Wednesday, February 21, 2007

It's Aliiiiive!!--
I've recently become sensitive to an apparent fault in my writing: I'm guilty of anthropomorphism, i.e., the representation of objects as if they had human traits. I was reading someone's essay about a professor who had influenced him and the writer noted, "He taught me to think and write critically, and always nailed me for writing anthropomorphically, such as 'The data showed... when it should be written as 'Inspection of the data revealed...'".

I thought about that this morning as I wrote, "This section discusses..." Would the reader have been better served by "In this section I discuss..." or "This section presents a discussion of..."?

In short, what is wrong with anthropomorphism? We say that a machine is running. Does that send a throng of people down the hall to see this miracle of a machine that has sprouted legs and is moving speedily on them? In the same vein, what is wrong with data showing trends or a section of a document discussing a topic?

And if you disagree, I would not be in the least confused by your saying, "Your blog screamed of incompetence." (My little feelings would be hurt, but I would not be confused.)

Anthropomorphism is a little like passive voice in so far as it can obscure agency. But, also like passive voice, it is unfairly maligned. Where agency is unimportant (The data showed...) or obvious (This section discusses...), anthropomorphism allows the content or the document to be the topic. For example, when saying "This section discusses..." I prefer to be talking about the document structure rather than talking about me.

My keyboard grows weary of this topic and my monitor longs to be displaying landscapes and vistas of my screen saver. I must do their bidding :-)

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