Author Topic: Keeping English prose trim and slim  (Read 13580 times)

Joe Carillo

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Keeping English prose trim and slim
« on: March 18, 2024, 02:50:39 PM »
Very much like the human body, English prose has to be kept trim and slim to command attention, to be credible, and to merit continuing interest. Compositions become unsightly and a pain to read when they use the passive voice much too often, when they take recourse to expletives at every turn, and when they rely too much on adjective clauses to qualify or relate ideas. The result is unhealthy flab that must be ruthlessly excised through self-editing and—if need be—total rewriting.


We already know that using the passive voice indiscriminately makes English sentences such sluggish creatures. That’s what happens when the subject of the sentence receives the action of the verb rather than does it: “The key was inserted into the doorknob by the woman, and it was turned by her.” Two actions (“was inserted” and “was turned”) were done to the subject (“the key”) by someone (“the woman”). Things happen as if in slow motion right before our eyes.

Now see how the active voice gives the sentence the spark of real action: “The woman inserted the key into the doorknob and turned it gently.” This time, “the woman” becomes the rightful doer of the action, the action unfolds as it happens in real life, and “the key” is put in its proper place—not as something that can act by itself in a void, as in telekinesis, but as something one physically does something to. Fewer words are used in the process (16 versus 19) and the preposition “by” makes a neat disappearing act.

The active-voice mindset likewise forces us to use active verbs instead of passive ones that need the verb “be” for grammatical support. Look at this passive-voice description: “The car was overturned by the strong wind.” The conventional way of reconstructing this weak sentence into an active one is, of course, to use “the strong wind” as the doer of the action: “The strong wind overturned the car.

This reconstruction is good enough as it goes. But see how much more direct and more vigorous the prose becomes by using active verbs, even with “the car” still as the subject: “The car flipped [somersaulted, twirled, turned turtle, rolled over] in the strong wind.” The active voice—with very few exceptions—is always our best bet for keeping descriptions vivid and narratives moving briskly.

Excessive use of expletive constructions likewise slows down the rhythm of prose. Recall that expletives are the words that we use as grammatical crutches to form thoughts quickly and with little effort: “It is,” “There is,” “There are,” “There were.” The problem with them is that they perform no grammatical function other than to get our sentences started. See how they just lengthen and weaken sentences: “There is an abundance of fruits in summer.” (The expletive excised: “Fruits abound in summer.”) “There were no takers of the special bargain offer.” (“The special bargain offer had no takers.”) “It is my opinion that the movie is overrated.” (“The movie is overrated.”) Notice how eliminating the expletive allows the verb to spring back to life and do real, honest-to-goodness work.

The overuse of adjective clauses is another cause of wordiness—aside, of course, from hampering the smooth, natural rhythm of prose. Adjective clauses, you will remember, are those strings of words that we add to sentences to modify a noun or pronoun; they are introduced by the relative pronouns “who,” “whom,” “whose,” “that,” and “which.” These relative pronouns serve sentences well by qualifying ideas and establishing relationships among them, but they are often expendable: sentences often flow and read better without them.

One way to get rid of them is to change the relative clause into a phrase: “The man, who was identified as the suspect, was freed for lack of evidence.” (“The man identified as the suspect was freed for lack of evidence.”) “The woman, whom we thought was most suitable for the job, backed out at the last moment.” (“The woman we thought most suitable for the job backed out at the last moment.”) “My architect is the one whose office building designs won international awards.” (“My architect won international awards for his office building designs.”) “We are looking for office space that has an independent air-conditioning unit.” (“We are looking for office space with an independent air-conditioning unit.”)

Sometimes we can change a non-restrictive clause into a neat appositive phrase: “Many baby-boomer parents expect their children to wake up early in the morning, which is a habit they themselves learned from their own parents in the 1940s.” (“Many baby-boomer parents expect their children to wake up early in the morning, a habit they themselves learned from their own parents in the 1940s.”)

In some cases, a single word or two can nicely take the place of an entire phrase in a sentence: “One of the members of the delegation that represented the Philippines missed the flight.” (A Philippine delegate missed the flight.”)
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This essay first appeared in my English-usage column in The Manila Times and subsequently formed Chapter 138  of my book Give Your English the Winning Edge, ©2009 by Jose A. Carillo. All rights reserved.

Check out “A masterful guide to the craft of modern nonfiction writing,” the Forum’s earlier feature of Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd’s book Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction, in the Forum’s Readings in Languages section. https://josecarilloforum.com/forum/index.php?topic=5836.0

Read this essay and listen to its voice recording in The Manila Times:
Keeping English prose trim and slim

(Next: The Tree of Knowledge)        March 28, 2024                                                                                              

Visit Jose Carillo’s English Forum, http://josecarilloforum.com. You can follow me on Facebook and X (Twitter) and e-mail me at j8carillo@yahoo.com.
« Last Edit: March 24, 2024, 10:38:49 PM by Joe Carillo »