Tamsin Constable

2009 Golden Bull awards

Today the Plain English Campaign announces its annual Golden Bull awards for wittering stuff and nonsense. It collects gems throughout the year and then publishes the funniest, the most outrageous or plain pompous.

I find these examples more worrying than entertaining. And is it fair to poke fun when (sometimes) people simply don’t realise there are other ways of writing? I’m more interested to see how some of the winners of these dubious awards will respond. Will they do something about it?

Department of Health website

Primary prevention includes health promotion and requires action on the determinants of health to prevent disease occurring. It has been described as refocusing upstream to stop people falling in the waters of disease.

Translation: Doctors can prevent disease before it occurs.

Balaclava Public School letter to parents about making iced cupcakes

Dear parent/Guardians,

The Grade 7 Science classes are nearing the completion for the unit Pure Substances and Mixtures. In this unit, students have been introduced to the Particle Theory of Matter, and to some of the terminology related to the field of chemistry. They have also been given the opportunity to explore, and conduct experiments related to the properties of solutions and mechanical mixtures.

At this time all students are encouraged to discuss with you the content and expectations of the culminating task along with how it will be assessed. This culminating task allows students to demonstrate the knowledge and skills that he/she has learned throughout the module. Although students are responsible to independently complete this task, we would very much appreciate your assistance for the experimenting component, as students require access to a kitchen and some ingredients to develop their own mixture.

Thank you in advance for your interest and co-operation.

Translation: Your children are going to be making iced cupcakes in your kitchen.

For more, see the PEC’s awards page.

I’ve just realised what my next marketing step should be – I’ll quickly contact the winners and offer some Plain English services.

Deadlines and ‘flow’

I’m working on a short story (all about larder moths). I wasn’t going to waste the opportunity to get valuable feedback from two writer friends, Mandy and Sarah, who were coming round for dinner (all about prawn curry), so I stayed up late to finish the draft.

Here’s the crazy thing. I had had two months to write that draft, but I left it until the last evening. Then, when I finally ran out of time, trapped by an external deadline, I had nowhere else to run. I had to sit down.

I quickly got into the ‘flow’. That’s the state of mind when you become totally absorbed in something you’re doing. It’s about focus, concentration – and pleasure. People get it when they’re doing a jigsaw, gardening, running, painting…

Would that have happened without a tight deadline? Would I have accessed that same state of pleasurable creative productivity? It can’t be good to thrive on deadlines, not as a long-term strategy. The trick, then, is to re-create, internally, the conditions of an external deadline. To timetable ‘flow’. I’m working on it.

Anyway, I got the feedback: constructive criticism for the moths, unfettered praise for the prawns.

Green hair: when the passive voice is OK.

There is one field when it’s OK sometimes to use the passive voice: academic writing. Students are often taught to write entirely in the passive voice, but that can make their writing long-winded, dense and confused.

But if you understand when, how and why to use the passive voice, along with the active voice, your academic writing will benefit.

For a quick re-cap on the passive, and active, see this post.

So here are three occasions when you might want to use the passive voice in academic writing.

Often, if you’re writing up an paper, it’s appropriate not to draw attention to yourself (the ‘doer’). You want your reader to focus on what you wanted to do, how you did it, what you found out, and what you think it all means (often in the format of aim, method, results, discussion). Use the passive voice to put the most important thing at the front of the sentence.

So it might be more appropriate to write, ‘Tomatoes are classified as a fruit’ rather than ‘Scientists classify tomatoes as a fruit.’ That way, you shine your torch on the tomatoes, not on the scientists.

Second, it is often bleedin’ obvious or not relevant who the ‘doer’ is. It’s you. Or your team. Or the researchers etc. Here, banging on in the active voice (‘He did x, then he did y, then he did z…) can become repetitive and clumsy. It’s fine to use the active voice in this way every so often in your paper, to lighten up all those passive sentences, but not all the time.

Third, the passive voice can help diffuse something you need to say, by allowing you leave out the ‘doer’. You can highlight an issue with pointing the finger. It also helps when there isn’t a clear-cut ‘doer’ anyway.

‘Green-haired people are treated as second-class citizens…’ rather than ‘Society / red-heads/ car-drivers / etc see green-haired people as second-class citizens’. Your reader’s attention is on the green-haired people.

Three reasons, then, when you might decide it’s appropriate to use the passive voice. But use it wisely, and understand why you’re using it. Then your reader will thank you, not curse you.