Category Archives: style; principles of writing

descriptive passages; active versus passive

 

 

“Use the active voice.”

 

— William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White, The Elements of Style, Third Edition

 

 

I came across the following clause in Chapter XI of The Sun Also Rises, which I am currently reading: “There were cattle grazing back in the trees.”

As opposed to “Cattle were grazing back in the trees.”

I thought about Strunk and White’s dictum to use the active voice where there is a choice between active and passive. Ernest Hemingway was known for direct, vigorous writing. Why did he choose to use a passive construction? With a writer like Hemingway, you know it was a deliberate, conscious choice.

What I would say in regard to questions (choices) like this, is that it is often a matter of ear. Sometimes the passive voice is desirable, preferable. Hemingway was conveying the idea that cattle grazing on the side of a mountain was something perceived passively, so to speak, by the narrator. The cattle were there.

 

 

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Let’s look at the entire passage (from The Sun Also Rises).

The bus climbed steadily up the road. The country was barren and rocks stuck up through the clay. There was no grass beside the road. Looking back we could see the country spread out below. Far back the fields were squares of green and brown on the hillsides. Making the horizon were the brown mountains. They were strangely shaped. As we climbed higher the horizon kept changing. As the bus ground slowly up the road we could see other mountains coming up in the south. Then the road came over the crest, flattened out, and went into a forest. It was a forest of cork oaks, and the sun came through the trees in patches, and there were cattle grazing in back in the trees. We went through the forest and the road came out and turned along a rise of land, and out ahead of us was a rolling green plain, with dark mountains beyond it. These were not like the brown, heat-baked mountains we had left behind. These were wooded and there were clouds coming down from them. The green plain stretched off. It was cut by the fences and the white of the road showed through the trunks of a double line of trees that crossed the plain toward the north. As we came to the edge of the rise we saw the red roofs and while houses of Burguete ahead strung out on the plain. and away off on the shoulder of the first dark mountain was the gray metal-sheathed roof of the monastery of Roncesvalles.

This is a beautiful passage and an excellent example of descriptive prose (in a novel). Sometimes less is more, as readers of Hemingway well know. I was reminded of the visual and other arts (e.g., music) of Hemingway’s time. And, for example, of the woodcut prints of Utagawa Hiroshige.

 
Compare the following paragraphs from Book Two, Chapter V of Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy:

It was thus that, strolling west along River Street on which were a number of other kinds of factories, and then north through a few other streets that held more factories–tinware, wickwire, a big vacuum carpet cleaning plant, a rug manufacturing company, and the like–that he came finally upon a miserable slum, the like of which, small as it was, he had not seen outside of Chicago or Kansas City. He was so irritated and depressed by the poverty and social angularity and crudeness of it–all spelling but one thing, social misery, to him–that he at once retraced his steps and recrossing the Mohawk by a bridge farther west soon found himself in an area which was very different indeed–a region once more of just such homes as he had been admiring before he left for the factory. And walking still farther south, he came upon that same wide and tree-lined avenue–which he had seen before–the exterior appearance of which alone identified it as the principal residence thoroughfare of Lycurgus. It was so very broad and well-paved and lined by such an arresting company of houses. At once he was very much alive to the personnel of this street, for it came to him immediately that it must be in this street very likely that his uncle Samuel lived. The houses were nearly all of French, Italian or English design, and excellent period copies at that, although he did not know it.

Impressed by their beauty and spaciousness, however, he walked along, now looking at one and another, and wondering which, if any, of these was occupied by his uncle, and deeply impressed by the significance of so much wealth. How superior and condescening his cousin Gilbert must feel, walking out of some such place as this in the morning.

Then pausing before one which, because of trees, walks, newly-groomed if bloomless flower beds, a large garage at the rear, a large fountain to the left of the house as he faced it, in the center of which was a boy holding a swan in his arms, and to the right of the house one lone cast iron stag pursued by some cast iron dogs, he felt especially impelled to admire, and charmed by the dignity of this place, which was a modified form of old English, he now inquired of a stranger who was passing–a middle-aged man of a rather shabby working type, “Whose house is that, mister?” and the man replied: “Why, that’s Samuel Griffiths’ residence. He’s the man who owns the big collar factory over the river.”

At once Clyde straightened up, as though dashed with cold water. His uncle’s! His residence! Then that was one of his automobiles standing before the garage at the rear there. And there was another visible through the open door of the garage.

