Tuesday, August 7, 2007

As Written


"That's a rather interesting name for it" I say to no one in particular.

While that thought is rolling lazily around in my head I stretch out my feet, lean back and proceed to enjoy the summer sun.

I appear to be sitting in the middle of some type of insect super-highway. They travel back and forth around the yard, buzzing as they go, constantly passing me. The grass is green, the air is cool in the shade and I am reading a book on effective writing. I burn the sounds of the insects into my memory, but only because I am in the middle of reading a chapter on color in "A Writer's Coach", an excellent book, beautifully written by Jack Hart. In the chapter on humanity the use of a vignette is suggested, which seems as I read it to alert me to the present of the bugs, but for me the pages reveal more appropriate wisdom.

If I am writing in Microsoft Word and I ask the grammar checker to highlight passive sentences, I always get an unusually large number of them. Somehow I skipped grammar in school, so it does not always stick that writing "the batter hits the ball" is an active sentence, while "the ball was hit by the batter" is passive. Before the book, it was just a bad habit I was trying to break.

Passive sentences are weak. They lack force, and according to the book, they are verbicide; killing a sentence with the presence of a weak verb.

So, my passive sentences are bad, I admit. A habit that I am desperately trying to change, but it does lead to an interesting question: why do I keep writing passive sentences in the first place? What is it about me or the English language that draws me back, again and again to a sentence structure that surely I should find as unsatisfying as any other reader?

I suspect, but am unlikely to prove any time soon, that the answer is related to my profession. As a computer programmer I constantly struggle with complex rules and structure. On a daily basis I work with logic, consistency and a huge dash of complexity. Somehow, the structure of a passive sentence comes easily, so I expect that it is most similar to coding. Like most programmers I start with functionality which I apply to the data. In that sense a passive phrase like "the list is sorted by qsort" is far more natural then "the program qsorts the list". Coding begets passivity. My problems then are deeply rooted in my daily activities.

If that is really true then my verbicidal tendencies, while still my problem are definitely less my fault. I'll always have to spend my life combating them, but at least I have a better understanding of why they happen. Feeling a little less impatience with myself, I figure I should relax and enjoy the scene, taking in the fresh air, the wind rustling through the trees and pondering on a way to end this piece with a hard consonant, for maximum impact.