April 4, 2014

Write clearly. Please.

Despite its extinction, the diplodocus prefers the active voice.

Despite its extinction, the diplodocus prefers the active voice.

We write stuff to give information or opinions or feelings or whatever to someone else. We need that someone to understand what we’re putting out. So it’s important to be clear.

Now, you may say, it’s tough to be clear, because English is a language with a lot of tricky rules. And they’re always changing. It’s true — some of the rules your teacher droned on about in eighth grade have gone the way of the diplodocus (so it’s a good thing you weren’t paying attention). For example, you may have learned never to end a sentence with a preposition. Somebody set this rule a long time ago to prevent other people from saying, “Where are you going to?” or “Where’s my badminton racquet at?” That “to” and that “at” are just unnecessary. But there’s nothing wrong with saying, “These aren’t the droids you’re looking for” or “He really wasn’t where it’s at.” Well, the first is OK; I mean, it’s Alec Guinness, and if English-speaking people can’t look to him to set a good example, then civilization is lost. The second is actually not OK, but it’s Dylan and it’s a song lyric and it’s a figure of speech so cut him some slack.

The point is, you don’t have to write, “These aren’t the droids for which you’re looking.” That’s just dumb. Why would anyone want to be so formal and stilted? We want people to get what we’re putting out, right? Let’s be clear and straightforward. For example, let’s agree to use the active voice instead of the passive voice. Passive: “A traveling exhibition of diplodocus bones was installed at the natural history museum.” OK, but who installed it? People are more engaged when they read about other people. Give them a subject they can relate to (not to whom they can relate). How about: “Staff at the natural history museum installed a traveling exhibition of diplodocus bones.” Now we know who did what. That’s the active voice.

Here you go: I’ll write a bunch of convoluted sentences, and you edit them. Make them as clear and straightforward as possible. If you can’t tell who did what, guess:

  1. During the presentation through which we sat, the etymology of the word “diplodocus” was explained.
  2. A series of production optimization initiatives was implemented by the manufacturers with whom we were meeting.
  3. This is the kind of quotidian crap up with which I have to put.
  4. Refreshments will be enjoyed by the dinosaur enthusiasts.

Write your answers in the comments section, or email them to me at [email protected]. Winners will receive nothing (at least not from me). But if I get a good response, up I shall follow. Thanks!

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