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Lydia Perry!

! Language Theory Paper! !


March 3, 2014 ! ! ! ! ! ! My Syntactic Journey Through Voices!

The art of speaking and language is a unique form of communication that allows

human beings to exert power, authority, needs, and goals. By speaking a combination of sounds, we can articulate words to describe our basic needs and wants. Language, while it is easily learned in our progression through life, is an enormously complex system that bafes the experts who study it. The English language, formed by combinations of German, French, and Latin, is unique in its rules based on the heavy reliance of syntax and structure. While many other languages rely on afxes and morphology, English relies on the positioning of adjectives and verbs in relation to the noun they modify and describe. Because of this reliance on positioning, there can be numerous ways to create a sentence. One choice to think about is the difference between passive and active voice. Using an active voice means the sentence emphasizes an action done by a noun, while passive voice emphasizes the object affected by the noun. I have been an English speaker all of my life. The longer I live and speak the language, the more I realize how the complex combinations and structures within English have affected me, my choices, relationships, and goals throughout life. The syntax reliance in English intimately inuences the choices I make in life. Every culture and language has their own form of indirectness, but I want to focus specically on my syntactic journey through language and how I learned to write in a more direct active way. ! ! ! Page "1

Lydia Perry!

! Language Theory Paper! ! March 3, 2014 !


! Ive always been a quiet, and at times stubborn person. I dont like conict and try to do what I can to make people happy. In 12-step terms you could call that codependency. Passive voice is great for a codependent person. You dont actually have to confront someone head on if you want to; you can tell the truth in a nice way. For example, instead of saying, I feel hurt by your criticism, I can smooth it over indirectly by saying, The corrections you give me at times makes me feel uncomfortable. By manipulating the stern, direct action-based language into an objectoriented syntax, I can say the same thing without shooting to the gut. There are times, though, when active voice is needed to be used to vocally shoot people in the gut, and the longer I live the more Ive discovered the freedom of the active voice. ! ! There has been much research and discussion from linguists and psychologists

on the use of the active and passive form. Active voice eliminates redundancy in grammar and allows greater simplicity. In Dr. Douglas Colemans dissertation, Discourse Functions of the Active-Passive Dichotomy in English, he describes Noam Chomskys research on the active and passive voice in his landmark work, Syntactic Structures. Chomsky believes that using an active voice limits redundancy in the grammatical structure and thereby creates simplicity (Coleman, 7). Before Chomsky, no in-depth observations of meaning were made between the active and passive voice (Coleman, 4). Leonard Bloomeld in 1933 classied these sentence structures as actor-action and goal-action. These sentence structures, he believed, were not as relevant to the study of language as lexical forms and only as situational features (Coleman, 6). ! Page "2

Lydia Perry!

! Language Theory Paper! ! March 3, 2014 !


Chomsky asserts that the passive voice suppresses the Agent theta-role and advances the Patient (Thompson and Scheepers, 74). ! ! How is this syntactic structure relevant to my life? I can easily see, literally and

metaphorically, how understanding sentence structures enable me to become a stronger writer, especially in my development in graduate school. As a graduate assistant I work as a technical writer. Active voice is essential in technical writing due to its clarity, simplicity, and organization. For example, In software documentation, it is much clearer to say, click OK in the message box than, the mouse can be used to click OK in the message box. Because technical writing describes the art of performing an action, it is essential to create sentences with as little abstraction as possible. In my graduate assistantship, I am teaching archivists about digital preservation concepts. One thing about this study is that digital technology is an abstraction of actual mechanical mediums. For example, a digital camera goes through a similar workow of taking a picture as a mechanical lm camera does, but there are no moving gears in a digital camera to perform the duty it is an abstraction of those mechanical gears. With concepts like these, I have to use an active, clear voice to take abstract concepts and create literal meanings to help users perform an action. If I dont break these abstract concepts down into literal actions, the reader will not understand what I am even talking about to even perform an action. ! ! The passive voice is not an inherently bad structure, though. When used

properly, it can also create clear sentences and meaning. For example, it may be ! Page "3

Lydia Perry!

! Language Theory Paper! ! March 3, 2014 !


appropriate to say, The color of the icon is important. Using passive voice can make you susceptible to ambiguity and bloated language, for example, It is believed that a ! red icon means you computer is about to explode. However, like all writing, I have to make good decisions on the words I use and their combinations. In Susan Rhodes dissertation, The Active and Passive Voice are Equally Comprehensible in Scientic Writing, she defends the use of the passive voice in scientic writing. !

