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The grammatical subject of a sentence may not be the real subject. This is not a nicety, a splitting of hairs by grammarians. This question concerns a far more vital subject than mere by-the-book correctness: if your grammatically correct subject is not also the real subject of the sentence, you alter the meaning, change the style of writing, slow down the sentence, and make the reader recast your sentence to get the meaning.
Over the years, government writers have become expert at writing sentences which have grammatical subjects but no real subjects. There are two possible reasons: our overuse of passive verbs and our tendency to blow up little words into big ones. If we write directly, using active, head-on verbs and everyday words, we stand a much better chance of using real subjects in our sentences.
“Delivery of subject material should be accomplished by you." If you check for a subject and verb, you will find both delivery is the subject of the verb should be accomplished. Grammatically, the sentence is correct. But it is also an example of a sentence which does not have a “real” subject.
To find the real subject, ask yourself what the sentence is saying. Does it mean anything more than “You should deliver the material”? Here we have a real subject—you—and an active verb-should deliver. The original sentence turns the action word “deliver” into a weak noun which becomes the subject. Next, in order to have some sort of a verb, we must rely on a weak word like “accomplish”—and that is further weakened by putting it into the passive voice.
Spotting the culprits
Here are some clues to help you locate verbs that have been murdered and buried under nouns:
Whenever you see a subject ending in “ATION” or in “MENT,” it
may contain a buried verb. Whenever you see a weak verb like accomplish, realize, effect (or even effectuate), manifest, or appear—particularly if it is passive-look at the subject to find the real verb.
1. “Some improvement in the tone quality was realized by the adjustment
of the angle of the speakers.”
The subject ends in ment; the verb was realized is passive. Now translate the sentence, as your reader will have to do. What does it say? Turn the subject improvement into an active verb:
"Changing the angle of the speakers improved the tone quality.” 2. "Completion of the review of the materials cannot be accomplished
until June 30."
Again—a buried verb in the grammatical subject, completion, and a weak verb in the passive voice in was accomplished.
"We cannot complete our review of the materials until June 30.” 3. "Improvement of the crowded conditions in the office was effected by removing three file cabinets."
“Removing three file cabinets improved the crowded conditions in the office.”
What we gain
Using real subjects and action verbs makes our writing easier to read and easier to understand. It is more direct; it is also much shorter. Compare the word count in the "before" and “after” examples in the section above. The sentences are about one-third shorter when we use a real subject and a verb that acts. Multiply this by the number of sentences in your average letter or memo and see what this saving would amount to for both the writer and the reader.
We have said earlier that our writing is easier to understand if we use everyday words—if we deflate some of the long words we are accustomed to using because they fit the heavy style of former times. We can accomplish two things at the same time if we turn some of the inflated words into real subjects and real verbs: we can use simpler words, and we can also be more exact. We can turn the sentence from “Visitation will be made by a team composed of ..." into “A team composed of ... will visit ..." If we turn “visitation” into the verb “visit,” we have said simply and exactly what the action is. And, still better, we have made it impossible to use “visitation.” Among the definitions of “visitation” the dictionary gives, are “a gathering of supernatural beings” and “a gathering of animals or birds at unspecified times in large numbers.”
How to compress
Whenever we turn a passive verb to an active one, we save words. “Field offices conduct these courses” is briefer than “The conducting of these courses is accomplished by field offices” or even "These courses are
conducted by field offices.” There is a similar saving when we can replace a stand-in subject by a real subject.
Nouns containing buried verbs are usually long words ending in ment, tion, ance, or ence. In order to do the work of the subject they have to be propped up on either side by supporting words—usually the and of.
Not: The classification of the returns has been effected.
of your office. But: Your office will be responsible for disbursing these funds.
When we substitute real subjects for these imposters, we again save words. When we turn "The classification of” into “classifying” or “to classify,” we make the sentence more direct and also more concise. When you want to avoid a "the (noun)tion or (noun)ment of” phrase, turn the noun into an infinitive or an ing-word, as we have done above.
