Continuing our series on “seldoms,” let’s cover passive voice and its foil, an old favorite of mine, first person.
Academic disciplines and academic advisors vary widely with regard to whether or not they discourage first person. In some fields, it’s completely acceptable and in others it’s still mostly discouraged, despite the fact that style manuals such as the sixth edition of the APA Manual explicitly allow and encourage first person when it is the option that offers the most clarity.
Unlike the context-sensitive first person, passive voice comes up pretty often as a characteristic of weak writing. I pair them together, though, because when writers are discouraged from using first person (by themselves or by others), passive voice is the technique they most often pick up. Teachers, writing resources, and word processor grammar checkers all discourage it for good but not universally applicable reasons:
First, passive voice obscures the agent of the action in the sentence. Who administered the surveys? Dunno, they were just administered. Second, some passive voice constructions—especially, ironically, those that do identify the agent—can become unnecessarily convoluted and confusingly wordy. Such constructions, when written by students who are advised by professors who were taught that first person must always be avoided, are hard to be read even by fellow scholars without . . . ahem. I mean: there are much simpler ways to write sentences like that.
In my October 13 post, I introduced this miniseries on rules we might have learned in school that we can still follow as academic writers but perhaps not as strictly as we did when we were being graded on them. In that post, I covered the “rule”—really more of a guideline—not to end a paragraph in a quotation. Today I’ll cover the rule—in this case an actual rule but one that can be broken if it’s done smartly—not to begin a sentence with a conjunction.
As in the previous post, I want to call this rule a “seldom,” rather than a “never.” Its effectiveness comes from breaking the rule occasionally but not all over the place.
Seldom Begin a Sentence with a Conjunction
The conjunctions of the English language we’ll be discussing are “and,” “but,” and “or.” An example of breaking this rule appeared in my my previous blog post, in which I wrote, “And indeed, most nevers of writing style . . . are subject to creative and effective rule breakage.”
The rule not to begin a sentence with the words “and,” “but,” or “or” is one of grammar, not style, but it leaks into the realm of style because its breakage is so common that it conveys a particular meaning to your audience. Using a conjunction to transition into a sentence can, if done appropriately, add punch to your next point, but if you bear in mind that you’re really not “supposed” to be doing it at all, then it can remind you to keep the impulse reined in. The tiny act of rebellion of the sentence-leading conjunction is where some of that punch comes from.
“Never end a paragraph with a quotation.”
“Never begin a sentence with a conjunction.”
“Never use the passive voice.”
“Never use first person.”
Whether you heard them in high school, in a first-year college writing course, or not at all, there are numerous—possibly endless—rules of formal writing style that start with the word “never.” “Never” has the magic power of catching attention, but its power is weakened by the fact that it doesn’t really mean itself, and you can always find plenty of counterexamples by reputable authors.
And indeed, most nevers of writing style (not to be confused with out-and-out mistakes, like writing “defiantly” when you mean “definitely”) are subject to creative and effective rule breakage at certain times. In fact, “never” in this context really means something more like “Avoid . . .” or “Don’t usually . . .” or “Question your impulse to . . .” or “Be aware that some people will be annoyed with your writing if you . . . .”
The more flexibility a rule has, however, the more important it is that you pay close attention to its usage before you take advantage of that flexibility. Or to put it another way: You can’t creatively and effectively break a rule you don’t know how to follow.
The small but mighty Communication Central conference for editing, proofreading, and writing freelancers was held on the last weekend of September. Unlike the massive American Copy Editors Society (ACES) conference that I wrote about in March, CommCen was attended by about fifty people, a small enough number for an ambitious networker to shake hands with everyone if she tried but large enough to collect a varied span of knowledge from editors and other freelancers with an impressive range of experience and focus areas.
I consider the 2013 CommCen to have been, if editors were debutantes, my personal “coming out” venue. I learned more in those three days (including Laura Poole’s excellent Editorial Boot Camp) than I had in the previous thirteen months of my muddling through the swampy novice editorial waters. It’s a terrific conference for anyone, but I would recommend it particularly to new editorial freelancers who don’t yet have a community of colleagues to learn from and who might feel intimidated at a large-scale meeting of an industrial organization. Here are my takeaways from the 2015 CommCen:
I'm Lea, a freelance editor who specializes in academic and nonfiction materials. More info about my services is available throughout this site.