Monday, October 14, 2013

Three Cluttered Pigs

I’m going to reveal a little secret about the “Three Little Pigs” assignment:

I hate it.
Why do I hate it?
Because of the subjective nature of the English language.
What is cluttered writing? And, when you get to the bottom of it, is cluttered writing all that bad?
Consider this little bit of writing:
It was much more important to him to get a clear understanding of his position, but he could not think clearly while these people were here, the second policeman's belly - and they could only be policemen - looked friendly enough, sticking out towards him, but when K. looked up and saw his dry, boney face it did not seem to fit with the body. His strong nose twisted to one side as if ignoring K. and sharing an understanding with the other policeman. What sort of people were these? What were they talking about? What office did they belong to? K. was living in a free country, after all, everywhere was at peace, all laws were decent and were upheld, who was it who dared accost him in his own home? He was always inclined to take life as lightly as he could, to cross bridges when he came to them, pay no heed for the future, even when everything seemed under threat. But here that did not seem the right thing to do. He could have taken it all as a joke, a big joke set up by his colleagues at the bank for some unknown reason, or also perhaps because today was his thirtieth birthday, it was all possible of course, maybe all he had to do was laugh in the policemen's face in some way and they would laugh with him, maybe they were tradesmen from the corner of the street, they looked like they might be - but he was nonetheless determined, ever since he first caught sight of the one called Franz, not to lose any slight advantage he might have had over these people.
Is it easy to read? No. And consider that any one of us could look at this piece of writing and edit it savagely, cutting it down to this:
He couldn’t think clearly with all these people here. One policemen, with the fat belly, looked friendly enough. But when K. looked at his boney face with the twisted nose, he felt it didn’t match the body. He looked suspicious. Who are these people? What were they talking about? Who do they belong to? He lived in a free country, where the laws were upheld. Who would dare accost him in his own home? He didn’t take life too seriously, didn’t worry about the future, even when things looked gloomy. But that didn’t feel right now. Maybe this was a joke, set up by his friends at the bank? Because it was his thirtieth birthday, after all. Maybe all he had to do was laugh and point out the joke, and the policemen would laugh with him and turn out to be shopkeepers from up the street, put up to the joke. But he was determined not to lose any advantage over these people. He did not laugh.
And even my version could be pared down.
But here’s the trick: The passage we just edited is from an English Hungarian author Franz Kafka’s “The Trial.” Kafka is considered a literary genius. To edit his prose – to cut out the confused syntax, one thought running into the other from the mind of a man arrested in his bed one fine morning for no reason neither he nor the arresting officers can fathom, robs the passage of its mystery and its impact.
Yes, we should speak in clear language. But what is clear and what is valuable is subjective, person to person.
So here’s what I hope you get out of our exercise:
Avoid the passive voice.
Some of this may sound familiar from your high school English courses: Sentences have subjects, verbs, and direct objects (the target of the action), as in this following sentence:
Snow White ate the poisoned apple.
Snow White, the subject, does something – eats – to the direct objet/target, the poisoned apple.
That’s the active voice – the subject doing the action. It’s clear what’s going on.
Enter the passive voice, in which the target of the action is promoted to doing the action, even though the target isn’t doing anything.
Here’s what the passive voice looks like:
The poisoned apple was eaten by Snow White.
Who is doing the action? It’s still Snow White. The apple is just being eaten, it’s not doing anything. Not even screaming.
Why is this bad?
You can sort out the object and target in the passive voice example I provided. But what about this one:
Mistakes were made. (Credit to Grammar Girl for this wonderful example)
Who made the mistakes? We don’t really know, do we? Here, the passive voice is used for humorous effect – the little one-eared rabbit would not rather fess up to having made the mistakes himself, so to the leering figure, he merely says “Mistakes were made.” It’s a weasely way to deflect responsibility. We hear politicians talk like this all the time. If you learn to recognize the passive voice, you can learn when people speaking to you might not want to reveal all the information they have at their disposal.
It’s easy to slip into the passive voice. The active voice reveals, the passive voice conceals. Sometimes.
So using active voice versus passive voice is an exercise in being clear. If, for example, I said “The assignments were graded,” I could mean I graded the assignments, or that my wife did, or that I let my nine-year-old read them and assign grades based on how he was feeling at the moment. If, however, I say “I graded the assignments,” it’s clear who did the action.
Avoid clutter. Unless you clutter for effect.
Consider this headline:

“Kitten taken from Boise shelter by teens has been returned.”
This is in the past tense, but it’s not in the passive voice.
There’s still something missing, though.
What could you imply by reading the headline?
When I read it, I thought, “Oh, the miscreant teens who took the kitten from the shelter returned it.” That’s reasonable, right?
Not really. Because when you read the article, you see the parents of the teens who took the kitten returned it.
The headline is unclear on that point. Because it's cluttered.
So what to do?
Eliminate clutter, and eliminate confusion.
What’s important here? That the kitten was returned, or that the kitten taken by teens was returned?
We could write “Kitten taken from Boise shelter is returned.” And then let the first sentence of the article fill in the detail: “A group of teenagers stole a kitten from the Idaho Humane Society Saturday, but parents made sure the animal was returned Monday morning.”
Cutting clutter from the headline made it less likely that the reader would imply incorrect information from what was written.

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