Clearing the Dead Would

In his essay, Politics and the English Language , George Orwell shared a list of five Writing Tips. Rule #4 is  
Never use the passive where you can use the active.
This may be the single most valuable tip for improving your writing that you’ll every hear. A search for “passive tense” turns up more than a million links to advice urging you to reword your work and frame it in active tense.>
I’m not going to dwell on that advice. I’m going to share the second most important tip:
Get rid of the dead would
An example of dead would follows:
In the summer my friend Annie and I would often pack a picnic lunch. Then we’d head for the beach where we would set up our umbrellas. We would rub Coppertone suntan lotion on each others backs and settled onto our towels. Sooner or later the guys would show up and ....
Compare that passage with this revised version that does nothing more than eliminate would:
In the summer my friend Annie and I often packed a picnic lunch. Then we headed for the beach where we set up our umbrellas. We rubbed Coppertone suntan lotion on each others backs and settled onto our towels. Sooner or later the guys showed up and ...
Doesn’t that just brighten the passage right away?
 
The word would does have a legitimate place in the language. For example, it’s appropriate to say, “I would do it if he gave me $50,” or “I would do it for $50.” In both these cases, would is properly used in its conditional sense, not as a verb modifier.

Most of the time would serves only to muddy the voice of your writing. Read through your stories and scrub it clean of any would not directly paired with a condition.

Write now: read through several old stories to see if they have a “woulden” frame and edit as needed.

10 comments :

Pat's Place said...

Wow! I am one jump ahead of you. I have been re-reading my stories and cutting out all the dead "woulds" I am finding--even though I have known better than to use them for a while now. Thanks for reaffirming!

Stephanie West Allen said...

Duke English prof talks about when the passive should be used here:

http://westallen.typepad.com/idealawg/2007/01/not_on_the_same.html

Ritergal said...

Pat, How nice to hear that you are one step ahead. We create a circle of affirmation here.

Ritergal said...

Stephanie, thanks for the link. It is valuable information for anyone, and as indicated by Dr. Gopen's statement, "I don’t think it is possible to write sophisticated, high-level intellectual; English without a skillful control of the passive," it seems especially valuable for those who require the surgical precision of legal briefs.

He makes a strong and lengthy case for the fact that the passive voice is as necessary as the occasional "would." He does not urge people to retain a habit of relying on the passive voice as their general style of expression.

Stephanie West Allen said...

Having been in at least seven days of his training over the years (probably more) and read his books, I know the issue is not the passive/active; it is whatever allows you to use the stress position correctly. He does not urge either way - just the proper use of that stress position. Most of the examples he uses in class are not from legal writing since he presents to so many different audiences.

Two of the days I attended were at Duke during which he taught faculty from all the departments. He mainly teaches in the English department but they instituted a writing across the curriculum, thus his training of the faculty.

Ritergal said...

Maybe what we need is a sort of short and simple "Dummy's Guide to the Stress Position." No joke. That sounds like a terrific and helpful concept.

Stephanie West Allen said...

Lots more here:

http://westallen.typepad.com/idealawg/2007/04/one_way_to_impr.html

myvocabulary said...

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Ritergal said...

My Vocabulary (Kim that is), it's such fun to find another blog with lyrical stories, and I'll be back to visit The Vocabulary of My Life.

Ritergal said...

My Vocabulary (Kim that is), it's such fun to find another blog with lyrical stories, and I'll be back to visit The Vocabulary of My Life.