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Although short, isolated, narrative active voice sentences (e.g., Jack threw the ball) were shown three decades ago to require less effort to process than their passive counterparts (The ball was thrown by Jack) it does not follownor has it been empirically-demonstratedthat passive sentences that are longer, contextuallyappropriate, and non-narrative are either processed more slowly or understood less well than active sentences (Rhode, 2).! ! ! ! Its interesting to look back at my own language and syntactic journey in my

personal life. Do I use active or passive voice? Overall I use a mixture of the two, though, as I mentioned earlier, Im am trying to pursue the active voice more. Part of my journey through rhetorical theory and the art of persuasion has enabled me to understand that language can be used as tools for discourse. There are situations when I need the passive voice. Maybe I am speaking to the boss of my boss and they need !

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Lydia Perry!

! Language Theory Paper! ! March 3, 2014 !


an opinion. Maybe I am speaking to someone who needs positive criticism but who needs sensitivity of language. In an active voice situation, directness is important when I need to adequately state my needs in a direct fashion. Voices and syntactic structures are tools that can be mastered through practice and discipline. ! ! Its difcult to think about choices in voices and writing, though, when were

taught with the rigid grammatical structure many of us were forced to stick with in high school. Our form of learning consisted much on pleasing the teacher with bloated language and structure that makes us sound smart. With strict rules like dont start a sentence with and. With these strict guidelines, it can be hard for people to be given a choice. William Zinsser discusses the concept of using I in pieces of writing. How can writers create personality in their writing if they are not allowed to use I? Also, using I can be a scary and daunting idea, especially in writing. Writing is already an intimate act (even in the most technical of pieces), how do we become vulnerable enough to use such a scary symbol? This is a fascinating concept. We have to learn stylistic choices to make our message heard in different ways. !

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Zinsser states, we have become a society fearful of revealing who we are. The institutions that seek our support by sending us their brochures sound remarkably alike, though surely all of themwere founded and are still sustained by men and women with different dreams and visions. Where are these people? Its hard to glimpse them among !

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Lydia Perry!

! Language Theory Paper! ! March 3, 2014 !


all the impersonal passive sentences that say initiatives were undertaken and priorities have been identied (Zinsser, 21). !

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I think Zinsser sums up the overuse of passive sentences beautifully. We cannot overuse passive indirectness in our description of needs and wants. In chapter 3, he explains the problem of clutter in sentences, especially in legalese and political rhetoric. Clutter can be a problem within the active voice along with the passive voice. Again, it is all about choices in word usage and structure. Clutter in writing pertains to the usage of bloated words to replace words that seem everyday and direct.Clutter and indirectness is language that can be used for power. It manipulates and twists the structure of language in order to create positive spins on directly negative actions. Even though it can be structured within the active voice, it can be spun and manipulated. !

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Zinsser states, Clutter is the ofcial language used by corporations to hide their mistakes. When the Digital Equipment Corporation eliminated 3,000 jobs its statement didnt mention layoffs; those were involuntary methodologies. When an Air Force missile crashed, it impacted with the ground prematurely (Zinsser, 14). ! ! Its been a long journey for me to discover how writing has inuenced my development as a person. This semester I have learned how innate our complex understanding is of

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Lydia Perry!

! Language Theory Paper! ! !

March 3, 2014 language acquisition, phonetic ability, and syntactic structure. Beyond these three foundational concepts I have learned how to manipulate them to reveal who I am as a !

person. Its difcult to adequately describe how this specic process happens, just like it is difcult to describe how we innately understand the art of speaking. It is truly amazing how we can automatically form our mouths to create intricate and complex sounds. It is also fascinating how we can form complex sentences in our brains in mere seconds. How do we understand this complex process? It has been an important process to look in a metacognitive way the way I speak and form sentences. Personal development through writing involves revealing the deep structures inside of my consciousness. In reality, the things I discover about myself are not that surprising at all; they are fully formed in reality in a way I havent seen before. As a spiritual and religious person, I can say that God has played a hand in that. I can also say that I have had to play my part in the revealing process. I will never have complete knowledge of who I am or who Im supposed to be, but I do know that language will be an essential process for growth and understanding of myself and the world around me. I also know I have to be knowledgeable of the rhetorical and syntactical tools around me in order to make wise decisions, reveal my point of view, and understand the point of view of others.!

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Lydia Perry!

! Language Theory Paper! ! March 3, 2014 !


! ! ! ! ! Works Cited! Coleman, Douglas. Discourse Functions of the Active-Passive Dichotomy in English. ! ! University of Florida. 1982. !

Rhodes, Susan. The Active and Passive Voice are Equally Comprehensible in Scientic ! Writing. University of Washington. 1997. !

Thompson, Dominic and Scheepers, Christoph. Harmonizing the Passive: A New ! ! ! Proposal for Passive Constructions in Generative Grammar. University of ! ! Glasgow. ! !

Zinsser, WIlliam. On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonction. ! ! HarperCollins Publishers. Seventh Edition. 2006.

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