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Archive for June, 2017

All too often, English grammar is reduced to a series of rules. Instead of being a description of how the language is currently used, it becomes a prescription that should be followed in every circumstance. This habit is a sign of bad teaching, probably by people whose own knowledge of grammar is shaky. Usually, however, it is an over-simplification, as it is in the absolute prohibition against the passive voice.

The passive voice (if you need reminding) is the removal of the obvious subject from the sentence. Sometimes, the proper subject becomes the dative, or the agent of the action (“The lawn was mowed by him”), but it is often left out entirely (“The lawn was mowed”). Instead, in either case, it is replaced by what should be the object. For example, instead of “He groaned,” the passive voice would be “A groan was torn from him.” Since before students are old enough to understand the difference, they are told that they should always use the active voice of “He groaned” and avoid the passive voice equivalent.

In many cases, the active voice has advantages. For one thing, it is shorter.. It is also politer, but, even more importantly, the passive voice is used to disguise responsibility by the speaker, or to make the sentence seem more important than it is – habits that are all too common in academia and politics. By converting the sentence to the active voice, you can immediately see if the speaker has something to hide. For example, “Social services were cut” is more likely to be accepted than “We cut social services.”

All the same, the idea that the passive voice should never be used in English is misleading. To start with, in English, constructions that start with “it” but offer no pronoun reference are considered idiomatically correct — that is, correct from common usage rather than any logic. When Jane Austen begins Pride and Prejudice with, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife” she is writing colloquially, not committing an unforgivable sin. Besides, the pompous construction is funnier – and more ironic– than “Everyone acknowledges that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”

In other cases, when to use the passive voice rather than the active comes down to what you want to emphasize. In my initial example, the difference between the active and the passive does not just lie in the information conveyed. All the active voice does is let the audience know that a male figure has groaned. However, “a groan was torn from him” is more descriptive, because it suggests a sense of helplessness. The groaner, the passive voice suggests, did not want to groan, but, because of mental or physical distress, cannot help himself. Far from being a clumsy construction, it conveys more information than the active voice, and can therefore be the preferred construction. Write an entire paragraph in the passive voice, and you create the impression of someone who has no control over what is happening and increase the tension in the narrative.

Like all point of grammar, the decision of whether to use the passive voice should not be based on a memorized rule that decreases the flexibility of the language. Instead, think of what you want to convey and decide which voice expresses it most effectively within its context. Should the passive voice be most effective for your purposes, you should use it without fear of being thought uneducated. It is the ones who would outlaw all uses of the passive voice who are uneducated, not those who use the construction to their own advantage.

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Until recently, I was mostly indifferent to computer chairs. I stopped using a computer stool over a decade ago because kneeling all day put too much pressure on my cartilage-deprived knees, but otherwise, my main concern was to have fabric rather than a leather or imitation-leather cushions because they are easier to clean. I was skeptical about the advantages of ergonomic chairs, but in the past month or so, I’ve changed my mind.

Two things happened to change my mind. First, I recently replaced two aging futons, and found the new futons vastly more comfortable to lie upon. Second, a colleague recently bought a Herman Miller Mirra 2, and I started wondering if I could improve upon my computer chair in the same way I had improved on the futons.

Having done graphical design, I was intrigued by pictures of my colleague’s new chair. Although Herman Miller products have been popular in the tech world for a couple of decades, they had never registered on mind, even though Herman Miller chairs were a common perq in startups. However, I soon found out that the company had over eighty years of experience in modernist design, and was widely considered an expert in ergonomics and in the reduction of the material needed to build a chair.

Hard facts about the ergonomics simply don’t exist, so, in the end, I had to see for myself. I spent an afternoon playing Goldilocks, sitting on a couple of dozen chairs, both from Herman Miller and rival companies like Steelcase. I quickly found that, although the rival products had the same price, and some of the same features, none were as comfortable as the Herman Miller chairs.

Herman Miller established itself as a manufacturer of ergonomic chairs with the Aeron model. However, neither the original Aeron nor the retooled version seemed especially comfortable to me (other people might find differently). Neither did the top of the line Embody chairs, possibly because its back cushions muffled the effect of the spine-like mesh on the back – which, considering my budget, is just as well.

I finally settled on two models, the Mirra 2 and the Sayl, which were more or less equally comfortable for me. However, I then had to make decisions about a half dozen various options – something that I had never really considered. Some of the changes were cosmetic, such as the color of the frame or the seat, but others were more practical, such as whether the arms were fixed or were adjustable, or whether lumbar support was added to the back. Patiently, the store clerk made up quotes for both, listing the cost of the options I was most interested in, and I took them home to ponder.

The Mira 2, I decided, had a better mechanism for adjusting the arms, but offered a limited selection of colors. The ergonomics being approximately equal, I settled on the Sayl chair, whose cosmetic options would allow me my preferences. For a day or so, I debated adding an upholstered back, but, remembering my reaction to the Embody chair, I thought the upholstered back would reduce the ergonomics. That would be especially true if I added lumbar support, which would be difficult – if not impossible – to adjust when covered by upholstery.

Besides, why buy a modernist chair then cover it up? The mesh on the back of the Sayl chair gives it a bold, clean look of which I am unlikely to tire.

Unfortunately, my purchase has to wait upon some unexpected expenses, but, as soon as I can afford it, I am going to indulge myself. A Herman Miller chair is not cheap – although the Sayl is the least expensive — but with a twelve year warranty, I am satisfied that I will not simply be paying for the name. My back, I suspect, will be glad of the purchase in the coming years.

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