December 6:  Passive Voice Day

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On this day in 1986, President Ronald Reagan presented a radio address to the nation.  His subject was a political scandal called the Iran-Contra Affair, where members of Reagan’s administration engaged in a secret arms deal in an attempt to obtain the release of American hostages.  Without approval or even the knowledge of the U.S. Congress, Reagan administration officials sold weapons to Iran and then used the profits from the sale to fund rebel forces in Nicaragua.

When a Lebanese newspaper published a report detailing the secret deal in November 1986, President Reagan was forced to address the matter publicly:

In the process of providing his explanation to the American people, Reagan used a classic framing device, the evasive maneuver known as passive voice:

And while we are still seeking all the facts, it’s obvious that the execution of these policies was flawed and mistakes were made [emphasis added] (1).

Use of the passive voice puts the object of the sentence “mistakes” up front and makes the doer of the action magically disappear.  Use of the passive voice allows the speaker to subtly evade admitting direct responsibility.  Notice the difference in the two sentences below:

Active Voice:  I made a mistake.

Passive Voice:  Mistakes were made.

Reagan was certainly not the first president to make this kind of unapologetic apology.  Use of this artful dodge dates back to the Ulysses S. Grant administration.  In a report to Congress in 1876, Grant acknowledged his administration’s scandals, saying “mistakes have been made, as all can see and I admit it” (2).

For most writers, understanding the difference between active and passive voice has nothing to do with political rhetoric. Instead, the difference relates to making sure that your sentences are as clear, concise, and active as possible.

Just as the key to keeping your car running well is taking care of its engine, the key to successful sentences is taking care of the engine of the sentence:  the verb.  Notice the difference in the following two sentences:

Passive Sentence:  The book was read by Mary.

Active Sentence:  Mary read the book.

Both sentences say the same thing.  The active sentence, however, says it in fewer words.  Also, the active sentence makes Mary the doer of the action.  In contrast, the passive sentence puts the object up front which requires the addition of two weak and unnecessary words:  “was” and “by.”

Passive voice is technically not a grammar error; instead, it is a style choice.  There are times when you might want to focus on the object rather than the doer of the action.  Be aware, however, that in most cases putting the doer up front and eliminating unnecessary words will make your writing more clear and concise.

As exemplified by the sentence about Mary above, be on the lookout for forms of “to be.”  We use this verb more than any other verb in English, but don’t overuse it.  “To be” is a state of being verb.  When you use forms of “to be” as the engine of your sentence, the sentence doesn’t get very far:

Bill was happy.

In contrast, when you employ active verbs, your sentences have more motion, which creates a better picture for the reader:

Bill smiled broadly and threw his head back as he laughed.

Today’s Challenge:  Mistakes Were Corrected

What is the best way to begin a story?  Select one of the passive sentences below.  Transform the sentence from passive voice to active voice, and expand the sentence into an opening paragraph of a short story.  As you revise, consider the subject of your sentence. Whenever possible make people the subjects of your sentences, the doers of the action; this will add more life and human interest to your writing.

The groceries were purchased.

The cake was eaten.

The sun was watched.

The test was taken.

The book was thrown.

The poem was written.

The team was booed.

The birthday was celebrated.

(Common Core Writing 3 – Narrative)

1-  Reagan, Ronald. Radio Address to the Nation on the Iran Arms and Contra Aid Controversy. 6 Dec. 1986. The American Presidency Project.  http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=36788.

2-Safire, William.  Safire’s Political Dictionary.  Oxford University Press, 2008:  431.

December 5:  Disney Day

Today is the birthday of Walt Disney, who was born in Chicago in 1901.  In 1928 he introduced the world to Mickey Mouse in the animated feature Steamboat Willie.  Disney revolutionized animation, mixing sound and color to produce full-length feature films based on classic children’s stories like Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.  For Disney, fantasy on the big screen was not enough.  He also pioneered the fantasy-themed family vacation when he opened Disneyland in California in 1955 (1).

