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December 14, 2013

Language is simply a model of thought.  We use words to convey a picture with every sentence, every paragraph, every chapter.  We don’t often think in language, we think in fleeting pictures.  A good writer builds a progressive brain picture; a bad writer makes the reader wait to assemble the picture.

English seems to be a collection of bad, nonsensical rules patchworked together from other languages.  It seems so, but the taskmaster of syntax–the order of words–makes complete sense when one realizes the graphic job of language.

Dave hit the ball.  The reader “sees” David… and is poised for whatever action Dave is performing.  Hit  the reader sees Dave swing…the ball, the reader sees Dave hit the ball.  In micro-seconds, the reader animates David. 

A client asked me why passive voice is so bad.  Let me explain.  In active voice, the subject performs the action.  In passive voice the subject receives the action.  In graphics lexicon, in active voice, the “who” of the picture is immediately established — the picture has begun!

In passive voice–The ball was hit by David–the reader sees a ball… and the image is in trouble.  Balls don’t do anything.  The reader has to wait for a subject.  was hit still not enough.  The reader is now holding two images, and finally… by David.  NOW they can build the picture.  They have to go back and see Dave hit the ball. While we are only talking femto-seconds, the reader’s flow is interrupted.  A whole chapter of passive voice exhausts the reader.

What about other element of syntax?  The modifier always precedes the word being modified.  Kirk ran through the house quickly.  Because quickly was at the end of the sentence, the reader has to go back and adjust the image.  Kirk quickly ran through the house, progressively builds the image.

Run-on sentences force the reader to build, abandon and rebuild mental images.  The reader might get confused and have to start over or just give up and move on.

Excessive use of pronouns is confusing (who is “they”?).  The rules about clear antecedents preserve mental image integrity.

Good use of simile and metaphor help the reader “see” abstract or difficult-to-build images.

Every grammar and syntax rule supports the clear progressive build of mental images.  When readers say “that was an easy read,” or “everything flowed so nicely,” they mean there were no hiccups in constructing their mental pictures.  When readers say “I didn’t get it,” or “it just didn’t work for me,” you probable were forcing them to do mental gymnastics.

Are you creating clear, solid images for your readers?

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