One of the most basic facts about the English language is that sentences are made of nouns and verbs. The strongest sentences have people as nouns and their actions as verbs. The first step in writing badly is to get rid of the people as subjects and transform active verbs into abstract nouns. Consider this nice, clear sentence:
You should complete the lesson on HTML tags before you start this section on tables.
The person in the subject role in the sentence is you. The action verbs are complete and start. We also have the helping verb should in front of complete. Let's eliminate the person and change the action verb complete into the abstract noun form completion. We get this:
Completion of the lesson on HTML tags....
Great! We are seven words into the sentence and we have neither a person nor an action verb. That is an excellent sign of bad writing. But what are we saying about the completion of the lesson on HTML tags? Let's take that helping verb should and change it into a static concept:
Now let's attack the second half. We'll eliminate the person youagain and make the verb start into a gerund, which is the noun form of a verb:
...before starting this section on tables.
For truly bad writing, I think the verb form starting is a little too clear. It is still a verb form, after all. Let's substitute a fancier word, and let's make it even more abstract:
...before commencement of this section on tables.
Putting it all together, we now have no people in the sentence, no action verbs, and some abstract nouns that merely allude to actions:
Completion of the lesson on HTML tags is necessary before commencement of this section on tables.
In just a few simple moves, we have taken a sentence that was written at the very clear and concise 6th grade level, with a high readability quotient, 73.1, and transformed it into a 12th-grade sentence with a terrible readability quotient of 37.2. Sweet.
Think you've got it? See if you can take these clear, straightforward sentences and give them this same treatment. Notice that we did not add any meanings or additional phrases. We just eliminated the people as subjects and made all actions into abstract concepts.
Using the techniques described in this article, transform these sentences into "bad writing."
- We understood the mathematical formula after the instructor explained it.
- The customer service representative greeted the client within a minute and drove the car into the service bay for her.
- Timmy ran down the dusty road calling for Lassie.
- You must insert the DVD into the disk drive face up.
- I now click the drop-down arrow to see a list of choices.
As always, feel free to post your answers below as comments.
Answers to last Week's Challenge
Answers to the then versus than challenge are brought to you by Debra Mascott.
- The pen is mightier (then/than) the sword.
- The hummingbird sipped the nectar, (then/than) flew off.
- A chill wind brushed the treetops, (then/than) the sun rose.
- The raven is much larger (then/than) the crow.
- Yogi is smarter (then/than) the average bear.