Author Topic: The art of avoiding needless voice shifts  (Read 7042 times)

Joe Carillo

  • Administrator
  • Hero Member
  • *****
  • Posts: 4651
  • Karma: +204/-2
    • View Profile
    • Email
The art of avoiding needless voice shifts
« on: February 11, 2021, 09:19:35 AM »
Can you imagine if, in the middle of the night, your soft-spoken wife, husband, or sibling suddenly speaks in a hard-edged voice that definitely could not be hers or his? You’ll no doubt be puzzled, shocked, probably thrown into a state of panic. Thus is because the totally unexpected is rarely welcome. It’s something that seriously violates the familiarity, sense of security, and normal rhythm of everybody’s personal universe.

                     IMAGE CREDIT: ADAPTED FROM NATUREOFWRITING.COM

Readers experience this bewilderment when we make unannounced shifts in voice, tense, person, and number in our writing. These shifts make prose exasperating and difficult to understand; they are, in fact, among the most formidable enemies of exposition. We thus should cultivate the art of avoiding them—and of spotting and eliminating them every time they creep into our prose.

The first thing to guard against is making unnecessary shifts from the active to the passive voice. Although the passive voice is sometimes desirable for effect, doing this involves a change of point of view that could be terribly confusing. Consider the jarring voice shift in this sentence: “We doubted the authenticity of the woman’s documents, and the truthfulness of her testimony was also doubtful.” Here’s the sentence in consistent active voice: “We doubted the authenticity of the woman’s documents and the truthfulness of her testimony.”

The second thing to be wary of is making unannounced changes of verb tense in our exposition. Readers get confused when—from out of the blue—we shift from present to past tense, or from past to the present or to the future. This gives the same feeling as a movie jerking and rewinding to past scenes, or lurching fast-forward to future scenes. Feel the confusion in this mixed-tense sentence: “She is singing beautifully when she lost her voice.” Consistently past: “She was singing beautifully when she lost her voice.” Another tense mix-up: “There were many complaints when our telephone operator answers calls in Taglish.” (Try fixing that second example.)

The third thing to avoid in writing is making unannounced shifts in point of view. Recall that language can take three points of view: the first person, the one speaking; the second person, the person spoken to; or the third person, the person spoken about. Changing from any of these points of view to another can be bewildering. Problems arise particularly when the indefinite pronoun “one” is used and is later referred to as “he,” “she,” “her,” or “him.” So if we have chosen “one” at the start, we should consistently use “one” all throughout the sentence.

Take this confusing construction: “If one thinks of the consequences of being careless, you can be sure that accidents will be rarer.” Consistent point of view: “If one thinks of the consequences of being careless, one can be sure that accidents will be rarer” or “If you think of the consequences of being careless, you can be sure that accidents will be rarer.” Also confusing: “If a woman wants to be loved, you must love in return.” Consistent: “If a woman wants to be loved, she must love in return” or “If you as a woman want to be loved, you must love in return.”

                         IMAGE CREDIT: SLIDEPLAYER.COM


The final thing to avoid is shifting number in our sentences. Recall that in grammar, number is what makes a word singular or plural. In English, however, many nouns may be regarded as either singular or plural, like “class,” “club,” “team,” “crowd,” and “group.” Once we make our number preference, we must use it consistently to avoid cockeyed sentences like this: “The baseball team took its time practicing, but they became a great fighting machine in the field.” Consistent: “The baseball team took their time practicing, but they became a great fighting machine in the field.”

(Next: When can history be told in the present tense?)       February 18, 2021                    

This essay, 2,032nd of the series, appeared in the column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in the Campus Press section of the February 11, 2021 Internet edition of The Manila Times,© 2021 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

Read this article online in The Manila Times:
“The art of avoiding needless voice shifts”

To listen to the audio version of this article, click the encircled double triangle logo in its online posting in The Manila Times.
« Last Edit: February 12, 2021, 08:49:31 AM by Joe Carillo »

Miss Mae

  • Hero Member
  • *****
  • Posts: 479
  • Karma: +0/-0
    • View Profile
    • Email
Re: The art of avoiding needless voice shifts
« Reply #1 on: February 12, 2021, 04:15:46 PM »
Uh, shouldn't it be “The baseball team took its time practicing, but it became a great fighting machine in the field.”

Joe Carillo

  • Administrator
  • Hero Member
  • *****
  • Posts: 4651
  • Karma: +204/-2
    • View Profile
    • Email
Re: The art of avoiding needless voice shifts
« Reply #2 on: February 13, 2021, 05:47:49 AM »
Miss Mae, your construction “The baseball team took its time practicing, but it became a great fighting machine in the field” is consistently singular ("team," "its," "it") so it's likewise perfectly acceptable and beyond reproach, but it would be incorrect to say that it "should be" or "is the only" mandatorily correct construction.

Miss Mae

  • Hero Member
  • *****
  • Posts: 479
  • Karma: +0/-0
    • View Profile
    • Email
Re: The art of avoiding needless voice shifts
« Reply #3 on: February 15, 2021, 04:23:45 PM »
Uh, may I ask why so, Sir?

From what I recall, collective nouns refer to people or things and require it as a pronoun since it is neither feminine nor masculine...

Joe Carillo

  • Administrator
  • Hero Member
  • *****
  • Posts: 4651
  • Karma: +204/-2
    • View Profile
    • Email
Re: The art of avoiding needless voice shifts
« Reply #4 on: February 26, 2021, 12:15:26 PM »
Yes, Miss Mae, collective nouns do refer to people or things, but not all collective nouns require "it" to be their pronoun, and they don't necessarily require "it" for the reason that "it" is neither feminine nor masculine. Indeed, gender has got nothing to do in the usage of "it" in such instances. As a rule, when all of the members or constituents of a collective noun like "team" act collectively as a team, the pronoun "it" can be used to refer to the team doing the collective action. Otherwise, when the members act individually in different ways, we can no longer use the collective noun "team"; instead, we use a statement like "A member of the team did this and did that" with respect to that member's individual action. The matter of gender--whether masculine or feminine--doesn't come to play at all in such situations unless the exposition totally shifts its focus on the actions of a particular male or female member of the team.

In a posting in Grammarly.com (https://www.grammarly.com/blog/collective-nouns/), Catherine Traffis very instructively elaborates on the nature of collective nouns. I suggest you read it for a finer clarification of your concern about the peculiarities of collective nouns particularly in the matter of gender.
« Last Edit: February 26, 2021, 10:02:56 PM by Joe Carillo »