Posts Tagged ‘English’

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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(Note: The following is a handout I used to give in composition courses to first year university students. You are welcome to reformat and distribute it under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License. Basically, that means you it any way you like so long as you give me credit and let others use it under the same conditions)

A. “Chunk” (Paragraphs arranged by subject):

In the co-op, Judy is the practical one. Of the four people who share the house, she is the only one who is not visibly eccentric. She keeps regular hours, and sees that the bills are paid. If food is bought, or laundry is done, either she has done the work or bullied someone else into doing it. Periodically, she musters everyone else for a massive cleaning of the house. It is only her profession–writer–and her New Age interests that suggest how unusual she is.

By contrast, Saul, the household’s other original resident, is so eccentric that his friends think that he looks abnormal in ordinary clothes. His usual wear is either a faded red caftan or Scottish formal wear, complete with a sporran and skean dhu. Because of his light-sensitive eyes, he is usually awake while other people are asleep. He rarely leaves the house, and the ordinary business of living holds little interest for him. He never considers bills, and, although he will eat if food is available, will lives for several days at a time on nothing more than nerves and coffee. Only the area around his computer is clean; the rest of his living space has mounds that archaeologists would love to excavate. Even his hobbies are unusual: sword meditation and writing poetry in obscure languages like Gaelic and Iroquois. Unlike Judy, Saul seems incapable of functioning normally; he does not meet visitors in their world so much as invite them into his.

B. “Slice” (Paragraph arranged by Points of Comparison):

Although both Judy and Saul are old friends, they have little else in common. Saul is visibly eccentric; Judy is so ordinary that she is no more noticeable on the street than a lamp post. She is awake and starts work when their neighbors do, and she can handle such things as bills, laundry, shopping and cleaning–matters that are mysteries to Saul. She even knows how to organize the other household members. Saul, on the other hand, can barely organize himself. Except for his work station, he is surrounded by clutter. If his routine is more organized than Judy’s, the reason is only that he organizes only himself–and then only so that he can work, which is the most important thing in his life. His life is arranged to give him as much time to work as possible, so he pays no attention to ordinary matters like food. A night person, he may go for days at a time seeing nobody, never leaving the house, and surviving on coffee with the odd bit of leftovers. Even his hobbies, sword meditation and writing poetry in obscure languages like Gaelic and Iroquois, are private. He is so different from Judy that many people are surprised to learn that they have shared a house for over twenty years.

C. Analogy:

If the difference between eccentrics and ordinary people is the difference between night and day, then Judy is twilight and Saul is midnight.

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Whenever I come across a use of language that makes me cringe, I tell myself that the English language is robust and evolving, and can survive any number of hopeful monsters. I outlasted “not” being added to the end of every sentence, I keep reminding myself, and I can survive whatever other grotesque usage that slouches my way. But there are limits, and mine is “not appropriate” and its near-relative “inappropriate.”

You know what I’m referring to: flat, prim statements that something done, said – or even thought – is “not appropriate.” Typically, I regret to say, it is said by someone such as a unionist, feminist, or environmentalist, with whose basic ideas I agree, but with whose tactics (obviously) I find reprehensible. In fact, I can think of few phrases I disdain more.

What’s my problem with “not appropriate”? For one thing, it’s a euphemism. When someone says that something is “not appropriate,” what they really mean is that they dislike or disapprove of what they are condemning. But instead of saying what they mean, they hide behind a vague phrase. So, right away, they’re being dishonest.

However, unlike many euphemisms, “not appropriate” isn’t used to be discreet or to spare someone’s feelings. Instead, it’s one of the most basic invalid arguments imaginable: an appeal to an authority – in this case, the alleged standards of the community and the unspoken rules by which we live by. The implication is that the person who has done something “not appropriate” has transgressed in a way that no decent adult ever should.

I say “alleged standards” because, almost always, the transgression is not against existing community norms, but against what the speaker would like to be the community norms. My impression is that the speaker is hoping that, by assuming that these norms are already generally accepted, they can enforce their ethics as though everybody shared them.

I would find such tactics hard to tolerate in anyone, but, when standards I support are used in this way, I worry about the harm they can cause. I suspect that many people who might otherwise be persuaded to those standards will reject them simply because they resent the clumsy efforts at manipulation.

