Won the Science Fair, Flunked the Spelling Bee

From the website of a Sanford, Fla., pharmaceutical company specializing in dermatology products:

Our criterion for marketing a product is simple:

  • It must work better then any other product
  • It must be safer then any other product
  • Patients will be able to afford it

Continue reading

Passive Voice Part Deux

This one is dedicated to my choir-kid daughter Chloe.

As I mentioned in the last issue of Fun with Conan the Grammarian, there are some legitimate reasons to use passive voice:

1. When the receiver of the action is the focus of your paragraph rather than the actor:

Because most choir kids spontaneously burst into song for no apparent reason, many of them get the crap kicked out of them by the jocks.

Since “choir kids” is the focus of the paragraph, using active voice in the second sentence would shift the focus to “jocks.”

2. When using passive voice shortens the sentence subject rather than lengthening it.

Active: The large number of choir kids getting their butts kicked and their inability to control spontaneous outbursts instigated our decision to outfit the choir kids with shock collars.

Passive: Our decision to outfit the choir kids with shock collars was instigated by the large numbers of choir kids getting their butts kicked and their inability to control spontaneous outbursts.

3. When the actor is irrelevant or unknown, or you are intentionally trying to hide the identity of the actor.

The shock collars must be fitted before next Monday.

The body was removed from the crime scene.

4. When passive voice produces greater emphasis on the main point of the sentence.

Active: The school should not subject non-choir kids to endless choruses of “Seasons of Love” from Rent all day long.

Passive: Non-choir kids should not be subjected to endless choruses of “Seasons of Love” from Rent all day long.

5. With a multi-part subject.

Active: Numerous butt kickings, the inability of choir kids to stop singing and the jocks’ lack of foot control instigated the solution we’ve agreed on.

Passive: The solution we’ve agreed on was instigated by butt kickings, the inability of choir kids to stop singing and the jocks’ lack of foot control.

6. When you’re trying to spare someone embarrassment, prosecution or disciplinary action.

The package containing the iron lung was lost in transit…


Passive Voice Part I

A lot of folks are confused by the concept of passive voice. (You see that? I started right off with an example.) Let’s try again: The concept of passive voice confuses a lot of people.

So what’s the difference between active and passive voice? In the active voice, the subject performs the action, as in “Zsa Zsa slapped the waiter,” while in the passive voice the subject suffers the effect of the action, as in “The waiter was slapped by Zsa Zsa.”

The tip-off in most offending sentences is a form of the mealy-mouthed verb “to be.” It worked for Hamlet, but for those of us who aren’t Danish royalty, “to be” can be the writing kiss of death.

There are several reasons that passive voice is so often used in business writing. (Or should I say There are several reasons people so often use passive voice in business writing? I think you already know the answer.) The first is that it’s a stellar way of avoiding responsibility, a CYA strategy of passing the buck. Passive voice converts most sentences into vague, no-fault language that you can’t quite figure out why it’s so unsatisfying.

Example: The package containing the iron lung was lost in transit.

What does this sentence actually mean? “Our driver, Lance, forgot to close the tailgate on the truck. Your iron lung slid out the back somewhere on the prairie, so good luck!”

Another reason: to elevate oneself in a truly passive-aggressive manner with a little false modesty thrown into the mix. In one of my college writers’ workshops, a student named Jane vilified a short story I wrote about a punk band with this cleverly written critique:

Several bands of this type are known by me, and none of them act in this manner…

(Of course, she also wrote “this writer’s mind is so small she probably likes Norman Rockwell,” but that’s a story for another time.) What was Jane really saying? “Unlike you, I actually know and hang out with these bands, so clearly you don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Passive voice usually produces fuzzy, ponderous, wordy sentences, rather than clear, concise sentences. Many business writers appear to be paid by the word, or at least get credit by the word. They seem to think that the more words they use, the more gravitas they ooze. But most of the time, passive voice, and its dimwitted cousin verboseness, makes them look pompous and self-important.

So whenever you see any form of “to be” (am, are, is, was, were, will be, has been, was being, etc.) pop up in your writing, stop and evaluate the sentence.

Now, you won’t hear this too often, but there actually are circumstances in which passive voice is appropriate. I’ll expound upon those in another post. In the meantime, don’t get too hung up on completely excising passive voice from your repertoire, because your writing can become stiff and unnatural.

But use it the way you would cayenne pepper or Phil Collins CDs–sparingly and with caution.

When Sports Writing Goes Very, Very Wrong

This isn't Mark Spitz.

I was surfing America Online the other day when I came across the tantalizing headline Worst Sports Comebacks. I’m a sucker for this kind of thing, so I clicked on the link — and what to my wondering eyes should appear, but this gem of an entry:

12) Mark Spitz: Twenty years after winning seven gold medals at the 1972 Olympics and spurned on by a million-dollar offer from filmmaker Bud Greenspan, the swimmer seeked to qualify for the 1992 U.S. team. Greenspan filmed Spitz failing to qualify for a return to the Olympics.

Okay, I can almost forgive the spurn/spur confusion. It falls in the same category as the flaunt/flout controversy (which I intend to explore in a future issue of Fun with Conan The Grammarian). But…seeked? I mean, seeked? Where, oh, where was the editor? And where, oh, where was the dictionary?

Most of the time, I mind my own business, laugh and move on. But this time I was spurred to action. I sent a helpful email to AOL Sports pointing out the mistakes. You’ll be thrilled (and amazed) to know I wasn’t in the least sarcastic or snarky about it. And now, four days later (as of this writing), the errors remain. The only thing I can figure is that AOL Sports has either sent their writing jobs off-shore or subcontracted to Wee Cutie-Pies Preschool.

Moral: Employ an editor. Use a dictionary. End of lecture.

Opening Paragraphs

Literary agent Nathan Bransford is running a contest on his blog for the best first paragraph of a story, and it’s worth a look, if not a submission. In the comments section you can read literally thousands of first paragraphs. Read them carefully. How many of them make you want to read the next page, let alone the next paragraph? Pay close attention to why you do or don’t want to read on, because it holds the key to writing a compelling first parapraph.

Unfortunately, many of us think of our manuscript as our child. It was wrought by God Himself, in His image, and to change it would be sacrilege. Just remember, though, that in your manuscript’s universe, you are the god, and you do have the power to improve it. And often, you should. To help you make the leap, read this awesome blog post from Writer Unboxed about compelling opening pages. It just might change your life–or at least the readability of your manuscript.


Put the Thesaurus Down and Back Away Slowly

Seriously. Put it down.

Read the following (thanks to Danielle Oviatt, “The Shrew”) and tell me what you think:

Out of my orifices of vision crept tentitive (sic) droplets of salinity as I recalled Mama in the waning days of August, thirty-four summers ago. The tears crawled out softly murmuring, ‘We know it’s not easy to let us go, but until you do — only then can we flow as a river with an angst-ridden memory and cleanse this face of a pain unforgotten.’

Bouncing along to the rhythm of my sobs, seated near the aft of the bus enrout (sic) to work…

Impressed? Wondering if the writer is a Mensa candidate? Electrified by the spectacular prose? Continue reading

Alot, A Lot, Allot

What’s wrong with the book title below, featured on Amazon.com‘s UK site?

You Have to Kiss Alot of Frogs*
by Laurie Graff (Author)

You spotted it right away, didn’t you? What? You didn’t? This is a total gimme! Continue reading