Sunday, November 9, 2014

“You can improve that paper”

The linguist Geoffrey Pullum, after reading a student paper with endless passive-voice sentences, and after acknowledging that some writers (Noam Chomsky, Anthony Trollope, Jeffrey Ullman) get things right the first time:

Our students should not imagine they can adopt the working practices of such brilliant exceptions. They are mostly like you and me: Our first drafts aren’t good enough, and need many restructurings, improvements, and corrections before they are fit for a reader. Yes, a few authors can produce publishable prose without ever looking back, but they are outliers, not role models. Balzac “revised obsessively.” Dickens did likewise.

So, to the typical student working late Thursday night for a Friday paper deadline I say: You are not Chomsky or Ullman or Trollope, and you have left it too late! You cannot write A+ material the first time through. Next time start your paper at least a week ahead. Then rewrite it. Then read it aloud, and go through it again fixing some more of its faults: the echoes and clunkinesses; the slips in verb agreement; that vague bit you thought you might get away with; the sentence where you decided on a structure but changed syntactic horses midstream and ended up with gibberish.

And don’t tell me you don’t have the time! Ordinary working people do 40 hours a week. Typical millionaires work 70 or 80. Admit it, you’re not committing that kind of time to your studies. You can improve that paper, and ensure that reading it isn’t like being repetitively bludgeoned. Please.
Related posts
Pullum on Strunk and White
More on Pullum, Strunk, White
Hardly (adverb) convincing (adjective)

[Pullum commented on the first of these posts. He’s never touched the third, which looks at his untenable claim that The Elements of Style forbids the use of adjectives and adverbs. In the Lingua Franca piece I’ve excerpted, Pullum still can’t acknowledge that inappropriate use of the passive voice is his student’s problem. Instead, it’s the student’s “tin ear.” I cannot see the difference. But I think this exhortation is worth sharing.]

comments: 3

Fresca said...

I am most grateful to an editor who circled in red every single one of my passive constructions in a ms:
I truly had not been aware how often I used them.

I realized then that I'd often relied on the passive not because I had a tin ear but because I didn't know who did X, so it was easier to say "X was done."

When I was a college student, it wasn't so much a lack of knowledge or a lack time, it was a lack of caring: often I didn't care who did X.
But I didn't expect an A+ in those cases or complain if I didn't get one either.

Michael Leddy said...

Sometimes too the passive comes up in student writing because of some teacher’s ban on the first-person pronoun (though “I will discuss” is not much of an improvement on “will be discussed”). I often meet students whose teachers told them to write “It is observed that” rather than “I think.” Can you imagine?

JuliaR said...

Thanks for this. I have posted a link to the original article at my course page. But I just know that it's only the A students who are going to take the advice under advisement.