1. Eldritch
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    Eldritch Member

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    Clunkiness

    Discussion in 'Word Mechanics' started by Eldritch, Jan 26, 2011.

    Something about this following paragraph is giving me trouble, but I can't seem to pinpoint how. It just seems really clunky and lifeless to me. Any suggestions on methods of improvement? (And since its an excerpt from my book, I understand that it doesn't make much sense out of contet).


    "As the sun sank below the horizon, they traveled eastward, following the trail that the raiders left behind. They had left the village along the east road, which dwindled to a small path and entered the forest a short distance from the town. Eldritch himself had returned to town on this path earlier that morning, and he must have missed the raiders by only minutes. If he hadn't been so distracted at the time, maybe he would have seen or heard them."


    Now that I've re-typed it, I'm noticing quite a lot of passive voice, but I'm unsure what to do to remove it, or if it's even possible since walking out of town is the only action that's happening.
     
  2. Elgaisma
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    Elgaisma Contributing Member Contributor

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    Its very wordy and includes a lot of repetitive redundant description for example eastward and east road. Also confused about the village turning into a town but it maybe the Brit in me this is how I would approach it.

    The sun sank behind the horizon as they travelled eastward, following the trail of the raiders who had left the village along this road earlier. The road dwindled to a small path, that entered a forest nearby. When he had traversed along this same path earlier in the morning, Eldritch had missed the raiders by minutes. Maybe if he hadn't been so distracted he may have come upon them.
     
  3. zaffy
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    zaffy Contributing Member

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    Eldritch himself had returned to town on this path earlier that morning, and he must have missed the raiders by only minutes. If he hadn't been so distracted at the time, maybe he would have seen or heard them."

    In the first sentence you say Eldritch missed the raiders by minutes.

    In the second sentence you say if Eldritch, if not distracted, may have seen or heard them.

    Eldritch either missed them or did not miss them.

    If Eldrithch did not miss them and was on the same path at the same time, what was he doing that so distracted him into deafness and blindness?
     
  4. art
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    art Contributing Member Contributor

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    As the sun sank in the west, they headed east, upon the trail of the raiders. Not far from the town, as they entered the forest, the road became the track along which Eldritch had distractedly passed that very morning: surely, he had then missed the fleeing posse by but minutes.

    Not splendid but more concise. Dreary explication of this sort is best - unless you are a poet - cut to the bone (it might be thought).
     
  5. Melzaar the Almighty
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    Melzaar the Almighty Contributing Member Contributor

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    "As the sun sank below the horizon, they traveled eastward, following the trail that the raiders left behind. They had left the village along the east road, which dwindled to a small path and entered the forest a short distance from the town. Eldritch himself had returned to town on this path earlier that morning, and he must have missed the raiders by only minutes. If he hadn't been so distracted at the time, maybe he would have seen or heard them."

    Just playing with it. :)

    "They travelled eastward, away from the sun as it sank below the horizon. Its dying beams lit up the trail that the raiders had left behind, as the road dwindled to a small path and entered the forest. Eldritch had returned that very morning by this path; perhaps he had missed the raiders only by minutes. If he hadn't been so distracted, perhaps he would have seen them, but now..."
     
  6. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    there's no passive voice there at all, so i'm not sure what you're thinking might be that...

    i just find the paragraph 'clunky' as you so well put it... for the reasons elgaisma gave and others, including confusion as to who 'they' are, in various places... 'less is more' is still the best axiom to follow... here's one way you can pare this down to a more interesting read:

    one major prob is that if eldritch was on the same small path the same time as the raiders, he would have run right into them... not just 'seen or heard' them... so your whole last sentence makes no sense, as zaffy points out... which is why i left it out...
     
  7. Eldritch
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    Eldritch Member

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    there's passive voice in the last sentence. The one that uses "be" as the verb.



    This is an example of what happens when it is taken out of context. He was hunting in the woods, and returned to the path to go home, missing them by minutes. The reason he would've seen or heard them has he not been distracted is that he is an elf and has heightened senses.
     
