We have seen how we can improve the clarity and directness of our sentences by making the subjects name characters and the verbs name actions. Consider the following passage (the subjects are in bold, and the verbs are in italics):
A man arrives from Corinth with the message that Oedipus’s father has died. To the surprise of the messenger, this news made Oedipus ecstatic, for it proves one half of the prophecy false, for now he can never kill his father. However, he still fears that he may somehow commit incest with his mother. The messenger, eager to ease Oedipus’s mind, tells him not to worry, because Merope was not in fact his real mother. It emerges that this messenger was formerly a shepherd on Mount Cithaeron, and that someone gave him a baby, which the childless Polybus then adopted. Another shepherd from the Laius household, he says, whom someone had told to get rid of the child, gave the baby to him.
Based on our discussion so far, you will notice a few things. First, most sentences use subjects to name characters and verbs to name actions. Second, the verb in “Merope was not in fact his real mother” does not name any action, but that is perfectly appropriate since being someone’s mother is indeed a state rather than an action. Finally, “It emerges” doesn’t name a subject or its action, and in the last sentence, a subject (“Another shepherd”) is separated from the verb (“gave”). So you notice that these sentences need most attention. Suppose we revise them as follows:
A man arrives from Corinth with the message that Oedipus’s father has died. To the surprise of the messenger, this news made Oedipus ecstatic, for it proves one half of the prophecy false, for now he can never kill his father. However, he still fears that he may somehow commit incest with his mother. The messenger, eager to ease Oedipus’s mind, tells him not to worry, because Merope was not in fact his real mother. This messenger was formerly a shepherd on Mount Cithaeron, and he says that someone gave him a baby, which the childless Polybus then adopted. According to him, someone had told another shepherd from the Laius household to get rid of the child, so this shepherd gave the baby to him.
If we read each sentence in [B] in isolation, it feels reasonably clear and direct. But when you read [B] as a whole, you might feel that it’s unfocused. For example, the first sentence introduces the messenger, and the second sentence brings our attention to the news and Oedipus’s reaction. But the the rest of [B] is about the messenger and two anonymous characters (“someone”). Is this paragraph about the messenger? The news? Oedipus? Or the person who gave a baby? Or the person who told to get rid of the child? [B] feels unfocused to the reader for three reasons: (1) subjects highlight different characters; (2) we cannot understand why some of these characters are highlighted (e.g., two anonymous people at the end); and (3) we cannot understand why some character is not highlighted (e.g., the baby).
What I just called “focus” of a text is one aspect of coherence: sentences feel coherent or fit with each other when we can read them as being about a logically consistent set of subjects. (We’ll talk about another aspect of coherence later in the course.) Now I created [A] by following the Wikipedia entry on Oedipus Rex and Steven Pinker’s discussion of the same passage (in his The Sense of Style, p. 133). Here is the original:
A man arrives from Corinth with the message that Oedipus’s father has died. Oedipus, to the surprise of the messenger, is made ecstatic by this news, for it proves one half of the prophecy false, for now he can never kill his father. However, he still fears that he may somehow commit incest with his mother. The messenger, eager to ease Oedipus’s mind, tells him not to worry, because Merope was not in fact his real mother. It emerges that this messenger was formerly a shepherd on Mount Cithaeron, and that he was given a baby, which the childless Polybus then adopted. The baby, he says, was given to him by another shepherd from the Laius household, who had been told to get rid of the child.
You might feel [C] more focused than [A] or [B]. It does feel more focused to me: the first three sentences are more clearly about the messenger and Oedipus (the news itself is secondary in importance), and the rest of the paragraph is more clearly about the messenger and the baby (the anonymous characters are secondary).
Why does [C] feel more focused? According to Williams (and Pinker who follows him), it feels more focused because the subjects name only the important characters. In other words, the reader does not have to answer the question, “Who is important and who is not?” The writer has already answered this question. On the other hand, [A] and [B] leave this question unanswered.
How does [C] achieve focus? [A] and [B] are all written in the active voice, but in doing so, they highlight many characters. Now notice how [C] uses the passive voice to control what occupies the subject position of a sentence (relevant parts are boldfaced and italicized). This use of the passive voice is emphasized by Williams. Towards the end of Chapter 2 (pp. 37–40), he discusses two questions that the writer needs to answer in order to choose between the active and the passive voice. The second question is relevant to our discussion so far:
Are we maintaining a logically consistent string of subjects? And if the string of subjects is consistent, is it the right string of subjects? (Williams, p. 38)
Review pp. 38–39 for Williams’s illustration of how the writer can maintain a consistent string of subjects by choosing the active and the passive as necessary. See especially the WWII passage on p. 39, which illustrates the same idea as the Oedipus passage.
A consistent string of subjects helps the reader understand what your sentences are about, and the reader will find your sentences focused and coherent (fit together).
Besides the choice of the active and the passive, the writer can also choose verbs to maintain a consistent string of subjects. Here are some examples from Pinker (The Sense of Style, p. 137):
|Morris sold a watch to Zak.||Zak bought a watch from Morris.|
|The vandals fled the police.||The police chased the vandals.|
|The goalie sustained an injury from the onrushing forward.||The onrushing forward inflicted an injury on the goalie.|
To summarize the ideas from the last workshop and this one, William’s first two principles of clear writing are to use:
- Subjects to name characters and
- Verbs to name important actions that involve the characters.
When we have a series of sentences, our sentences can feel focused or unfocused. To improve focus, we can:
- Use subjects to name only the important characters, and
- Make your string of subjects logically consistent.
And to do so, we have two devices:
- Choose the passive (or active) voice to reorder the subject and object, or
- Change the verb to reorder the subject and object.
Homework for Workshop 3
1. Find a paragraph (or part of a paragraph) containing several sentences. It can come from your old paper or your current writing, such as a paper for another class or annotations you have made for this class. Limit the length of your paragraph to 100–150 words (the Oedipus passage above is about 130 words). You will get most out of this exercise if your example is amenable to Williams’s principles. Use the quick method on p. 23 and advice given here to identify candidate sentences.
2. Revise your paragraph for greater clarity and focus by following Williams’s principles and the ideas discussed above. Try to keep your string of subjects consistent (see pp. 38–39). Since your goal is to practice principled revision, don’t rewrite the sentences completely (see Williams’s footnote on p. 18). In other words, your revised version should retain the meaning of the original as much as possible. Try to produce one or two revised versions of the same original text. For example, different versions might use different strings of characters. Make each version credible: something you would accept as a revision of your original text.
To submit your work, follow Steps 4–6 of the previous homework. Please submit by 1pm of the day of the next workshop so that I’ll have time to look over your revisions beforehand.