kitchen table math, the sequel: order of operations

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

order of operations

I mentioned Martha Kolln's Rhetorical Grammar in a comment on "math writing."

Martha Kolln is part of my Great Unread, unfortunately. Along with Polya.

So, since I don't know enough about rhetorical grammar (pdf file) to write a post about it, here is a terrific passage from Geoffrey Pullum's 50-year anniversary take-down of Strunk and White, which I believe is the kind of analysis Kolln does:
"Use the active voice" is a typical section head. And the section in question opens with an attempt to discredit passive clauses that is either grammatically misguided or disingenuous.

We are told that the active clause "I will always remember my first trip to Boston" sounds much better than the corresponding passive "My first visit to Boston will always be remembered by me." It sure does. But that's because a passive is always a stylistic train wreck when the subject refers to something newer and less established in the discourse than the agent (the noun phrase that follows "by").

For me to report that I paid my bill by saying "The bill was paid by me," with no stress on "me," would sound inane. (I'm the utterer, and the utterer always counts as familiar and well established in the discourse.) But that is no argument against passives generally. "The bill was paid by an anonymous benefactor" sounds perfectly natural. Strunk and White are denigrating the passive by presenting an invented example of it deliberately designed to sound inept.

April 17, 2009
50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice
By Geoffrey K. Pullum
thanks to Karen H

5 comments:

Allison said...

Worrying about active and passive voice or the position of dependent clauses are stalling tactics, pure and simple.

Catherine Johnson said...

what?

Anonymous said...

My experience is that the passive voice *usually* leads to more words than the active voice.

Example: "John paid the bill" vs. "The bill was paid by John".

This is also why is is often(*) better to use a more specific noun or verb rather than a vague noun or verb and supporting adjectives or adverbs.


Shorter is better.

-Mark Roulo

(*) "Often" because if the more precise noun/verb is unknown to the reader, then you haven't communicated as effectively.

Linda Seebach said...

But in actual discourse, sentences are not considered in isolation; they flow from preceding text and lead into what follows. Consequently, the "by phrase" that identifies what would be the subject of the corresponding active sentence is often omitted because it is superfluous. (In one linguistics course I took, we had to go through several pages of a novel of our choosing and count how many passives contained an explicit by phrase. I don't recall the precise number, but roughly it amounted to "hardly any.")

"Shorter is better" only to the extent you don't have to sacrifice more important things, like clarity, accuracy and grace, to achieve brevity.

Anonymous said...

"In one linguistics course I took, we had to go through several pages of a novel of our choosing and count how many passives contained an explicit by phrase. I don't recall the precise number, but roughly it amounted to 'hardly any.'"

Our sample sets are different :-)

A novel usually has both a professional writer and a professional editor work on the text before the audience sees it.

My experience tends to be documents at work and 15 months as an editor for an on-line technical trade journal. For the non-professional writers in both cases, asking them to rephrase (when reasonable) to active voice is a very good first-cut rule of thumb to making the text shorter without losing any clarity.



"'Shorter is better' only to the extent you don't have to sacrifice more important things, like clarity, accuracy and grace, to achieve brevity."

Oh, yes!

-Mark Roulo