Keep Related Words Together
Sentences are made up of small groups of words that cling together in logical units—subjects and verbs, nouns and adjectives, clusters of words in prepositional phrases, to name a few. The more nearly intact we can' keep these units, the better our chances are that the sentence will get its meaning across. When we misplace a modifier, the resulting statement may be slightly confusing to the reader—or it may be ludicrous. When we separate a subject and verb, we befog the meaning of the sentence. The sense of the sentence depends—to a greater degree than we realizeon the geographical location of the words within the sentence.
Subjects and verbs
If we want to write direct, head-on sentences, we usually begin with a subject and verb:
An individual is allowed an exemption of $750 for each person
Before we started this program ...
This practice of beginning sentences with a subject followed immediately by a verb tells the reader at once WHO did WHAT. Perhaps we begin with a subject and with every intention of telling the reader in the next few words what the sentence is about. But first, we need a qualifying or limiting phrase. That phrase in turn leads to another. We go on and on until finally, several lines later, we reach the verb—the word that tells what the subject did. By this time the reader has forgotten the subject; in addition, he has mentally labelled our writing as “incomprehensible.”
The following illustrations show how easy it is to pile up phrases and postpone the verb:
Reduction for depreciation allowed or allowable under section 167 for the period between the date of inheritance and the date of sale, as provided by section 1016 of the Internal Revenue Code
of 1954, was considered. We can get this subject and verb closer together by inserting the verb directly following the subject: “Reduction was considered for depreciation allowed or allowable ...” A better way is to turn the passive verb, was considered into an active verb and begin the sentence: “We (or the Service or this office) considered reduction for depreciation allowed or ..." Here is another before-and-after example: Before: A loss sustained on the sale or exchange of property
used in your business or held to produce income is
Before: Amounts of income which are required to be included in
your gross income because you are a shareholder in a small business corporation which elected not to be subject to Federal income tax are not subject to the self-employ
ment tax. After : Not subject to the self-employment tax are amounts of
income ... Or : You need not pay self-employment tax on amounts of
Verbs and objects
Another violation of the principle of keeping related words close together is the practice of inserting qualifying phrases between the verb and its object. This error is far less common than the separation of subject and
verb; it is also less likely to confuse the reader. It is, however, a device that slows down the straightforward movement of the sentence, marking time instead of marching. Before: A taxpayer claiming the additional maximum deduction
must file, with his return in which this maximum is
claimed, a doctor's statement concerning the disability. After : If a taxpayer claims the additional maximum deduc
tion, he must file a doctor's statement about the disability with his first return.
Modifiers and referents
A modifier has no built-in sense of belonging. All it needs is a wordany word—to refer to, and there it will cling, no matter what the resulting statement actually says. Because of this willingness to refer to the nearest word, we need to keep modifiers close to the word to which they refer.
We refer to your letter of May 10, addressed to our National Office, Washington, D. C., which was forwarded to this office for investigation and reply.
We regret delay in bringing this adjustment to a satisfactory conclusion and will expedite the investigation of your failure to
receive the check when the form is returned to this office. The National Office was not forwarded, and the time the check was not received had nothing to do with returning a form. Yet that is what these sentences say when we let the modifiers wander at will. The only way to correct these ambiguities is to get the modifier and its referent together, either by recasting the sentence or by lifting the modifier bodily from its present location and putting it next to its parent word. Recast : The National Office in Washington, D. C. has for
warded to us for investigation and reply your letter
of May 10. Relocated: We regret delay in bringing this adjustment to a
satisfactory conclusion. When the form is returned, we will expedite the investigation of your failure to
receive the check. Inserting a comma before a misplaced modifier only calls attention to the incorrect location of the modifier; a punctuation mark alone cannot correct the ambiguity caused by a modifier that occupies an illogical place in the sentence.
Misplaced modifiers are usually found at the beginning or end of a sentence. They can, however, occur in the middle of a sentence: