I am reading "The Elements of Style"; the sentence below confuse me much:

A common fault is to use as the subject of a passive construction a noun which expresses the entire action, leaving to the verb no function beyond that of completing the sentence.

If I wrote this sentence, I would compose it as:

A common fault is to use a noun which expresses the entire action as the subject of a passive construction, leaving ...

I don't know what is the most common rule to compose such sentence; the original one confuses me much that I have to read it several times to understand the meaning. I think the rule the original sentence uses is pretty valid in English as it comes from a book talking about writing.

Can someone help to explain the rule? And where can I find details/examples for that rule?.

Thank you.

  • The rule (which did not exist 100 years ago, and was less a rule than a suggestion 50 years ago when The Elements of Style was written) is to never put anything between the verb and the direct object. Indirect objects, which the above is not, are the obvious exception. – Peter Shor Aug 19 '14 at 1:53

In this case the ordinary construction, use A as B, with as B following A, is inverted to avoid the ambiguity which is caused by the position of the relative clause.

In your rewrite

A common fault is to use a noun which expresses the entire action as the subject of a passive construction, leaving ...

as the subject &c will almost certainly be understood at first reading to be a complement of expresses instead of use, which reduces the sentence to nonsense. Consequently Strunk moves that as clause immediately after use so which verb governs it is not misunderstood.

  • Thanks for explanation. Is there any general rule for this kind of inverting? – zx_wing Aug 18 '14 at 23:14
  • @zx_wing Keep an eye out for ambiguities and forestall them by restructuring your sentence. – StoneyB Aug 18 '14 at 23:15

Use active constructions, with the most action-oriented word as the verb. People commonly make the mistake of using a noun that carries the action as a subject, followed by a passive construction.

"The removal of the rubble is underway." This is poor style. The action is conveyed by the subject, not the verb.

"They are removing the rubble now." This represents better style. The active word is the verb.

  • But they is completely unspecified in that sentence. They generally think that unspecified theys are bad style. – Peter Shor Aug 19 '14 at 1:56
  • 1
    There is nothing poor about your example passive sentence. If your style guide says it is then throw it out. – curiousdannii Aug 19 '14 at 6:20
  • From the question title, I think the OP is asking about the structure of the quoted sentence, not its content. – augurar Aug 19 '14 at 6:41

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.