Thursday, July 31, 2008

Active aggressive

I'm getting really tired of the active voice. OK, not exactly. The active voice is easily one of my two favorite verb voices. What I'm getting tired of is every time a bit of information asks for a straight-bladed screwdriver, some copy editor insists on fetching a Phillips head.

That's the problem with today's hed.* It comes with a pretty unforgiving count. (1.5/42/2? Or is it a 36?) If you want to pack some meaning in, you'll need to work carefully, and this looks like a first-thing-that-fit sort of hed. The easiest way to make it better is to ignore your J2100 textbook** and ask for the appropriate item from the part of the grammar toolbox called "verb voice."

Count it up. The first line -- half the hed -- is gone by the time you're finished getting the subject out. The verb is another fourth of it. So you have the last quarter of the hed to spend on the most important noun, which is the object. The passive voice is the tool that lets you turn the hed around and emphasize the object.

Indictment heds are classics of the cop-and-court variety because there's almost never any need to emphasize the subject. The Woodward Dream Cruise doesn't issue indictments. The AARP doesn't issue indictments. That's what grand juries do. So the meaning of the first 75% of the hed is pretty much contained in the verb. That's space we can spend on who was indicted, which (trust me, I've been reading these things for a long time) is almost invariably more interesting than who did the indicting.

What makes up a senator's identity? Name, party and state almost always show up, though sometimes a career characteristic gets pride of place. ("Senator No" can be a clearer identifier than "R-N.C."). Almost any of them would make the hed better by their mere appearance. Let's see how they fit:

Grand jury
indicts senator

Alaska Sen.
Stevens indicted

Seven-term GOP
senator indicted

Another GOP
solon accused
(sorry, had to get "solon" in)

King of Senate
pork indicted

(if the Freep can declare him a "lion," I can make him a "king")

And British-style active, for the fun of it (kids, don't try this at home):
Alaska senator
'lied about gifts'

If the passive voice is so good (and good for you), why does the Strunk & White book call for preferring the active? It's a freshman comp book! It's a guide for people who need to write adequately, even if they never need (or learn, or want) to write well. And rules like "use the active voice" are a good way to write adequately.***

None of this is to say that the passive is "better." Verb voice is a tool that helps put meaning into place. The better one is the one that does that well. In case you're wondering, here's a hed that misuses the passive. Look in the relative clause:

Birth certificate of child linked to Edwards lists no father

"Linked" by whom? If you don't have the space to say "linked by the National Enquirer," you need to say hello to the active voice. As you should consider doing whenever you venture into the territory of election-year mudslinging.

Are we telling you anything you don't know? Hed writing isn't a walk in the park. You need all the stuff in the toolbox. Don't be scared away from the passive voice by some half-remembered thunder from J-school.

* OK, "yesterday's hed." Busy few weeks at the Manor.
** You should be making a habit of this anyway.
*** S&W also gives a nice example of how the passive voice can serve the writer's intent. Read it before you slag it.

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Blogger lsm said...

It's a struggle finding where what you've been taught was ideal in J-school applies and when exceptions are OK. I've dealt with that throughout my internship.

Luke Morris

2:52 AM, August 01, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Rules are there to make you think before you break them" -- Terry Pratchett

Speaking as one of the people who haven't read it, it's interesting to hear S&W being defended. Overall I get the impression that the book is best avoided, but at the same time I'm sceptical of the assumptions its harsher critics seem to make about the writers' intent.

12:53 AM, August 10, 2008  
Blogger fev said...

I think S&W gets an excessively bad rap because it's a convenient stand-in for unthinking prescriptivism. It seems to be about RULES (especially clear in the forewords around the 3rd and 4th edns), and that makes it an easy target. Rules, after all, are much easier to teach than anything else in the word biz.

Taken on their own, the book's prescriptions are pretty inoffensive; they're a bunch of well-illustrated (with counterexamples when needed, as in the case of the passive) precepts on how to write passably. When dealing with groups of people -- it bears reiterating that S&W began life as a handbook for freshman comp classes -- for whom Good Writing is something scary and mysterious, it's a very useful commonsense guide.

It isn't the gospel, but then again, wars get started over what is or isn't the gospel. You pays your money, you takes your choice.

11:35 PM, August 10, 2008  

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