Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Weasel Words

 When you catch yourself sliding into the passive voice for consecutive sentences or seem to sink into a pattern where there is passivity running through your recent paragraphs, you cringe.  This is the equivalent of being hungover or carsick.  Pen in hand, you make marks in the margin.

This slide into passivity blares out a warning:  You’re not enthusiastic enough, or perhaps you’re pussyfooting around, fearful of upsetting some furniture or some sense of neatness contrary to your vision of being acceptable.

You remind yourself of times when you’ve had to tell clients or students they were being too polite, too nice.  You remind yourself of images of yourself stored away:  pick up after yourself, tidy up your room.  Sometimes when you are out, parked in a larger parking lot, you see interiors of cars that remind you of the interior of your car or, conversely, interiors of cars that are fussy in their interior neatness.  Walking on, you rejoice to find cars that make yours by comparison appear neat and tidy.

Neat and tidy are good—no argument there, but when you are composing or revising your composing, you need to forget about neat and tidy, working instead toward that almost-impossible-to-describe state of effective.  In this state, unnecessary words are vacuumed up, trash disposed of, order restored.  Effective is “in,” a sense of having firm roots within the dramatic landscape.  “In” is beyond defensiveness or intervention from the author or footnotes or stage directions.  “In” is the place where the narrative wraps itself around the characters, sweeps them along to make their way through the reefs and shoals or drama. 

“In” extends to nonfiction by buoying the topic along the flow of narrative, extending the same sense as the voices of reliable sources, voices such as Gregory Peck or Walter Cronkheit or Chet Huntley for male narrations, Meryl Streep, Glenn Close, or Elizabeth Warren for women.

Narrative without authority sounds like pleading or begging or complaining, and when tie narrative voice becomes too comfortable in its plea or begging or complaint, when it takes on the smirk of the arrogance that comes from a belief in absolute certainty, it moves over into the political or the cruder spectrum of philosophy.

You need to listen to yourself for traces of indecisiveness in the narrative because such indecisiveness has an effect on the verbs and attributes moving from that place in your mind where the story originates.  There are often heated arguments going on within you as you compose, but from time to time, as you review your work, you can see there are also times when some switches appear to have been turned off, leaving you with a flow in which somewhat and possibly or perhaps seem to think this is a picnic day, equivocation on the house.

Weasel words are the bane of effective prose, sending it off on flights of politeness when politeness does not get the job done.  Effective prose should be sent to the principal’s office, if only to make the principal squirm.  Effective prose stays with the reader and writer, making the experience of communication a transaction run on authority and strength of conviction.

Most adverbs are weasel words, in particular when they are used as attributions for dialogue.  Very is a weasel word; so are Possibly, somewhat, suddenly, and, if used as opening words for sentences “a” and “it.”

Sometimes the act of waking yourself up, either through coffee, revision, a stand-up and a few stretches, or some inspiring music will spill over into your prose to the point where you will not go drowsy when you read it.  Then you may be on to something.

1 comment:

Querulous Squirrel said...

I don't think I have ever written or spoken for that matter in the passive voice. It would make me feel like I wasn't there. Nor am I polite nor tidy. I can be indecisive and obsessional, but mostly I'm too decisive, even impulsive, just to get it over with, even when I am completely wrong. My motto: A wrong decision is better than no decision.