling Mr. Boss Man is rolling his eyes at this. He may not have even read the whole thing if he's busy. It may look short, but the information is presented in the most roundabout way possible. Here is the more concise version:

Dear Mr. Boss Man,

In honor of Earth Day, I will be riding my bicycle to work tomorrow and may arrive a bit late. If I am tardy, I will stay late to make up for the lost time.

Sincerely,
Concise Employee


We all like to explain ourselves, but I assure you that Mr. Boss Man (or whomever has to read and filter his e-mails) will appreciate the direct, brief communication.

Any questions? Please do remember that tomorrow is Earth Day. Start something new! Jarod and I will both be bicycling to work, and the kids and I will take the bus from their school back home. If you have something planned for Earth Day, we'd love to hear all about it.

Edited to add: I stand corrected. Please refer to the comments for a little more guidance on passive voice. Sco makes an excellent point about one of my examples, so please make note of that.

Next week: QUOTATION MARKS! Don't even try to pretend you're not excited.

5 comments:

sco said...

I hope you won't mind if I question one or two of your examples. I think that The girl who took the chocolates is me isn't really a passive-voice version of I took the chocolates. That's because the subject (The girl who took the chocolates) still serves as the agent. A better passivization might be The chocolates were taken. In that sentence, the subject (the chocolates) acts as the patient, and so the verb (were taken) has the passive voice.

(It's also, I should note, just as concise!)

That example nicely illustrates one of my favorite features of the passive voice: it allows for the agent to be dropped without calling attention to it. The chocolates were taken doesn't say anything about who took them, which is very convenient if you don't want to say, or don't know. Of course, you could just say Somebody took the chocolates, but that emphasizes the unknown somebody, which might not be the point.

... especially if, in fact, it was *you* who took the chocolates. :-)

marymuses said...

I don't mind you questioning my examples at all; I welcome corrections and clarifications.

That said, according to my grammar guides (uh, not that I own more than one, ahem), it appears that we are both correct. I failed to give a wide variety of examples, though, and you certainly brought up a good point.

Truth be told, I don't think that most people need to know the difference between active and passive voice any more than they need to know how to use the subjunctive tense; it gets too confusing, especially for people who have yet to figure out how to use, say, quotation marks.

goofy said...

These are not in the passive voice:
The person who drove the the car is Shiz.
The girl who took the chocolates is me.
The one who would like to discuss the proposal is me.

Passive versions of these sentences would be
The car was driven by Shiz.
The chocolates were taken by the girl.
The proposal was discussed by me.

The passive voice needs some better PR. None of these passive sentences hide the agent of the action: Shiz, the girl, me. They're all there.
A sentence can be syntactically active and hide the agent of the action:
unaccusative verbs: The book fell off the table. (what caused the book to fall?)
middle voice: The beer pours easily. (who's pouring the beer?)
psych verbs: I'm afraid of monsters. (who's scaring me?)

So if we want to identify who did something, we should avoid these constructions as well.

marymuses said...

I should really have people who are smarter than me double check my grammar lessons, apparently. My current expertise is more along the lines of common grammar mistakes, but I tackled this upon request, even though it's been far too long since I made straight As in all my college grammar courses.

Thanks for the extra help.

jeff said...

Hi. Please join the Bicycle to Work! LinkedIn networking group. Members pledge that they will try to ride their bicycle to work or on an errand at least once a week. Although the benefits should be obvious, let me outline them here.
Right now people in the industrialized world are facing two very grave problems: obesity and a growing scarcity of oil. Compounding this problem is the new food shortage brought about, in part, by the conversion of food cropland to bio-fuel crop production. Most people feel powerless to help, but there is one thing that we can do. Ride our bicycles to work.
If everyone would agree to ride their bikes to work one day per week we could cut oil consumption by as much as 10-15%. No one would argue that riding a bike burns more calories than driving the car. Although popular politically right now, most bio-fuels consume more energy that they produce. We would be much better to eat those bio-crops then use our own energy to transport us around.
So spread the word. Make it a movement! Bicycle to work one day a week and do your part to cut back obesity and the overuse of oil and precious cropland.
Just go to my profile at http://www.linkedin.com/in/jeffreylstevenson and you can click on the group to be included. While you are there, don't forget to ask to link to my network of more than 7,000.000. I accept all invitations and look forward to meeting you.
Jeff