  8. Elgaisma
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    Elgaisma Contributing Member Contributor

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    I got the woods thing and suspected that was why it was there in the description.
     
  9. digitig
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    digitig Contributing Member Contributor

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    Debatable. In "If he hadn't been so distracted at the time, maybe he would have seen or heard them.", the principle verb is "seen", and it's "he", the subject, who does the seeing, so the sentence as a whole is active, not passive. The subordinate clause "If he hadn't been so distracted at the time" is ambiguous. It's passive if you read "distracted" as the past participle of the verb "to distract", but not if you read "distracted" as an adjective in which case the verb is "be" and it's "he", the subject, who "is". There's no way to tell whether that clause is active or passive (which is a more common situation than language teachers like to admit).

    "Be" as a verb isn't enough to mark a sentence as passive. Active sentences can have "be" as a verb too.
     
  10. Islander
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    Islander Contributing Member Contributor

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    Well, most of the paragraph is written in pluperfect ("they had left"), and I think that can sound a little more passive than perfect ("they left"), since pluperfect implies you're looking back at events which have already passed. I think that's why several posters spontaneously rewrote the paragraph using perfect.
     
  11. digitig
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    digitig Contributing Member Contributor

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    "The sun sank below the horizon" is a wordy cliché for "The sun set", so starting with that doesn't help. I am confused with the trail the raiders left behind, I suppose because "trail" suggests a path but I don't think you mean it in that sense.

    My version:
    "They tracked the raiders along the east road out of the village, the setting sun casting long shadows in front of them. After a short distance the road dwindled to a small path and entered the forest. This was the same path Eldritch had used to return to the village that morning, so he must have missed the raiders by mere minutes. If he hadn't been so distracted, maybe he would have seen or heard them."

    By the way, there's no inconsistency with this being the same path. Presumably the raiders left it in one direction minutes before Eldritch joined it from another.
     
  12. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    that's not passive voice... simply having some form of 'be' in it does not make it one... here's what passive voice looks like:

    vs the active voice:

    you can test for active/passive by looking at the positive form of that sentence:

    which is the same as:

    but with a variation in tense, not voice... both are written in the active voice...
     
  13. digitig
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    digitig Contributing Member Contributor

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    Yes, whether "distracted" is a verb or an adjective. In fact, because "distracted" is intransitive and not a verb of perception I don't think it could be made passive.
     
  14. Eldritch
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    Eldritch Member

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    I apologize. I was misinformed. I've seriously had teachers, more than one of them, who wouldn't allow us to use linking verbs in our writing because "they make a sentence passive."

    Thank you for pointing that out for me.
     
  15. Spacer
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    Spacer Active Member

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    Regarding passive voice,

    "He was distracted." vs "<something> distracted him."

    How is that different from the textbook example of "The jar was broken." vs "Jimmy broke the jar."

    You are flipping around the subject and direct object.
     
  16. Spacer
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    Spacer Active Member

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    How could you ever describe anything when writing in such a class? Seems to me you would have to show every action on how the result came to be that way, rather than simply (passively) saying that it was in such a state.

    Hmm, I can see how many verbs turn into adjectives, so the passive voice construct is closely related to predicate adjectives.

    "The car was broken." is OK because you treat 'broken' as an adjective. If I implied "The car was broken by Jim." and was avoiding drawing attention to Jim, then you see it is actually passive voice, with "Jim broke the car." as the active version.

    So, "The room was painted." Hey, no fair calling that passive voice, since 'painted' can be used as an adjective. Never mind that the situation is my surprise that it was different from last time (someone, unmentioned, changed it). After all, any painted room must have been painted by someone, at some point. It's not the same as saying "The leaf is green." since the leaf was always green and nobody is responsible for making it so. Not like the governor who wants to be know for greening his state.
     
  17. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    'Broken' is ambiguous in your first example. It might describe an action, or it might describe the state of the jar:

    Passive: "The jar was broken by Jimmy."
    Not passive: "The jar was dirty and broken."

