Avoiding ‘the pathetic fallacy’
Do you sense there’s something wrong with the following example paragraph?
The report reveals that in some areas of Australia, one in six Year 5 students can’t read or write properly — or understand simple mathematical concepts. One section states that the finding indicates that our education system isn’t equipping students to become productive members of society. Tables illustrate the statistics. The study concludes that low standards of literacy and numeracy are letting down not only young people but our whole society.
Each sentence in the paragraph contains at least one example of ‘the pathetic fallacy’, which according to The Australian Concise Oxford Dictionary is attribution of human feelings and responses to inanimate things, especially in art and literature. Pathos is to do with emotion and feelings, and a fallacy is a false statement.
When we read a piece of creative writing, we like to be able to visualise the actions the writer is describing. Most of us would also like to be able to visualise the actions that business and technical writers, journalists and academics are describing. When we read the example paragraph, however, most of us will struggle to visualise something inanimate or abstract doing something that a human or non-human being is able to do.
How might we rewrite the example paragraph to help any reader picture the actions the writer is describing? We could ask ourselves, Who is involved in the action, doing, being or having? — that is, Who or what is the ‘grammatical subject’ of the sentence or clause? — and attribute the action, doing, being or having to that person or animal. It’s through the verb/s that we can picture what’s going on in the sentence or clause. The verb is the part of speech we can most easily identify in any sentence or clause. In traditional grammar, a clause is a thing that has a subject, verb/s and predicate, and the predicate is the verb/s plus everything else, other than the subject.
Having this knowledge, and wanting our reader/s to grasp the meaning of the sentence or clause as quickly as possible, we could rewrite the example paragraph, maintaining the ‘active voice’, as follows:
The researcher reveals that in some areas of Australia, one in six Year 5 students can’t read or write properly — or understand simple mathematical concepts. In one section, she states that according to the finding, our educators aren’t equipping students to become productive members of society. She includes tables to illustrate the statistics, and concludes that by allowing standards of literacy and numeracy to plummet, educators are letting down not only our young people but our whole society.
To make our meaning as clear as possible, as quickly as possible, for as many readers or listeners as possible, we can never use too many verbs. By contrast — at least in business writing, as opposed to creative writing — we can never eliminate too much personification of concepts and inanimate objects, i.e. ‘the pathetic fallacy’. Would you agree it’s okay for a poet or novelist to write that a cloud cried or a tree reached up its loving arms to the sky but it’s not okay for a business wordsmith to write that a report reveals something, a section states something, a finding indicates something, an education system isn’t equipping students, tables illustrate statistics, a study concludes something, or low standards of literacy and numeracy are letting down all of us?