In a struggle to be happy and free

Drystone Wall

Category: writing Page 1 of 3

Passive politicians

The passive voice makes me crazy. I used it embarrassingly often when I started my writing job, but once it was pointed out to me, I avoided it as much as I could. (And yes, I realize I just used it in that sentence!) Once you learn to recognize it, you realize how unnecessary, and even counterproductive, the passive voice often is.

I do admit that it comes in handy to avoid details that aren’t important, but I quickly began to see it as evasive. Let me give you an example.

Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino screwed up today. He had arranged to meet some veterans, and he showed up 70 minutes late. For more than an hour, they wondered if he was even going to show up. Of course the veterans were upset. Their concerns centered around the poor treatment they feel they’re getting from the federal government. According to the CBC news item titled, Veteran on Julian Fantino: ‘What the frig is wrong with that guy?’, this is part of the written apology he released later in the day:

Due to cabinet meeting that ran long, I was very late in meeting a group of veterans that had come to Ottawa to discuss their concerns. I sincerely apologize for how this was handled.

See what he did there? The last sentence is the typical passive voice politicians use to try to look less responsible. The situation was entirely his doing. He handled it poorly, and it was his cock-up. He should have said, “I sincerely apologize for how I handled this.”

My using a politician as an example is no accident. Their unending use of the passive voice to try to minimize their screw-ups is precisely why I started to see the use of passive language as evasive.

Photos have impact

In January, the local news reported a water-line break. It happens, but this one had more impact than most. A significant number of homes and a high-school were left without water. A sinkhole formed under a Woodroffe Avenue, a major four-lane north-south arterial road. As a result, the road was entirely closed for nearly a week.

That all sounds pretty bad, doesn’t it? Sure, but it doesn’t indicate the extent of the event as completely or quickly as a photograph can.

Look at the pick-up truck being pulled out of the water-filled sinkhole on the left side of this CBC photo:


Somehow, “a water-line break caused a sink-hole forcing the city to close the street” isn’t quite the same, is it?

Photo courtesy of the CBC.

Artificial intellegence

The AI knows! Or rather, URL AI seems to know. The site allows you to enter a URL, and after a bit of analysis, it tells you the gender, age, mood, and tonality of the writer.

I’m amused. When I entered the URL to this very site, it worked its magic and rendered a judgment: is probably written by a male somewhere between 26 – 35 years old. The writing style is academic and upset most of the time.

The only thing really wrong is the age. I haven’t fit within that range in some time, now. I also appreciate that the analysis explicitly states that the writing style is academic and upset. I wouldn’t call myself an academic. While I certainly do bitch a lot here, I don’t think the people I associate with would call me upset most of the time.

The scope may be an issue. The end of the report notes that the analysis used one page that had enough English words. I suspect it used the homepage, which is the most recent ten entries, so the result could change over time, as I write. I suspect an analysis that examines the entire site would take longer than most people would be willing to wait.

Academic and upset most of the time! I’d like to have a t‑shirt with that written across the front.


I just finished reading The Adventure of English, by Melvyn Bragg. He authored and hosted an eight-part television series by the same name. The book tells the same story, but in more detail. The dust-jacket summary starts this way:

English is the collective work of millions of people throughout the ages. It is a democratic, ever-changing, and ingenious in its assimilation of other cultures. Today, English runs through the heart of world finance, medicine and the Internet, and it is understood by nearly two billion people across the world. And it seems set to go on. Yet it was very nearly wiped out in its early years.

In this thoroughly researched and ground-breaking book, Melvyn Bragg shows us the remarkable story of the English language, from its beginnings around A.D. 500 as a minor guttural Germanic dialect to its current position as a truly established global language. Along the way its colourful story takes in a host of characters, locations, and events.

The book is fantastic for its depth. The television program is fantastic because we can hear how the words and languages sound. I highly recommend them both.

In an early chapter, Bragg lists the Old English alphabet as it was in the seventh century A.D. and it’s certainly not what we’re used to.

A æ b c d e f g h i k l m n o p r s t þ ð u uu y

It’s two letters short of our current 26, but there are some notable differences. The book includes many Old English quotations, and sometimes, the intended sounds of the unfamiliar letters are difficult to fathom. Because of this, a modern English translation follows every quote.

I quickly noticed that the letter þ was a replacement for our ‘th’ in almost every instance it appeared. The letter, called thorn, represented both sounds (voiced and unvoiced) that we now use ‘th’ to represent. I thought it odd that we should lose this letter. Having a glyph to represent a single sound seems logical. Further, the sound that our current ‘th’ represents isn’t really a combination of the sounds the two letters make in sequence. So why did we lose thorn?

Unfortunately, I’m not entirely sure. According to the Wikipedia entry on thorn, two things were happening during the 14th century. One was that the shape of thorn itself was changing. It had lost its ascender and started to look like wynn, ƿ, another lost letter which is the precursor to our ‘w.’ At the same time, the use of ‘th’ in place of thorn was growing, though the reason is not explained.

Those intent on using thorn had further difficulty when movable type became popular because the character sets, largely manufactured in Germany at the time, did not include thorn. The continued evolution of thorn’s glyph had it looking more and more like ‘y’ so many printers substituted that letter in thorn’s place.

At the time, ye was a Middle English word in common use. Although it’s now archaic, it was the second-person, plural, personal pronoun. It is the plural of thou. We now use you and not ye, but it was a real word pronounced just as you’d expect. The problem was, a printer who preferred thorn over ‘th’ would set the as ye. This is the origin of ridiculous signs like, “Ye Olde Booke Shoppe.” The ye in this sense was never pronounced as it’s spelt. It was always voiced the same as our the.

Only modern Icelandic has retained thorn to this day. Even there, it is only used for the voiceless ‘th,’ as in thin. Eth, ð, another former English letter, represents the voiced ‘th’ (as in the). If it weren’t for the Icelandic usage, thorn would probably not appear among the characters available for use on today’s computers. I’m pleased it is available however, because it’s a part of our history, and because it is much easier to write about!

Here it comes…

According to a Canadian Press article posted by the CBC, the government will introduce a bill this afternoon to update the Copyright Act. We’ve known this day would come, and it’s finally here. What I’ve read so far is not encouraging.

Much of what I’ve read has also been poorly written. The general media simply doesn’t understand the issues they’re reporting. The article, “Copyright Act changes to be revealed” says:

For example, overriding the copyright code on a song to burn it to a CD would violate the act.

Copyright code? Overriding this code? They’re talking about DRM or more simply, copy protection. What they’ve written is gibberish, however. No one knows everything, but news organizations should make sure their writers don’t embarrass themselves.

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