Writing for Developers: Characters and Action

In the previous post in this series, we discussed nominalizations (verbs that have been transformed into abstract nouns), and how converting abstract nouns into concrete verbs can improve your prose. In this post, we’ll get a little deeper into why that is.

English sentence structure follows the form subject-verb-object (abbreviated SVO). In the sentence,

Amanda optimized the code.

“Amanda” is the subject, “optimized” is the verb, and “the code” is the object. Here we know that Amanda is the one doing the optimization, thanks to the sentence’s SVO structure and its context (it doesn’t make much sense for the code to be optimizing Amanda). If we pick a more ambiguous sentence,

Joanie murdered Chachi.

then the only thing we have to go on is SVO.

This brings us to characters and action. Even in highly abstract, technical prose, we tend to understand sentences in terms of characters (agents) who are performing actions. When a sentence hides the characters, or misdirects our attention onto the wrong characters, or obscures the main actions of the characters, the sentence becomes harder to read.

The good news is that all languages, including English, provide a basic structure that you can leverage to communicate these concepts. A sentence is clearer when the subject corresponds to the characters, and when the verb corresponds to the major actions of those characters.

Let’s start messing with our example sentence. To start with, Amanda doesn’t have to be the subject. We could write it this way,

The code was optimized by Amanda.

Now the code is the subject and Amanda is the object. Semantically, we know that Amanda is the “actor” or “agent”, and the code is the “goal” or “the thing receiving the action.”

“Amanda optimized the code,” is an example of an active sentence, where the subject is the character, and the object is the goal of the action. “The code was optimized by Amanda,” reverses this relationship: the goal is the subject and the character is the object. This is an example of a passive sentence, where the subject expresses the goal of the action.

As is often the case, the passive sentence is slightly worse than the active sentence. It’s a bit more wordy, and we have to do a bit more work to figure out who the character is. But we can make it a lot worse by using the powerful tool we learned about in the previous article, the nominalization, to mess with the action. Let’s turn the verb “optimize” into an abstract noun:

The optimization of the code was performed by Amanda.

Now that “optimization of the code” is the subject, the reader has to unpack the sentence even more carefully: they need to mentally discard the empty verb “performed,” and realize that the action is actually something else.

Alternatively, we can make our character Amanda disappear entirely, by removing the by-clause:

The code was optimized.

Perfect for avoiding giving credit, or diffusing blame!

Before closing, I want to be clear about two things. First, there are many ways to write bad prose that have nothing to do with passives. Second, passive sentences are a tool, and they exist in the language for a reason. In a subsequent post, I’ll provide some examples of using passive sentences for good, not evil. Until next time!