Monday, February 04, 2008

Return to Usage

Jonathan's comment on my 80 x 3 post raises two interesting points. I'm going to say something about grammar this morning, but I wanted to begin by responding to what he says. First, Parkinson's law applies to academic writing as much as to official paperwork (and a postcard to Bognor Regis). "Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion." This means that (within reason) it is the number of writing sessions, not their length, that determines how much writing you get done.

Jonathan suggests 7 x 2 hours per week instead of my 5 x 3. I would still suggest at least one day of rest: a day during which success does not depend on satisfying your writing schedule. I suggest two in order to keep things realistic for those who have small children or are "graduate students" in the fun sense of that of word. (I leave it to the reader...)

There is another piece of advice in the difference between 2 and 3 hour writing sessions. If you are not getting enough done by writing three hours a day, try cutting it down to 2. Sometimes that extra hour just undermines your focus or wears you out. This is actually a still more general heuristic. If you have nothing to do but write all day, and you feel you are spinning your wheels, try replacing your 6 (or even 10) hour writing day with a one-hour writing session. Once you get used to this discipline you can lengthen the sessions.

* * *

Okay. I've now written three paragraphs in response to Jonathan and haven't even started on the intended topic of this post. I want to leave these questions of discipline and process for a while and turn my attention to English grammar and style.

Here's the blogging regimen for February. Each of my morning writing sessions will present an aspect of style, usually letting the Chicago Manual of Style decide matters of convention. Consider the following sentence in the first half of my post:

It is the number of writing sessions, not their length, that determines how much writing you get done.

Some might think it should have been "determine" (plural) because "writing sessions" is plural. But the subject of the sentence is actually the number of sessions not the sessions themselves. A number is singular.

Also, notice the commas around "their length". They serve a definite purpose where they are, but the sentence could also be written without commas. Just move the references to the length of the sessions closer to the reference to their number.

It is the number not the length of writing sessions that determines how much writing you get done.

The commas would not be wrong here, mind you, but they are less needed.

Finally, notice that the sentence is in the passive voice. [Update: it isn't in the passive voice, as Jonathan points out in the comments. I'll explain tomorrow.] Fixing that is easy:

The number of writing sessions, not their length, determines how much writing you get done.

The passive voice is not always wrong and I would actually defend its use in my original sentence. But knowing the difference is an important element of your style. As you can see, I also prefer the original position of "not their length". It puts the emphasis in the right place.

The active voice gives you still another option for the location of the reference to the length:

Not the length but the number of writing sessions determines how much writing you get done.

A comma after length would not be wholly out of place. Now, this morning I don't actually have the Chicago manual at my side, and I'm a bit in doubt about my freedom with the comma. I'll let you know tomorrow.


Jonathan said...

There was no "passive voice" in your original sentence! There was the verb "to be" " It is ... blank... that... blanks..." but that is not a passive voice. The passive voice would have produced a sentence like this: "Effectiveness is determined by the number of writing sessions, not the number of hours."

Thomas Basbøll said...

I'll have a look at it. But for now:

(1) "Effectiveness is determined by the number of writing sessions."

Clearly passive.

(2) "The number of writing sessions determines effectiveness."

That's clearly active. Now consider:

(3) "It is the number of writing sessions that determines effectiveness."

Since (3) says the same thing as (2) we need some way to capture the difference in style. I could've sworn the difference is normally cashed out in terms of active vs. passive voice.

Thomas Basbøll said...

Okay, I've looked it up. And I see what you mean.

I think these next few weeks of actually looking things up will do me good.

Another post on this tomorrow morning.

Jonathan said...

It's a common confusion--between the passive voice per se and circumlocutions that make writing less direct, less active. Also, since the passive voice uses the verb "to be," other constructions that use this verb are often called "passive." But, if you really think about it, the verb "to be" used copulatively can never be passive, since it isn't transitive in the first place.