Peculiarities of prose style

The active is the natural voice, the one in which people usually speak or write, and its use is less likely to lead to wordiness or ambiguity. The passive of modesty, a device of writers who shun the first-person singular, should be avoided. I discovered is shorter and less likely to be ambiguous than it was discovered. The use of I or we. . .avoids dangling participles, common in sentences wri

tten in the third-person passive.

— Council of Biology Editors, CBE Style Manual, 5th ed.

[Passive voice] implies that events take place without any one doing anything. Moves files, desks, and ideas without any assistance from a human being. Makes readers wonder whether they should be doing something or just sitting there waiting for the system to perform. It turns actions into states of being. It's somewhat mystical, but tends to put readers to sleep. . . .

To get more active, say who does what. Assign responsibility to the system or to the program or, if necessary, to the reader. If you have to tell readers to do something, don't pussyfoot around—tell them. (Are you slipping into the passive because you don't dare to order readers around?)

— Jonathan Price, How to Write a Computer Manual

2. Avoid Nominalizations

Unless you have a good reason to do otherwise, avoid nominalizations. A nominalization is a noun derived from and communicating the same meaning as a verb or adjective. It is usually more direct, vigorous and natural to express action in verbs and qualities in adjectives.

no: Our expectation was that we would be rewarded for our efforts.

yes: We expected to be rewarded for our efforts.

no: There was a stuffiness about the room.

yes: The room was stuffy.

Nominalizations frequently crop up in noun strings. A noun string, a series of nouns that modify one another, is often concise but ambiguous. If the noun string is short, it can usually be tamed with a few judicious hyphens:

no: The test area probes were delivered last week.

yes: The test-area probes were delivered last week.

Longer noun strings, however, are often confusing, and it is generally best to unstring them by converting nominalizations back to verbs or by adding a few strategic articles and prepositions:

no: Missile guidance center office equipment maintenance is performed weekly.

yes: The office equipment in the missile guidance center is maintained weekly.

Like passive voice, nominalizations can serve some useful purposes:

a. Nominalizations can facilitate smooth transitions between sentences by serving as subjects that refer back to ideas in previous sentences:

Susan refused to accept the five-stroke handicap. Ultimately, this refusal cost her the match.

b. Nominalizations can be effective when you choose to desensitize a statement by converting the more vigorous and direct verb form into the less vigorous and direct noun form. Thus,

He is scheduled to be executed on Monday.


His execution is scheduled for Monday.

c. Since nouns often name material things, they have a certain status in our culture, where the concrete often seems more real (hence, more credible) than the abstract. Therefore, although nominalizations often result in pompous and convoluted prose, they occasionally can be used to make the abstract seem more concrete and, perhaps, more convincing. Thus,

The colonists would not tolerate being taxed.


The colonists would not tolerate taxation.

Joseph Williams neatly sums up these first two principles (write in the active voice and avoid nominalizations): "Try to state who's doing what in the subject of your sentence, and try to state what that who is doing in your verb. . . . Get that straight, and the rest of the sentence begins to fall into place" (Style, 1st ed., p. 8)

3. Express Parallel Ideas in Parallel Grammatical Form

Parallelism is the principle that units of equal function should be expressed in equal form. Repetition of the same structure allows the reader to recognize parallel ideas more readily:

no: This could be a problem for both the winners and for those who lose.

yes: This could be a problem for both the winners and the losers.

no: Output from VM appears in the output display area. The input area is where commands typed by the user are displayed.

yes: Output from VM appears in the output display area. Commands typed by the user appear in the input display area.

Note that any two (or more) units of discourse—words, phrases, clauses, sentences, paragraphs, chapters—can be made parallel with one another. Note also that, although it is a powerful rhetorical device, parallelism is only one of many factors writers must consider as they compose. Hence, parallelism is occasionally overridden by other, more pressing considerations, such as clarity and variety.

4. Place the Emphatic Words at the End of the Sentence

Joseph Williams offers two complementary principles of order and emphasis (Style, 1st ed.):

1. Whenever possible, express at the beginning of a sentence ideas already stated, referred to, implied, safely assumed, familiar—whatever might be called old, repeated, relatively predictable, less important, readily accessible information.

2. Express at the end of a sentence the least predictable, least accessible, the newest, the most significant and striking information.

no: Peter Laslett writes about how family structure has changed in his article, "The World We Have Lost."

yes: In his article, "The World We Have Lost," Peter Laslett writes about how family structure has changed.

In the first version, the emphasis is on the title of the article; in the second version, the emphasis is on the substance of the article. Note that according to the two principles above, what justly needs emphasis in a sentence generally depends upon what has already been said or what is already known; that is, upon the given information. When the given information is placed at the beginning of a sentence, it is understated and serves as a transition or introduction to the new information in the sentence, which is thereby emphasized.

What Haviland and Clark call the "Given-New Strategy" not only creates proper emphasis within a sentence, it also creates cohesion between sentences since the new information of one sentence often becomes the given (or old) information of the next. Schematically, the movement of given to new information in a series of sentences might look like this:


Look, for example, at the following pair of sentences:

Lines that contain printer-control characters will not look right-justified on your screen. They will be right-justified, however, when you print them.

In the first sentence, the given information is lines (A), and the new information is right-justified (B). In the second sentence, the given information is right-justified (B), and the new information is when you print them (C).

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