After all, when accused of being “not appropriate” or “inappropriate,” you are not supposed to stop and consider the merits of the standards being implied, or discuss what is happening. You are supposed to act on reflex, and shut up.

Those who go around condemning things as “not appropriate” are setting themselves up – almost always, completely unasked — as authorities about what is socially acceptable. The implication is that they know what is right and wrong, and those they address they do not.

Basically, they are offering themselves as the guardians of ethics and morality, demanding that others obey without any discussion. They are taking on the role of teachers and casting everyone else as dull students, playing parents to unsatisfactory children, or cops to the mob. They are usurping an authority to which they have no right – and, when they stoop to condemning even thoughts (or their interpretations of them) as “not appropriate,” they become downright creepy.

No matter how you parse the phrase, “not appropriate” is a fundamentally dishonest and authoritarian expression. The sole virtue of “not appropriate” (or “inappropriate”) is that its use signals that the speaker is so committed to intellectual fraud and authoritarianism that you can save yourself endless time and effort by walking away from them.

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“You’re an English major? You must be planning a career in fast food.” Comments like this haunted me from the moment I declared my major in university. But hearing the sentiment recently, I realized that it was far from accurate. The truth is, people who have a way with words can make a comfortable living in all sorts of ways, so long as they don’t limit their possibilities to the obvious.

The worst mistake that anybody with an English degree – or, in fact, any Arts degree – can make is to hang about on the fringes of academia, hoping for a tenure track position. Ever since my undergraduate days, I’ve been hearing about all the tenured positions that are going to become available as their current incumbents retire, but, between budget cuts and the increasing tendency to hire non-tenured staff or sessionals, the positions are unlikely to materialize. People who were hoping for those positions when I left academia over a decade ago are still waiting for those tenured positions. Meanwhile, they endure semester by semester contracts, last minute hires, and doing the same work as tenured faculty for half the money. That’s fine for a few years, but it’s no way to live in the long-term.

The same is true of editing piece work. Just like academia, the publishing industry depends on having a constant pool of cheap work-for-hire editors. You may be one of the lucky exceptions, but the odds are against you, no matter how talented. Those who run the industry are careful not to employ you so much that they become obliged to offer you benefits.

Instead of lingering in limbo, waiting for the academic or literary job you used to dreamed of, English majors should explore the possibilities in business. Not only is the power of self-expression in demand there, but the competition is far less fierce than in academia – partly because of the greater need, and partly because many English majors seem to consider that taking a job in business is beneath them. Often, too, they make the mistake of thinking that their writing skills are all they need, and are slow to learn the subject matter expertise they need to do the work properly.

But, if you can get beyond the idea that you are dirtying your hands and are willing to learn what you don’t know, then the jobs are there. As a technical writer, you need to write clearly and organize information for conciseness and accuracy; in many ways, the job is writing stripped to the basics. As a communications and marketing manager, writing news releases or blogs, you take on the responsibility of being the voice of the company. As a product manager, you decide how to present a product or line, and you’ll find your skills with textural analysis serve you well when you come to deal with end user license agreements and other legal documents. As an instructor, you are reprising your role as a teaching assistant while you were in grad school, the only difference being is that you are teaching software or policies and procedures, rather literature or criticism.

And these are only the most obvious career paths. Writing and teaching skills aren’t a bad foundation for going on to law school, for example. Best of all, the first thing you’ll notice when taking these positions if you’ve been vying for scraps of work around academia, your yearly income will increase by over fifty percent or more.

Admittedly, some of these positions aren’t on the express way to the top. Technical writers, for instance, may rise to supervise other technical writers at a large company, but they aren’t likely to become CEOs. But they can serve as entry positions, and, if you’re interested in climbing the corporation, you can always expand your skill set later on. Meanwhile, you can reasonably expect a salary that puts you solidly in the upper middle class, to say nothing of responsible and often rewarding work.

Really, the only thing holding you back with an English degree is your own lack of imagination or initiative. Just because those who prefer an education they should be getting at a technical college choose to belittle your liberal education is no reason for you to believe them.

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