Tag Archives: Strunk and White The Elements of Style

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

C plus Stein and purple prose

 

 

The following is an excerpt from my post:

 

“Sorokin(Сорокин)”

 

 

https://pitirimsorokin.com/2018/02/03/sorokin%d1%81%d0%be%d1%80%d0%be%d0%ba%d0%b8%d0%bd/

 

 

 

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In my freshman year at Brandeis University, I took English Composition. For our first assignment, we were told to write a paper in which we were instructed to “define style,” which I tried mightily to do. (I didn’t quite understand what underlay the assignment.) In the next class, the instructor singled out my paper for criticism. I thought it was pretty good, and one or two other students in the class (notably Ricardo Millett, an exchange student from Panama who went on to have a distinguished academic career) felt so too.

In the paper, I quoted a passage from The Crisis of Our Age by the Russian-American sociologist and social philosopher Pitirim A. Sorokin as an example of what I considered an excellent, distinctive style. I had recently discovered Sorokin’s works and greatly admired them:

The crisis is here in all its stark and unquestionable reality. We are in the midst of an enormous conflagration burning everything into ashes. In a few weeks millions of human lives are uprooted; in a few hours century-old cities are demolished; in a few days kingdoms are erased. Red human blood flows in broad streams from one end of the earth to the other. Ever expanding misery spreads its gloomy shadow over larger eras. The fortunes, happiness and comfort of untold millions have disappeared. Peace, security and safety have vanished. Prosperity and well-being have become in many countries but a memory; freedom a mere myth. Western culture is covered by a blackout. A great tornado sweeps over the whole of mankind. (P. A. Sorokin, The Crisis of Our Age, pp. 14-15. Note: the book was published at the beginning of World War II.)

The instructor, Robert Stein (a chain smoker known to students as “C plus Stein”), read the passage out loud in class and pounced on me for making such a claim. He drew a red line through my paper and wrote something like “No!” in the margin. Purple prose, he said. Exactly the opposite of excellence of style.

The freshman comp Bible in those days was Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. Sorokin would probably have had difficulty passing a course of theirs. I was taken aback by Stein’s criticisms and his take on Sorokin the writer.

 

 

 — Roger W. Smith

    January 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.