Along with the posts written by your devoted bloggers, we will be posting guest responses written by friends of the WRC. This week, Professor Ralf Thiede from the English Department is joining us to expand on last week’s post about active and passive voice.
Alex and Beth
The passive voice has historically had a PR problem because active verbs are understood to be “strong” and engaging. The passive, however, offers two neat solutions for two opposite information management needs regarding what to do with the (logical) subject:
- suppression: “Mom, the window got broken…” (…and I’m taking the Fifth…).
- focusing: “Tampering with the smoke detection devices in the lavatories is prohibited BY FEDERAL LAW” (…so don’t even think about it).
Highly skilled writers (like Dylan Thomas, for example, who was a compulsive perfectionist) know when to put topic material (something that is presumed “given” at that point of the text) at the beginning of the sentence and focus material (the salient, ‘new’ information) towards the sentence-final position. If the topic of one sentence picks up what was the focus in the previous sentence, then the writing has a tighter logical cohesion and the reading speed increases. If, on the other hand, you want to slow the reader down, then one way of doing that is by decreasing cohesion.
The passive is one of the templates in a trained writer’s arsenal that allows information management for maximum impact. ENGL 2161 “Grammar for Writing” explores how such subliminal grammar techniques affect the reading experience: In grammatically informed writing, syntax meets cognitive science.