Wednesday, May 12, 2010

In the Doghouse


I love words; I love grammar; ergo, I love diagramming sentences.

A diagram is a framework for a sentence, with a space for each word that shows its relationship to other words in the sentence. It's useful for understanding how sentences are structured, and also for studying how they can be re-structured better. That's why diagramming is such a great tool for writers. If the tool is new to you, check it out online. The description and explanation given in is clear and comprehensive, but there are many other sites on the topic as well. Do a search for "sentence diagramming" and a plethora of possibilities will magically appear before your eyes.

I like to think of the diagram as a house for a word family. I'm embarrassed to admit that I go kind of crazy with this analogy, and even more embarrassed to reveal how antiquated my view of parental roles is, but I'll do it anyway. I make the subject of the sentence the father in the family (he sits in the living room and watches TV); the predicate (verb) is the mother (she does all the work); the adjectives are the sons and the adverbs are the daughters. All other parts of speech in the sentence become cousins or grandparents or in-laws or servants, depending on what makes sense to me at the moment.


So what does all this have to do with passive voice? And what's up with the title of this blog post?

Well, there is one word in a sentence that doesn't have a place in the family home. When it's used to begin a statement, it's always placed on a separate line just above and to the left of the sentence framework in the diagram. I call that line the doghouse, and the word that belongs there is the word, "there." In fact, that little doggie is sitting right in the first sentence of this paragraph, wagging its tail happily. Can you find it? In this case, I think it's okay, but the decision to use a passive construction should always be a deliberate one.

The word there does not always belong in the doghouse. When it's used as a demonstrative pronoun--a word that indicates a specific geographical position--it's legit. "Put the chair there." is an example of an appropriate use of the there as a demonstrative pronoun. It's used this way in the last sentence of the paragraph above to indicate the place where "that word belongs."

But when the word there begins a sentence, or a clause in a sentence, it's usually not a pronoun, and if it's not, it always makes its subject passive. In a clause that begins with there, the subject will not just sit on the couch and watch TV. He will be in bed sound asleep. So, in our mission to search and destroy unnecessary use of the passive voice, looking for the word, there, is a good place to start. And it's a good way to begin our discussion of the use of the Find Tool as well.


The "Find" tool is located in the upper left-hand corner of the screen in the drop-down menu under the "Edit" command. Start your search activity by placing your cursor at the beginning of your document, then go to the "Edit" command, then down to "Find." A box will open, asking you what you want to find. Type the word, "there" in the box.

If you want to focus only on the word when it creates a passive construction, you might want to refine your search. Just make sure the word is capitalized, then hit the "More" button to open another drop-down box, and put a tick in the "Match case" box. If you don't refine your search, the exercise will take you to every instance in the text, including demonstrative pronouns. Refining your search in this way will not lead you to every passive construction using there, because some of them are found in clauses within the sentence, but it will take you to the most obvious ones--the ones that begin sentences.

Once you've defined your search parameters, you're set to go. Click "Find next" and your amazing computer will take you to every place you've used the word to begin a sentence. You can then study the example to determine if it's the best way to phrase the sentence, and change the text if you feel you need an active verb instead. As you continue hitting the "Find next" button, the tool will lead you through your document, pointing out each instance where you have put your subject to sleep in this way.


If this sounds like a lot of trouble, you're in trouble. Of course it's a lot of trouble. Revisions are a lot of trouble. But this particular revision process is worth it. Remember, when you do this exercise you're not just cleaning up a particular manuscript. You're also training your brain to be more aware of use of the passive voice. Your next manuscript will be much sharper from the beginning if you do a good job of cleaning out this particular doghouse.

Of course, the word there isn't the only culprit when it comes to use of the passive voice. All forms of the verb "to be" can be used to keep your subject on the couch in front of the TV. Did you notice the passive structure of that sentence? Would this rewording of the sentence be more effective? The verb "to be" can plunk any otherwise healthy subject down on that couch. Well, maybe not, but you get my drift. Eliminating passive voice forces you to choose stronger verbs, and that's usually a really good thing.

Looking for "to be" with the find tool is even more tedious, and will require a little more finesse in defining your search (see "More" for other search options), but if you have a tendency to overuse passive constructions, going through the exercise of finding this verb, at least a few times, will also be well worth the effort.

My next post will talk about another interesting way this tool can help you streamline your revision process. If you've found this post helpful, please comment, and if you have discovered new and unusual ways to use the Find Tool, let me know. I'm constantly on the lookout for helpful ideas.

1 comment:

Alan O said...

Good post, Ginny. Loved your analogy about the "Word Family." This isn't particularly new or unique, but I like using the Find feature to check for several things in the Revision stage. Including repetitious words. For instance, I once read a novel where the word "curt," or forms of the word ("curtly")were used so often, it became like a game--"How soon until the author uses it again?" or "How many 'curts' in this chapter?" Very distracting for the reader. Once you become aware of words that you tend to overuse, Find can help you weed them out.