Three Tips for Honest Sentences
English grammar needs to be kept honest. By that I mean that we need to make sure we say what we mean, what is true and accurate, and not what the grammar can cause us to say if we aren’t paying close attention.
I can think of three ways that grammar can trip us up in this way. (I am sure you can think of more, and I certainly welcome your additions to this list!):
- You can have the wrong subject, and the wrong kind of verb for the sentence. The subject of the sentence is the doer in the sentence. It is very easy, however, to focus the attention of the sentence on the wrong person doing the wrong thing. For example, “Joe fell off the cliff” is fine if Joe is alone, and fell off the cliff himself. It uses the intransitive verb fell. (I have said in previous posts how confusing grammatical terms are, and this is one of them. When you see “intransitive,” think “subjective,” because it’s all about the subject of the sentence—just as the subject does the action, with an intransitive verb the action occurs to the subject as well. Joe fell; he did not “fell” something or someone else, because he can’t do that verb to something or someone else.)
The problem comes in when the action is not truly subjective (or intransitive, if you really want to use the traditional, ambiguous term). If Joe didn’t really fall off the cliff by himself, but was pushed by Fred, then make Joe the object of the sentence, and use a transitive (or what I call objective) verb: “Fred pushed Joe off the cliff.” As a transitive verb, “pushed” is an action done to an object. And so we have an honest sentence, and we can see the real truth here: Joe is not the actor in this drama, but the victim.
The Economist magazine addressed this in a recent article, with a real-life example of how the wrong subject and the wrong kind of verb can lead to fudging the truth.
- You can use the wrong voice, which is just another way of using the wrong subject. A second way grammar can fight against honesty is the use of passive voice. We could have used a transitive (objective) verb here, and still hidden the real culprit by again making Joe the subject, but in this case a subject who does not act, but is acted upon. “Joe was pushed off the cliff.” And it begs the question, by whom? We often talk about avoiding passive voice because it can be wordy, and blunts the action in the sentence, but do we realize how often it is used to escape responsibility for an action? This is why political material and government bureaucratic regulations often have passive voice: an unpopular tax “was passed” (by who? the ruling political party); an onerous regulation “has been imposed” (upon who? the unsuspecting citizenry). The politicians and bureaucrats avoid a lot of tar and feathers that way.
- You can use the wrong verb. Finally, a third way we can monkey with the truth (intentionally or unintentionally) is to use a verb that is too strong or not strong enough, giving a false picture of what actually happened. If “Fred pushed Joe off the cliff” is an accurate depiction of what occurred (with little indication of Fred’s motives or intent), do we get a different, and probably inaccurate, impression if it reads, “Fred hurled Joe off the cliff” (which may imply violent intent) or “Fred nudged Joe off the cliff” (which may imply an unintentional accident)?
You may think, “I’d never do that,” but it’s a common mistake of even seasoned professional writers. For example, when Congress does, or fails to do, something that the President then criticizes, don’t we often see headlines like, “President slams Congress for action [or inaction] on . . .”? Enough of those headlines and we begin to think the President is furious, when he may simply have a difference of opinion. But it’s our own fault, because we are far less likely to read the article if the headline is, “President criticizes Congress for action [or inaction] on . . .” The point here—and this is especially true in politics—is that we can assume we know the intent of a subject (and reflect that assumption in our verbs) when we really have no idea.
There you have it—three ways you can veer off the path of truth with the wording of your sentences, and how to avoid it. As Christian writers, we should lead the way in upholding the truth. If you have other ideas on potential truth-killers to avoid, please share!