Sometimes Things Occur!

Do you ever listen to Fresh Air on NPR? It’s a terrific radio show. On February 5 Terry Gross interviewed Benjamin Dreyer, author of a wonderful new book about writing: Random House Copy Chief: Stand Tall, Wordsmiths! (But Choose Your Battles). You can listen to the interview and read a transcript at this link:

During the interview, Dreyer warned writers about passive voice. It’s not always a bad thing, of course. But Dreyer said that often it’s “weaselly,” and he gave a fine example: “Mistakes were made.” Nobody is named. Nobody has to feel guilty. It’s as if the mistake happened all by itself.

Terry Gross chimed in with her own example of “weaselly” language. She noted that many pharmaceutical companies list side effects as if they happened all by themselves:

So it’s like nausea, diarrhea, headache, broken bones, heart attack, difficult breathing and sudden death may occur. So, like, there’s no person responsible for this. There’s no drug being cited that’s responsible for this….And it gets the pharmaceutical company kind of off the hook….We’re just saying, like, hey. This might happen. Who knows why?

Bravo, Terry! But I need to point out that “sudden death may occur” is not passive voice. It just feels like passive voice.

Passive voice sentences put the subject (doer) at the end – or they completely omit the doer:

The ball was thrown by Jerry.  PASSIVE

The ball was thrown.  PASSIVE

What I want to talk about today is the word occur. It is a weak word that suggests that something sort of happened. There’s hardly ever a good reason to use occur when you’re writing. Usually you can substitute happen, and your sentence will sound better.

Note, though, that I said usually. Professional writers scoff at pronouncements that you should never use this word or that construction. What they do instead is stop, reread the sentence, and see whether the rule makes sense in that particular situation.

English is a stubborn language. Sometimes you’re better off making a mistake and sticking out your tongue at the rule.

Back to occur. In 1962 the Avon company – in what has to be one of the stupidest marketing decisions ever made – named a new perfume Occur!

Gack. I think they should have been able to feel how weak that name was. If you doubt me, consider this. Suppose you were thinking about a perfume to buy for yourself or someone special. There were little sample bottles on a shelf – one labeled Occur! and another labeled Passion. Which one would you sample first?

My purpose today is not to teach you how to buy or market perfume. I want to encourage you to think about two principles:

  1. Words matter. A lot.
  2. It’s not just about the meanings of words. You also need to think about their sounds.

Occur! didn’t last long at Avon. Gee, I wonder why…..


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