Sentence Structure and Active Phrasing: Verbs against Skotison
English is a subject/object structured language. A normal English sentence goes like this: Subject -> Action -> Object. But, because English is a wonderfully flexible language, we are allowed to re-order our sentences. We can hide both subject and object within subtle layers of meaning. So how do you choose your sentence structure? And why have years of academic writing left me struggling with my fiction edit?
Clear writing promotes understanding. If the reader doesn’t understand there isn’t a lot of point in reading. But fiction is about more than clarity. Good fiction inspires emotion: it excites and it entertains. Good writing is beautiful.
Now nobody claims that clarity cannot be beautiful. But who amongst us has never been seduced by a maze of words, by the winding path through a labyrinth of meaning, peeled away layer by layer until we find ourselves at the heart of the authors intention? “Skotison”, as described by Lanham in his wonderful book on revising prose, is “deliberate obscurity for the purpose of beauty,”[i] and a well-established rhetorical device. Not to mention that oddly reformed sentences can be very funny.
But skotison is habit forming and, worse yet, obscuring something for the purpose of beauty is by no means always an equal swap of clarity for quality.
I am now five months into an edit of the novel I started to in January 2014, and it appears I have a fetish for hiding the action at the end of the sentence. Attempted skotison. I write like a drunken critical theory professor searching for the stick lost up his backside. This has made my editing a tiresome, repetitive trawl. I flip sentences, like overcooked pancakes, then chop out conjugations of the verb “to be”. It drives me nuts. It is driving me nuts. Nuts I am driven. I don’t even know anymore. So why the heck am I doing it?
Understanding the Subject/Object Structure
The subject/object structure of English looks like this: Subject -> Action -> Object. Someone or something does something to someone or something.
For example: Sarah kicks David.
But, because language is cool, there are many ways to rephrase this simple sentence:
David is kicked by Sarah.
David received a kick from Sarah.
David was on the receiving end of one of Sarah’s short sharp kicks.
These changes hinge on the reversal of subject and object, the transformation from an “active” (subject/object) to a “passive” (object/subject) sentence. The key mechanism is the conjugation of the verb “to be”, which allows us to transform the crucial verb into a noun. “Kicks” becomes “a kick.” In the third example sentence the original verb has been shunted all the way to the full stop.
The facility to make subject, object and verb transform, shimmy and dance around our sentences is one of the great joys of writing. But reorganising the subject and the object can lead to an even greater problem than addiction to passive phrasing: the disappearance of meaning.
Benefits of the Active Form
The active form’s primary benefits are immediacy and clarity.
An active sentence is immediate because the focus is on the verb. When Sarah kicks David, you think about the kick. When David is kicked by Sarah the focus is on the state of kicking, and the relationship between the two parties. The focus on state makes the sentence static.
Active sentences are clear because we naturally look for subject/object orientations – it is the default mode of the English language. Thus, when we read an inverted sentence we have to go through a little mental hiccup before we understand. The first time we read “David is kicked by Sarah” we see David mentioned first and assume he is the subject. We may even see the “kick” in “kicked” and envisage David kicking Sarah. We only reverse David and Sarah once we notice the passive form.
This does not require a lot of extra brain power if the sentence is short. But, in more complicated sentences, it can easily lead to you confusing who kicked who. Worse yet, the writer can confuse himself, losing meaning beneath layers of passives and polysyllabics.
To borrow again from Langham, “the policeman short the skunk” becomes “An officer involved shooting occurred, resulting in the demise of the skunk.” David was involved in a personal contact incident involving the foot of Sarah moving sharply towards himself. The crucial verb disappears.
If you want your reader to understand, then it is better to write Sarah kicks David. If you want your reader to keep going to the end of your sentence, then it is better to write subject verb object. And if your reader doesn’t understand, or doesn’t even bother reading, then you are wasting your time writing at all.
Limitations of the Active Form
So why not use an active form for everything?
First, structure guides attention. If you open the paragraph “David is kicked by Sarah” then your focus is on David. You suggest to the reader that we see the event from David’s point of view. Another, more complicated quality of passive structure is that is shifts focus to the state of being kicked. The verb “to be” distances the reader from the action and maintains their detachment. Which is sometimes useful.
Second, variation of sentence length and styles is a good thing. Take this example of an all active paragraph:
Sarah kicks David. David shouts. He runs down the street. Sarah chases him. She shouts. He runs faster.
It’s immediate. It’s active. Now, imagine a hundred pages written like that. You probably wouldn’t read past the first page.
Third, complexity has a cognitive value. Remember my article about cognitive poetics and making people cry? More complicated structures engage reader effort: they work harder to understand, and that invests them in text, which in turn makes it easier to provoke emotions.
Skotison: Deliberate Obscurity for the Purpose of Beauty
This brings us back to the fourth quality of non-standard structures: Skotison, deliberate obscurity for the purpose of beauty. The clearest option is not always the most beautiful, and it is often a fair exchange to sacrifice a little clarity in favour or more attractive prose. Furthermore, if you like writing (which I hope you do), skotison is a lot of fun.
But skotison has a dangerous side-effect. Obscure writing looks clever. It hides meaning behind the impression of meaning. It looks intelligent without needing to be intelligent.
This has been a catastrophe in academia. Looking clever is important if a central part of your job is to be clever. So, a rhetorical trick that makes you look smart is terribly seductive. But if your writing looks terribly clever and is terribly obscure, far too many people will simply nod wisely and cite you without posing too many questions. Yet afterwards, without knowing why, they will feel that odd sense of hollowness that comes from a meal void of nutrition. And you, buried in your waffle, will forget that clear writing is linked to clear thought, forget what you were trying to say before you wanted to sound like you had something to say, and write about nothing at all.
We should spend more time trying to be clever than trying to look clever. If your writing has no heart, no meaning, then all the skotison in the world can’t save you (unless you publish in certain social science journals). Clarity should be your first objective. If the reader doesn’t understand you then you have wasted their time and yours.
The bottom line is that unless you have a good reason not to use short, active phrasing, then use short, active phrasing. If you are going to use alternative structures, greater complexity or skotison, then be sure that it brings extra value. And make sure you haven’t lost the meaning in the mess. Default to placing your subject before your object, watch out for noun forms of verbs as a sign of odd structuring, avoid polysyllabic contrivances, and ask yourself – wouldn’t it be better if Sarah just kicked David?
I’m going to add one last note. This article was really, really hard to write. I almost didn’t post it at all. It is replete with skotison! Thinking about grammatical form totally fucks up your grammatical form, and an article criticising silly wordplay at the price of clarity was a difficult task for someone who loves silly wordplay. I wonder if I haven’t made my problem worse…
Which also means I have a great deal more editing to do. Sigh.
photo credit: DJANDYW.COM & DJANDYW.TV AKA ANDREW WILLARD <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/100494965@N07/25030125544″>15947552943_07b803ba3b_o</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/”>(license)</a>
[i] p56, Lanham RA, Revising Prose 5th Edition, Pearson (2007)