    Similarly, 'distracted' could describe an action, or it could describe the state of a person:

    Passive: "He was distracted by Jimmy."
    Not passive: "He was tired, distracted, and hungry."

    ChickenFreak

    Edited to add my version of the sample text in the original post:

    "The trail led east. By sunset, they had followed it to the outskirts of the forest, and Eldritch realized that he had been within a few minutes' walk of the raiding party only that morning. If he hadn't been so distracted, he might have heard their approach and prevented the attack. With a sick feeling in his chest, he struggled to follow the tracks in the soft forest floor and now-fading light."
     
  18. Eldritch
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    Eldritch Member

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    We had to do things like this:

    Instead of "it was sunny outside" something like, "the sun's rays enveloped the countryside in it's warm glow."

    Or

    Instead of "the car was red," something like, "Jim cringed at the intensity of the car's crimson hue.
     
  19. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    Eeew!

    Ahem. Sorry. But your teacher was deeply, deeply confused.

    ChickenFreak
     
  20. digitig
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    digitig Contributing Member Contributor

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    On reflection, no, 'distracted' isn't intransitive, is it? But it could still be an adjective, so it's not necessarily passive.
     
  21. digitig
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    digitig Contributing Member Contributor

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    Wrong not only because "was" doesn't necessarily make a sentence passive but also because an absolute ban on the passive would make for terrible writing. Passive is sometimes by far the best way to express something. Not often, but often enough to make the ban a nonsense.

    For what it's worth, this blunder seems to come from Strunk and White's "Elements of Style", where "There were a great number of dead leaves lying on the ground" is given as an example of a passive sentence when actually it's no such thing. But at least they acknowledge that the passive is "frequently convenient and sometimes necessary" (which would be even more so if all relational clauses were passive, as they think) rather than banning them outright. It's one of the reasons I have strong reservations when people recommend Strunk and White to folks asking for writing advice -- their grammar is sometimes simply wrong but is taken as gospel because of the reverence in which the book is held.
     
  22. art
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    art Contributing Member Contributor

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    Digtig, what are your thoughts on the merits of Fowler (v. SandW)?
     
  23. VM80
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    VM80 Contributing Member Contributor

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    I would unlearn what this teacher taught you...
     
  24. Boring Editor
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    The car was red.

    That will always be an ungraceful sentence.
     
  25. digitig
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    digitig Contributing Member Contributor

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    I only know the 2nd edition of Fowler (edited by Gowers). Fowler and Gowers really knew what they were talking about, so I consider it pretty much definitive on technical points and use it a lot when I'm doing technical writing. But I do think it's a bit dated, so if you write as Fowler & Gowers advise you're likely to sound a bit over-formal, maybe even fuddy-duddy. So it makes a great baseline for British English, but then you probably need to loosen up a bit for creative writing. Oh, and the organisation of the book sometimes makes it a pain in the neck to find the bit you need. :rolleyes:
    I understand that the third edition is less prescriptive (a good thing in my opinion) but some purists are unhappy with it. I've not seen it so I can't comment on that.

    For grammar my standard reference is the Longman Student Grammar of Spoken and Written English, which is a bit academic but is about as definitive as you can get on the actual grammar of English (mainly British English) as it's really used (rather than how folks wish it were used) -- at least within a reasonably accessible book.

    I have reservations about any book that tells you what your style should be, unless for a particular context such as writing copy for a particular magazine. Style is very much an individual choice and dependent on context -- hard sci-fi might use a lot fewer adverbs than a bodice-ripping historical romance, for example. I do sometimes use Leech & Short's "Style in Fiction", which doesn't tell you what style to use but gives you an idea of what stylistic choices are available and what their effects are. It's excellent at explaining things like point of view, and if you thought that speech was always "direct speech" or "indirect speech" then they will introduce you to free direct speech, narrative report of speech acts and free indirect speech too. Again, it's a bit academic (that's what comes of asking an English Language major :)) but reasonably readable.
     

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