Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Hiding the agent

I have been training business writers for more than 30 years. During those years, I’ve learned a lot about how we learn to write clearly. And I’ve learned a lot about the barriers to learning to write clearly.

The biggest barrier is the ubiquity of deliberately unclear writing. Every day, we read and hear the speciously packaged lies and deceptions of politicians, shyster lawyers, corrupt professors, corrupt journalists, and other professional deceivers. (For the sake of brevity, I will refer to these people collectively as politicians.)

Unlike a politician, you are not trying to deceive people. You’re trying to communicate honestly and clearly. However, you read and hear specious language all day long and are at risk of learning to imitate it. If you doubt this, read (or re-read) Orwell’s famous essay on the imitation of decadent language, “Politics and the English Language.”

So, if you are serious about learning to write clearly, your two most important tasks are: (1) learn to consciously recognize specious writing for what it is; and (2) learn to avoid imitating it.

That is why I devote space to showing you examples of specious writing. For example, in a recent post, I explained how a politician abused “uninhabited clauses” in order to manipulate the members of his audience.

That’s a popular trick. Another popular trick – as I am sure you know – is the abuse of the passive voice to hide an agent.

It is proper to use the passive where the identity of the agent is unknown or irrelevant. For example, if you were a real estate broker showing a house, and you wanted to say when it was built, you could properly say: “This house was built in 1848,” without adding true but irrelevant facts such as, “by Peter Hoyt, who was the town doctor at that time.” In the context of your sentence about the age of the house, the identity of the agent (Peter Hoyt) is irrelevant.

But it is improper to use the passive to hide the agent when his identity is known and relevant; for example, by using phrases such as “Mistakes were made” in order to evade identifying the agent who made the mistakes (or, more probably, committed the crimes). This handy phrase is so popular with politicians that it has a Wikipedia entry.

The Takeaway: When you use the passive, be sure to use it properly. As you edit your work, look critically at every passive-voice verb; does the logic of the sentence call for – or at least tolerate – a passive-voice verb there? If not, change the verb to active voice. And if your passives are proper but frequent,* try to change some to active, to spare your readers; passive voice is more difficult to read than active voice.

*In most types of writing, a frequency higher than 15 percent is probably excessive.

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