Monday, August 13, 2012

English 102

I remember back in college when my professors would write up loud comments about how irritating my use of passive voice was. I never understood; it's how I used to write. In my short stories, or almost-stories, my characters were thrown about in unknown worlds with unforeseen circumstances and consequences: they never knew who or what or why things happened. It just did. 

I have since learned that passive voice has its place. While effective in certain scenarios, it does not hold up to a long-term style of writing or speaking. In fact, passive voice should be just that: a passive, neutral tone that does not assume nor take part. It's a method of delivery that's most useful in accidents (that BP oil spill years back) and scientific texts where direct human interaction with the topic is frowned upon. In both cases, the person writing the document means to refrain from being personally involved with the words on the paper. There is no direct correlation between the human element and the facts of the topic.

Now, seeing how passive voice is used to manipulate the tone of the matter for the purpose of eliminating the error-prone mistakes humans make every day, I realize that passive voice isn't a gimmick one should use so lightly. When used incorrectly the results can be rather infuriating.

Well, for me they are.

I have a co-worker... let's name him Ben. Ben is a college drop-out who refused to let the system get the best of him. While I admire the fact that he managed to squeak into a business such as the one we work in without having a Bachelor's degree let alone an Associate's, he is a tad uneducated in the finite details of writing/speaking in a professional atmosphere.
Don't get me wrong, I'm glad Ben found a job and I'm glad he managed to work everything out to his level of satisfaction. I'm just terribly annoyed at his use of passive voice. I'm not sure if it's be accident because, like me, he was unaware or if he's doing it be design. Either way, I cringe every time I hear it happen or read one of his e-mails.

Well, what could happen to make the office darken and tremble like Mordor's ashen sky with violent spurts of molten lava arcing out and over the land? Just you listen to when he tries to explain something.

"The document wasn't making any sense."

I'd like to verify that this could be a valid statement. Our job is to interpret the engineer's
applications, take their notes on how to properly work it, and turn those notes into a readable, fully-functioning document that average people can understand. It's called tech writing, and while the engineers at my workplace are very good at what they do tech-wise, they are not writers. If they were, I'd be out of a job. It's entirely possible that the document was filled with equations or diagrams from CAD, or that the foreign terminology perplexed him.

However, I'd like to paint the rest of the picture for you: Ben's got a nervous tick and his right hand will start tapping whenever he's particularly distressed. Ben also has a grainy, weak voice that tends to break when he's frustrated. He's a whipcord thin child of a man with nervous eyes and he rarely looks the person in the eyes when he speaks to them. Also, I looked at the document after the fact and I can verify that none of my possible explanations mentioned above were present. American-English was used and, while it was riddled with fragments, it was comprehensible. Now combine all this together and repeat after me:

"The document wasn't making any sense."
            Just what about the document didn't make sense?
"Well, the python command was wrong."
            Did you know the command was wrong?
"I kinda knew it, but I used it anyway."
            So you purposefully entered an incorrect command?
"Yeah. The document was wrong."

And here it is. "The document was wrong".
Not, "The engineer gave me the wrong command" or "I used the wrong command". Oh no, it's the document's fault. An inanimate object made Ben enter the wrong python code into the terminal window for the application and crashed the GUI. And because the document was wrong, it's automatically the document's fault for not making any sense. In the transit between the originating engineer and Ben's laptop, the document decided to not make sense.

Really? In an environment such as this, where the engineer is next door and can probably hear this conversation and the bossman is looking down his nose in astonishment, Ben had the gall to drum up this crap.

When a public announcement is made, passive voice can be used to protect the identity of a person or corporation. But when you're in a room with your boss and he's looking for a valid explanation as to why the laptop is suddenly unusable, he's not going to appreciate the subtle cleverness of passive voice. He wants to know who to talk to and who needs to get their act together and start pumping out finished products so the money can start rolling in to pay all the monkeys in this office.
Ben is definitely one of the poo-throwing monkeys. Also, you can't reprimand a document. 

I'm making a big deal out of this, aren't I? Except in reality, I'm not. This happens every single day and Ben comes up with lame excuses by utilizing the no-blame concept of passive voice. I understand that he made a mistake. Everybody makes mistakes. I made a big one just last week and ran about trying to cover my bum. Ben refuses to take any blame whatsoever. Why were the outside lights left on over the weekend? Because they were on after he left. Why weren't the blinds closed for the night? Because they were open when he arrived.
And to top it all off, when things get too heavy for him- and it doesn't take much- he throws his hands up and squeaks out "I don't understand! Please, tell me what to do!"

Is it that hard? Please, I'm dying for someone to tell me that's it's actually very hard to walk next door and say "Help".

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