Disney was a man who paid attention to details, and he knew that the appearance of his characters as well as their names mattered.  In the 1930s, for example, when Disney was adapting the Brothers Grimm’s Snow White, he made a list of 47 potential names for the dwarfs, which included Awful, Baldy, Dirty, and Hoppy (2).  In case you can’t remember the names that made the final cut, they are Bashful, Dopey, Grumpy, Happy, Sleepy, Sneezy, and Doc.

As a film producer, Disney won 22 Academy Awards, far more than anyone else.  Disney died in 1966, but his name lives on. The Walt Disney Company, the small animation company he founded on October 16, 1923, has grown into the world’s second largest media conglomerate.

Today’s Challenge   Escape to Cartoon Mountain

Who would you argue should be on the Mount Rushmore of Cartoon Characters?  Brainstorm a list of cartoon characters. Don’t limit yourself to just Disney characters.  Select your final four, the four that that you think are the most influential, most important, or just most entertaining.  List the names of each character along with a rationale for each character’s selection. (Common Core Writing 1 – Argument)

1-Gottlieb, Agnes Hooper, Henry Gottlieb, Barbara Bowers, and Brent Bowers. 1,000 Years, 1,000 People: Ranking the Men and Women Who Shaped the Millennium. New York: Kodansha International, 1998.

2-The 47 DwarfsLists of Note 23 March 2012. http://www.listsofnote.com/2012/03/47-dwarfs.html.

December 4:  Pascal’s Apology Day

On this day in 1656, French philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal wrote a letter in which he expressed one of the central paradoxes of writing:  it’s faster and easier to write a long composition than to write a short one.

Blaise Pascal Versailles.JPGPascal expressed the paradox as an apology to his reader:  “The present letter is a very long one, simply because I had no leisure to make it shorter” (1).

According to Ralph Keyes in his book The Quote Verifier, Pascal’s quotation has been falsely attributed to Thomas Jefferson, Samuel Johnson, Henry Thoreau, Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain, and Voltaire (2).  The popularity of Pascal’s sentiment reveals both how much writers value brevity and how difficult it can be to obtain.  Being clear, concise, and cogent is hard work.

Another illustration of the “less is more” writing philosophy comes from an anecdote about Mark Twain, who received the following telegram from his publisher:

NEED 2-PAGE SHORT STORY TWO DAYS.

He responded:

NO CAN DO 2 PAGES TWO DAYS. CAN DO 30 PAGES 2 DAYS. NEED 30 DAYS TO DO 2 PAGES

Perhaps the best explanation of the value of concision in writing is by William Strunk in Elements of Style.  Instead of an anecdote, Strunk uses an analogy:

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell. (3)

When you write, consider another analogy:

Imagine each word you write is an employee of the company you own. Each word needs a job to do.  You can’t afford to pay a salary to words or employees who do nothing.  Your job, therefore, as the writer is to keep your workforce — your “wordforce” — at a size no larger than what it takes to get the job done.

Today’s Challenge:   Exactly 25 Words – No More, No Fewer

How would you summarize an article in just 25 words? One excellent way to practice revision and to practice economy in writing is to write 25-word summaries.  Select an article of at least 200 words, and read it carefully to determine the writer’s main point.  Then, write a brief summary that captures the main point in your own words.  Don’t waste words saying things like:  “This article is about . . .” or “The author argues that . . .”  Instead, just state the article’s main ideas.  Don’t worry about the number of words until you have finished your first draft.  Next, count the number of words and revise as necessary to write the most clear, concise, and correct summary of EXACTLY 25 words.  Read your revised draft aloud to make sure that it is clear, that the sentences are complete, and that there are no wasted words.  (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

1-Pascal, Blaise. Letter XVI To the Reverend Fathers, the Jesuits. 4 Dec. 1656. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/pascal/provincial.xviii.html.

2-Keyes, Ralph. The Quote Verifier. New York:  St. Martin’s Griffin, 2006: 120.

3- Struck, William Elements of Style. York, PA: 1920. Public Domain. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/37134/37134-h/37134-h.htm.