 

Dreiser is not painting word-pictures, It’s all basically exposition. The ‘descriptive” details serve one purpose, and one purpose only.

River Street was in the poor part of town with factories and slums. Clyde’s uncle’s residence was in the rich section. He was “charmed by the dignity of this place [his uncle’s], which was a modified form of old English.” This tells us really nothing about what the place looked like. He made an inquiry of “a stranger who was passing–a middle-aged man of a rather shabby working type.” This could describe any number of working class men; it tells us nothingabout what the man looked like.

 

 

— posted by Roger W. Smith

   March 2020

with thanks to my brother Pete Smith for encouraging me to read some more Hemingway; and for pointing out stylistic differences between Hemingway and Dreiser

 

 

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Addendum:

 

To be fair, it should be noted that Strunk and White also say that the active versus passive rule “does not … mean that the writer should entirely discard the passive voice, which is frequently convenient and sometimes necessary.” But the examples they give of sentences where the passive is desirable are of academic-type writing, not of narration and pithy sentences such as one would see in fiction. They state:

The habitual use of the active voice … makes for forcible writing. This is true … in narrative concerned principally with action. …

They give as an example “Dead leaves covered the ground.” and state that “[W]hen a sentence is made stronger [through use of the active voice], it usually becomes shorter. Thus, brevity is a by-product of vigor.”

 
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Addendum:

 

In a recent post of mine

 

“a red cord thing”

https://rogers-rhetoric.com/2020/02/21/a-red-cord-thing/

 

I wrote:

English is a marvelously fertile and flexible language, rich in nuance. New ways of saying things in non-formal speech are always being come up with.

 

The concluding clause was remarked upon by a reader of the post, who found it to be awkward. In response to a comment, in an exchange we had, I wrote:

I could have written something like “People are constantly coming up with new ways of saying things,” but I wanted to avoid there being a subject-actor, so the passive construction works. “New ways of saying things” is the subject of the sentence and is at the beginning, emphasizing this (new says of saying things), and “being come up with” is at the end (passive construction).

 

 

 

hiroshige_travellers_on_a_mountain_path_along_the_coast

a Hiroshige print

the product of prolonged, intense labor

 

 

Even if Wordsworth had published The Prelude on its completion in 1805, it would not have appeared exactly as it is found in the A text; for no poet ever revised his work for press more meticu­lously than he. Writing in 1816 of some minor pieces which he had just composed he calls them ‘effusions rather than compositions, though in justice to myself I must say that upon the correction of the style I have bestowed, as I always do, great labour’. ‘The composition of verse’ , he wrote later, ‘is infinitely more an art than men are prepared to believe, and absolute success in it depends on innumerable minutiae . … Milton speaks of pouring “easy his unpremeditated verse”. It would be harsh, untrue, and odious to say there is anything like cant in this, but it is not true to the letter, and tends to mislead.’ He might have added that his own description of poetry as ‘the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings’ was liable to the same misconstruction. For experience had taught him that this ‘spontaneous overflow’ was no more than the raw material of art. It was easy enough to give those feelings a loose impressionistic language adequate to record them for himself. But such language was not poetry: it had not really expressed them, and could not transmit them to others. The poet, Wordsworth knew well, was a craftsman, who must toil with unremitting patience at every detail of his work, till it has gained a clearer outline, a fuller substance: not otherwise could it acquire that organic power which is the sure touchstone of art:

The vital spirit of a perfect form.

The labour that Wordsworth bestowed on revision was at least equal to that of first composition, and was pursued when less scrupulous artists would have been well content to leave their work untouched. To Coleridge in 1798 “The Ruined Cottage” [The Excursion, Book I] was ‘superior to anything in our language which in any way resembles it’, yet three years later Wordsworth is found wearing himself out in trying to make it better. The slightness of the difference be­tween many passages found in the rough notebooks, where they were jotted down in the hurry of immediate inspiration, and the form they have assumed in the A text, affords ample proof that Wordsworth was postponing correction rather than that he was satisfied with his work as it stood. It is reasonable, therefore, to suppose that had he prepared it for press in 1805 he would have introduced into the text many of those changes which made their first appearance at a much later date.

