Monday, December 29, 2008

Passive Voice

Dear Answer Phone: What is wrong with the use of passive sentences?

Text-loving peoples such as The Answer Phone view a person's text as a window to the personality. We believe that just as a nation's literature tells us of the values of that nation's citizens, an individual's speech and writing tells us all we need to know about their very core. Give me a Christmas letter and I will give you a blueprint of the soul.

Perhaps that is a bit overboard, but The Answer Phone and his family take their writing very seriously. So seriously that we are in fact unable to write to each other anymore for fear that other family member's deep textual reading will reveal all of our flaws and secrets. Family gatherings are quiet affairs made up largely of vague miming motions that we have developed to transmit essential information. Should you be at a family event and notice that the toilet paper supply is waning, touch your left hip with your right thumb while making a fist. Splay your fingers out twice. Do not splay a third time or you will have insulted my mother's coffee.

Before my family found ourselves silenced by our text-ology quandry, I recall my father, The Answer Gram, explaining passive sentences to me.

"Passive sentence structure," he said, while smithing away on some words one evening, "is cowardice. Communication with intent requires an actor. Someone or thing that is doing something. When I say that 'The dog dug a hole,' I am telling you what happened and who did it. If I said, 'The hole was dug,' I am hiding the actor from you. I leave you bereft of understanding. I am being a verbal wussy." He struck a francophone adjective too hard for its delicate curls to take. A serif flew off. I ran to collect it.

"But dad, what if I say 'The hole was dug by the dog?' That is a passive construction but the actor is available. What is wrong with that?"

I will always remember the way my father's eyes burned as he turned from the fire to stare me down. Over his shoulder, an indefinite article dripped in the heat of the forge.

"Obfuscation! Obfuscation and misdirection! By deprecating the actor -- in this example the dog -- to the terminal position in the sentence you have hidden the important and meaningful act -- the digging. Burying, if you will pardon the pun, any value that the sentence may have had."

He grasped me by the wrist and made our hands perform together a ghastly mockery of a shoveling motion. I was quite terrified. "Here we are digging a hole, merrily merrily digging away. Here is an act worthy of a sentence. There is action. There is significance. I can imagine we could even turn it into a movie trailer. There may be a Pulitzer at the bottom of this hole, since digging it is so significant."

He released my hand and stepped back. I was terrified and embarrassed.

"Now," he said, "act out for me 'the hole is being dug,' would you? There is the hole, and it is being dug. Go ahead."

I was at a loss. I suddenly broke down in tears, standing there passively. His face softened, but he did not come to comfort me.

"Oh father, I think that I understand. Passive sentence structure is a horrible thing. I can see now how using it destroys the moral fabric that makes our country great. But surely the passive is not all bad. Sometimes you need to turn the other cheek. I mean: sometimes the other cheek needs to be turned."

He turned back to the smithy, poking at the ruined article lost forever to his wrath. "You are right, Phone. In rare instances and in certain situations passive sentence construction is acceptable. When creating instruction, the actor is often a vague figure and the focal point of the sentence is the object acted upon. Then passivity can function acceptably. However, examine even that situation closely and consider an active structure. Your reader will be more responsive and will not suspect you are a total wuss."

I will always remember his words, and when I find myself in the midst of a passive sentence, I think to myself, "The Answer Gram did not raise any cowards." I put the subject back into the sentence and walk on proudly.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Holiday Haters

Dear Answer Phone:
Christmas is a time of warmth and sharing. When family and friends gather together and speak freely of their love. Why do some people hate it so much?

People who hate Christmas are either smart, faithless, or a combination of the two. Christmas, and all wintry holidays, share a primeval focus
on togetherness. As the weather gets inclimate, the human soul turns to hearth and home. We must bundle up together and share resources to survive.

We need to put the chains on, go save the girlfriend's sister, the girlfriend's sister's boyfriend, and their two dogs from their snowbound one bedroom apartment, stock up the fridge, and hope the cognac supply holds out until the next thaw.

We need to pop down the front stairs with our shovels in hand to dig out neighbors that we have lived next to for years but never even so much as nodded hello to.

We need to alternate our anxiety attacks so someone is capable of providing comfort and reassurance at any time.

At the end of it, when you are splayed out across cushions with a nice buzz and are trying to goad anyone into playing your new electric shock-inducing game, it feels pretty good.

However, 15 days before, when you really should be trying to think of the perfect gift and fetching it in the crowded mall, when you are scanning two week forecasts hoping that a tropical storm melts all the snow between here and your hometown, when you realize that you have double booked yourself for holiday parties and have had to give all your good wine away as presents, it all seems so impossible. The faithless do not believe that everything is going to happen in the correct order and you will find yourself spending Christmas eve huddled in the cab of a tow truck with your iced fingers jammed into the heater vent.

The smart Christmas-hater looks down at the requirements in time, money, and ability to tolerate difficult relatives. They compute that the costs severely outweigh the benefit. Sans the electric light-bound foliage and treacherous travel, we can have ourselves some fine togetherness. And perhaps June would be a better month for the entire population of the United States to drive to the airport to switch coasts for a few days.

Christmas hating is not endemic to all smart or faithless folk, but it does indicate the presence of one of the two conditions.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Falling Scales

Dear Answer Phone:
What is the image that people intend to invoke when they say that the scales fall from their eyes?

To suggest a realization or the ability to see through an illusion, literate folks are wont to say that "the scales fell from my eyes and I saw clearly." You can tell that they are literate folk because they use the adverbial but unnecessary "clearly" over the more pleasant and familiar "clear." You can tell that they are obfuscatory by their nature and not to be trusted.

As a result, try to avoid getting sucked into their etymology and sentence parsing duels, such as identifying the source or actual visual representation intended by the Saw of the Falling Scales.

It does not benefit you. Do your best not to grow agitated with the possible meanings of scales. Do not think on a hefty Scales-of-Justice type vintage weight measuring device somehow balanced on the bridge of ones nose, all vision occluding until it clatters onto your toes spilling whatever ancient commodity it was in the process of portioning. Do not think of that awkward and silly metaphor.

Do not imagine the unpalatably gross image of fish skin coating your ocular cavity, hopefully freshly cut from the fish so they are not too smelly, but thus certainly uncomfortably slimy. It would be to your disadvantage with this word bourgeoisie with which you tarry to try to figure out why one would assent to have the scales placed there in the first place, although some argument about an omega-3 face mask does seem plausible.

And the worst possibility is to get geometrical with this syllabic sybarite. To even consider how the ratio of a map distance to a real distance might ever prevent one from seeing some later realized truth is going to lead you into some creepy math fantasy land.

So, dear inquisitor, I tell you now that should someone tell you that they scales have fallen from their eyes, they are begging you to punch them in the spleen until they come to their senses and talk normal.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Why Call The Answer Phone?

Dear Answer Phone: The Internet answers all questions, so what would someone need to contact a service such as yours for?

I can answer this hurtful and ignorant question in two ways. Which is, by the way, 1,000,000 less ways than the internet would. So make that three ways. I am concise while the Internet is verbose. That is the vestigial, obvious third way.

Firstly, the Internet answers queries, not questions. If you can compose a well formed query with no logical flaws, the Internet will reward you with a cascade of positive responses. You the poor querior are then left to adjudicate. Do you decide that this 1998 article in a Finnish paper is more accurate than a recently archived IRC chat?

You ask me questions and I answer them. I cook the answers thoroughly and provide tasty side dishes.

Secondly, I am a little scatterbrained and it is sometimes entertaining when I say, for instance, that there are two ways to answer a question but can no longer remember the second way that I intended to answer once I have written the first.

Can I offer you some tea?