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Thursday, August 20, 2009

Writer Mag Column 6: Weak subjects

Don’t lose your subjects--help missing people find their way back into your sentences

Singer Paula Cole once asked in a song, “Where have all the cowboys gone?” As for me, I want to know, “Where have all the human subjects in our sentences gone?” Not as catchy, but just as important. So many people are missing from writers’ sentences that I decided to join the Missing Subjects Taskforce--a group who is tired of people-free sentences. We’re tired of asking ourselves, “Where have all the people gone?”

When the subject of your sentence is not a person but a thing, such as “the discovery” or “the bag of M&Ms,” the Missing Subjects Taskforce must put out an APB--that’s an All Persons Bulletin--on your sentence. The taskforce needs to find these missing people because we want active writing that shows people performing actions; we don’t want passive writing.

Passive writing pops up everywhere. Some might call this style of writing formal or academic writing, or even business writing. I just call it bad writing. Passive writing allows writers to lop off their subjects by using:

Vague “-ing” words. I’ll talk about those shortly.

Nominalizations, which I covered in my last article.

Passive voice, which we’ll go over in a minute.

Unless you’re writing about guillotines, you are not allowed to lop off your subjects.

Vague “-ing” Words

You know you have a vague “-ing” word when your word ends in “-ing,” but the reader doesn’t know who the subject is. Take this Criminal Sentence:

“When using any driving directions or map, it’s a good idea to do a reality check and make sure the road still exists.”

Where have all the drivers gone? Perhaps they zoomed off into oblivion. Let’s try to get them back safely. The vague “-ing” word in this sentence is “using,” in the phrase “when using.” It’s vague because the sentence never says who is using. Sure, you’re allowed to start a sentence like this, but a person must show up after the comma. Here, an “it” surfaces instead, making this a classic misplaced modifier and causing groans everywhere. Aside from the bad grammar, the sentence fails to state the implied subject: “you.” It would be better--and more grammatical--to write “When you’re using ...” Or you could say, “When using any driving directions or map, you ...”

You probably need some practice with vague “-ing” words. Here are two Criminal Sentences for you to populate:

Criminal Sentence 1: It’s important to be specific when writing sentences.

Criminal Sentence 2: Writing vague sentences is prohibited.


I’ve already complained about nominalizations, which allow writers to omit man, woman and child. Remember that sentences filled with nominalizations, such as “the discussion of” and “an appearance by,” tend to leave out all the people. Learn what nominalizations are, and then ban them from your writing.

Passive Voice

Not many people make an appearance with passive voice, either. In a passive-voice sentence, we often don’t know who did what because no person is there to do it. As you may remember from school, a passive-voice sentence turns the object of the sentence into the subject. Let’s compare an active-voice and a passive-voice sentence. Take this normal thought (normal in my house, at least): “I ate the whole bag of M&Ms.” This is an active sentence. I, the subject, did something to the candy, the object. (What did I do to the candy? I scarfed it down.)

If we turn the sentence around and make it passive voice--oh, how it pains me to do so--we start with the candy: “The whole bag of M&Ms was eaten by me.” If you don’t want to claim responsibility, you can omit the “by me” and no one will be the wiser: “The whole bag of M&Ms got eaten.” Perhaps if you don’t state who ate the candy, then it has no calories.

These three Criminal Sentences contain passive voice and are sorely lacking people. Rewrite them so that a person appears.

Criminal Sentence 3: The table was set.

Criminal Sentence 4: The coffee is being made as we speak.

Criminal Sentence 5: Too many sentences are written in passive voice.

All Three at Once!

And now for the most terrible sentence that appears in this column. This poor sentence suffers from all three passive-writing problems simultaneously. Imagine the horror! A local politician wrote this sentence and my local paper printed it:

“Making the decision to put these vital projects on the November ballot was not taken lightly.”

“Making” is the vague -ing word, “decision” is the nominalization, and “was not taken” is the passive voice. Let’s list all the ways that this sentence is bad:

1. “Making” does not refer to any particular person, and it leaves me asking, “Who?”

2. Instead of a human, a nominalization (“decision”) appears.

3. The passive-voice verb, “was not taken,” is bad, vague, boring.

4. On top of it all, the sentence makes no sense. You can’t write, “Making the decision … was not taken lightly.”

Let’s try to ascertain who is hiding behind all the nonsensical verbiage in the politician’s Criminal Sentence. Ah, it’s the writer himself. Let’s help him take responsibility for his actions. Because he’s writing about his own decision-making process, he is the decider. He is the “I” that has been missing all along. He might want to use the verb “to decide”:

“After researching the issues for hours, I decided to put these vital projects on the November ballot.”

Politicians tend to avoid using “I” and other clear subjects so that they can deflect responsibility. On the other hand, you, a writer, should not be afraid to state who is doing what. You must state who is doing the action, except if you’re purposely withholding that information in a mystery, for example. You must be responsible for your sentences, and one way to be responsible is to ensure you’re stating who is doing what. When a person is involved, I always advocate including the person in the sentence.

Please find all the missing persons in the five Criminal Sentences that have assaulted your senses in this column, and send your rewrites to I’m sure all these lonely souls will be happier once they’re found. And, if you help them return home, we’ll welcome you onto the Missing Subjects Taskforce. If, however, you keep refusing to name names, we just might bang on your door and demand that you identify the people you’ve been hiding.

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