Cf. the following fragment of verse, found in an (unpunctuated) autograph manuscript belonging to 1798-1800, which shows how fully Wordsworth understood a principle underlying all great art:

 

nor had my voice
Been silent oftentimes, had I burst forth
In verse which, with a strong and random light Touching an object in its prominent parts, Created a memorial which to me
Was all sufficient, and, to my own mind Recalling the whole picture, seemed to speak An universal language. Scattering thus
In passion many a desultory sound,
I deemed that I had adequately cloathed
Meanings at which I hardly hinted, thought
And forms of which I scarcely had produced
A monument and arbitrary sign.

 

[Then is a lacuna in the MS. here; the argument clearly requires some such words as When I reviewed this random and desultory verse I saw its worthlessness, and came to realize that an artist reveals his true power only]

 

In that considerate and laborious work
That patience which, admitting no neglect,
By slow creation doth impart to speech
Outline and substance even, till it has given
A function kindred to organic power,
The vital spirit of a perfect form.

So, in a letter to Beaumont (July 24, 1804; Letters, i. 167), he praises Reynolds for his ‘deep conviction of the necessity of unwearied labour and diligence, and the reverence for the great men of his art’. Wordsworth’s own reverence for the great masters, and his strenuous efforts to gain perfection of form, are seldom “sufficiently realized.

 

— William Wordsworth, The Prelude Or Growth of a Poet’s Mind (Text of 1805), , edited by Ernest de Selincourt (Oxford University Press, 1933), pp. xviii-xix

 

 

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We see that true creative writing, attributed ordinarily to inspiration, is the product of prolonged, intense labor. I believe this is true of composers of classical music as well.

 

— Roger W. Smith

   December 2019

regarding Professor Strunk’s admonition, “Omit Needless Words.” (or, are long, complex sentences bad?)

 

 

 

Should long, complex sentences be considered, a priori, evidence of bad writing? Ask Samuel Johnson. Or practically any other great writer one can think of.

Sometimes the shortest sentences can be extremely powerful: “Jesus wept” (John 11:35).

But, note what Professor Brooks Landon has to say in his lecture ““Grammar and Rhetoric” (lecture 2, “Building Great Sentences: Exploring the Writer’s Craft”; The Great Courses/The Teaching Company).

 

 

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… unless the situation demands otherwise, sentences that convey more information are more effective than those that convey less. Sentences that anticipate and answer more questions that a reader might have are better than those that answer fewer questions. Sentences that bring ideas and images into clearer focus by adding more useful details and explanation are generally more effective than those that are less clearly focused and that offer fewer details. In practice, this means that I generally value longer sentences over shorter sentences as long as the length accomplishes some of those important goals I’ve just mentioned.

Many of us have been exposed over the years to the idea that effective writing is simple and direct, a term generally associated with Strunk and White’s legendary guidebook The Elements of Style, or we remember some of the slogans from that book, such as, “Omit needless words.” … [Stunk concluded] with this all important qualifier: “This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that he make every word tell.” … Strunk’s concern is specifically with words and phrases that do not add propositions to the sentence [e.g., “owing to the fact that” instead of “since”].”

… simple does not mean simplistic. Direct does not mean short. And, simple and direct does not mean that we should all write like Ernest Hemingway in a hurry. “Omit needless words” is great advice, but not when it gets reduced to the belief that shorter is always better, or that “needless” means any word without which the sentence can still make sense.

… I like Faulkner, as well as I like Hemingway. And, I’d like to believe that even Professor Will Strunk and certainly E. B. White would not have tried to edit Faulkner out of existence.

… Strunk and White do a great job of reminding us to avoid needless words, but they don’t begin to consider all of the ways in which more words might actually be needed. … in many cases, we need to add words to improve our writing … rather than trying to pare our writing down to some kind of telegraphic minimum.

 

— posted by Roger W. Smith

   July 2017

 

 

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Addendum:

 

from Wikipedia

 

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jesus_wept

 

Jesus wept (Greek: ἐδάκρυσεν ὁ Ἰησοῦς, edákrysen o Iesoús lit. “Jesus shed tears”) is a phrase famous for being the shortest verse in the King James Version of the Bible, as well as many other versions. It is not the shortest in the original languages. It is found in the Gospel of John, chapter 11, verse 35.

This verse occurs in John’s narrative of the death of Lazarus of Bethany, a follower of Jesus. Lazarus’ sisters – Mary and Martha – sent word to Jesus of their brother’s illness and impending death, but Jesus arrived four days after Lazarus died. Jesus, after talking to the grieving sisters and seeing Lazarus’ friends weeping, was deeply troubled and moved.