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I'm interested in reading a series of the art and craft of writing by Constance Hale, a San Francisco-based journalist in the New York Times. The 4th in the series on NYT April 30 issue deals with the use of passive voice under the title, “The pleasures and perils of the passive," which reads as follows;

The word passive gets a bad rap. Maybe a high school teacher forbade “passive constructions.” Or we recall authorities like Strunk and White, who famously told us to “use the active voice.”

There is certainly some merit to this rule of thumb; some of the worst writing around suffers from inert verbs and the unintended use of the passive voice. Yet the passive voice remains an important arrow in the rhetorical quiver. After all, it exists for a reason.

I don't understand the line – "the passive voice 'remains an important arrow in the rhetorical quiver'" in the above quotation. I assume it's a metaphorical expression. Though it may sound like sour grapes, I think clarity is the best art and craft of writing preceding to any other techniques.

Can you explain the line in plainer English for me? Is "an important arrow in something" a well-used expression?

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2 Answers 2

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A quiver is an open-topped carrying case for holding arrows (point-down) so that the archer can remove them easily without getting pierced by them accidentally. A "rhetorical quiver" would be a metaphorical holder for various rhetorical strategies, which Constance Hale compares to arrows.

Her meaning in the quoted sentence is that passive voice can be useful for some (unenumerated) literary or rhetorical purposes, though many experts on style take a dim view of it.

The arrows-in-a-quiver metaphor is a bit odd, when you think about it, since (presumably) an archer would normally fill his or her quiver with virtually identical arrows appropriate for a particular day's activity--hunting birds, hunting deer, target practice, warfare, or whatever. But Ms. Hale is by no means alone in using that turn of phrase, and perhaps archers in the old days filled their quivers with arrows of many different kinds, not knowing what they might want to shoot them at.

In any event, a more recognizably apt metaphor for modern readers might be a golf bag filled with different golf clubs, each of them designed for a distinct purpose, and no two of them alike. Passive voice would be one such golf club.

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Or another trick in the rhetorical bag. –  Kris May 2 '12 at 3:51
    
@Yargs. All fuss started with my ignorance of the word, quiver, which I knew it only by the meaning of (1) v.i. tremble, shake, and n. slight movement in one’s body, and I was totally unaware of the meaning (2) a case for carrying arrows based on OALED. Stock of vocabruary really counts in understanding foreign languages. Sour grapes again, if Constance were kind enough to have used a moderner version like “an important club in in the rhetorical bag,” than antique (to me) “an arrow in quiver,” I might not have to post an amaturistic question. –  Yoichi Oishi May 2 '12 at 5:55
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Yoichi Oishi--I liked your question because it raised a secondary issue that I had never considered--namely, why do people (like Ms. Hale) speak of "arrows in a quiver" as though each arrow had a different specialized application, when the most common image we have of "arrows in a quiver" involves someone (like Robin Hood) pulling them out rapidly and indiscriminately in order to fire them as quickly as possible? Thank you for asking about this idiomatic usage. –  Yargs May 2 '12 at 17:50

It’s just one device out of many. You might perhaps say an important tool in the toolbox, if you want to be more direct. Many other similar metaphors are possible.

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