While reviewing the submissions from last week's challenge, I noticed that many respondents moved the word only to a position before the verb rather than keeping it where it was in my original. Placement of the word only is frequently tweaked by copyeditors for greater accuracy in writing-especially technical writing. Consider this conversation between police and a participant in a brawl:
How many people hit Joe?
Only I hit him.
Did you kick him, too?
No. I only hit him.
Did you hit other people as well?
No. I hit only him.
Are you sure?
Yes, I am sure. I hit him only.
Notice how the word only was placed in four different places in the sentence "I hit him," with a different meaning each time. The word only is a type of modifier called a limiter. It limits the word right after it in the sentence. Or if it is at the end of the sentence, it modifies the word right before it, with extra emphasis.
In the spoken language we tend to keep it in front of the verb and make its true target clear through verbal emphasis. In the written language, however, we need to move the word only to its rightful place directly before the word or phrase it is modifying.
This week's challenge: Precise placement of only. Some of these sentences have the word only misplaced. Others are correct and clear. Can you spot the difference?
- I only expected one of the tomatoes to ripen each week.
- If you register early, you only pay $495 for the entire conference.
- Only three participants in the rally were arrested.
- The three participants were only arrested, not indicted.
- The participant had only contributed one sample document before the class.
- The ticket only guarantees entry into the theater, not the seat you will get.
Several respondents to last week's challenge entered into the spirit of deciding where to use passive voice based on what they wanted to emphasize in the sentence. I especially liked the treatment of damp earth and debris in this take by Jing Ping (JP) Fan:
Keep your new blower vac clean and use it only with dry leaves. When damp earth and debris are picked up (keep the passive since damp earth and debris are emphasized and they are the initiators of the chamber [being] clogged), the inside of the fan chamber may become clogged, which decreases the performance of the unit. Use a stick or other non-metalic scraper to clean out the unit when it is disconnected from the power source (keep the passive because the state of the unit being disconnected is emphasized). Do not store your blower vac adjacent to fertilizers or chemicals. Such storage can corrode the metal parts.
Michael Stein also explained why he kept some sentences passive. Notice that he used active for the first half of the sentence about damp earth by making the vac pick up the damp earth. But he keeps "may become clogged" passive(some might say become is a nonaction verb, but that is pretty close to passive):
Keep your new blower vac clean. Use it to pick up dry leaves only. If the vac picks up damp earth and debris, the inside of the fan chamber may become clogged (kept it passive because it is the vac doing the work and not the owner). This may cause the unit's performance to be decreased (kept it passive because it is the vac's performance in question and not the owner's). Disconnect the unit from the power source, and then clean this area out by using a stick or other non-metalic scraper. Do not store the blower vac adjacent to fertilizers or chemicals because the metal parts can become corroded by such storage (kept it passive because it is the vac corroding and not the owner).
Here is his overall logic:
I made the instructions for the owner active and kept passive the actions affecting the blower vac.
Kay Honaker also rewrote the passage with both active and passive voice, and gave this reasoning: "My passive sentences relate to the possibility that someone other than the owner may be doing the actions (such as disconnecting the power source)."
Despite my encouragement to choose passive for some sentences, a number of readers decided to make every sentence active. To do so, they had to make a thing do some of the actions, while a person (the owner or user of the vac) did most actions. Despite my defense of the passive, I think using active for everything really works in this paragraph submitted by Elisia Getts. Notice especially how "This" may decrease the vac's performance and "these" can corrode the metal parts.
It is important for you to keep your new blower vac clean. Use only with dry leaves. If you use the blower vac to pick up damp earth or debris, the inside of the fan chamber may become clogged. This may decrease the vac's performance. If this happens, clean out the fan chamber using a stick or other non-metalic scraper. Be sure to disconnect the blower vac from the power source before cleaning. Do not store the vac next to fertilizers or chemicals as these can corrode the metal parts of the vac.
I also appreciated Mary Jo Feeney's take on the paragraph, which was very similar and all active voice. Here is her final sentence, which also has the fertilizers or chemicals "which" may corrode....
Store the unit away from fertilizers or chemicals which may corrode the metal parts of the unit.
I count this entire challenge a success if I have you thinking about when to use active or passive, rather than writing without consciously choosing whether to use active or passive. Here is a big thanks to those not previously mentioned who also rose to last week's challenge: Jennifer Zapp, Sudha, Vera I. Sytch Brenda Sing, and Stacey Edwards.
If you love Jennie's articles, you'll love her classes. Join her online and learn about Writing Effective eLearning Voiceover Scripts and eLearning: Writing Step-by-Step Scripts and Training Documents.