Agents are Everywhere

Agents are Everywhere

Agents are everywhere. You can see them when you’re at work and when you go to school. You read them in books and on the internet. You hear them in your favorite songs and Netflix shows. Agents live in words, in the messages you write every day, even in your mind.

Agents describe a person, place, thing, or concept performing the action (the verb) of a sentence. This may be less exciting than well-dressed sentient programs, but agents are an important part of how we communicate. We don't have to think consciously about agents, or even know what they are, in order to use them. Language would be crippling if we had to know a mile of grammar for every inch of words we write or speak.

Agents take ownership of verbs. A sentence like "The neighbor's car was stolen" is vague because it lacks an agent. Who stole the car? "My little brother stole the neighbor's car." An agent can drastically change the implications of a sentence.

Agents are expressed most directly as the grammatical subject of a sentence. When we don’t position an agent as the subject, we end up with something like this: "The neighbor's car was stolen by my little brother." Either version of the sentence works. It's a question of whether we want to draw more attention to the neighbor's car or the little brother.

All writing benefits from being clear and direct. In many cases, it will be to your advantage to position agents as the subjects of your sentences in order to quickly convey information to your readers. This isn't a rule. We simply want to avoid writing sentences that prompt readers to ask, "Who is doing what? What's going on?" If our sentences do not describe action, our readers may lose interest in what we have to say. If our sentences do not indicate who performs the action, readers may not understand what we are saying. Difficult language and tangled sentences are the enemies of clarity.

Many otherwise brilliant sentences lack clarity because they conceal action, or they don't specify who does what. Our Clarity Module addresses these issues. It encourages you to position agents as subjects where feasible, and to draw action out of certain words by turning them into verbs.

Clarity is about expressing yourself in a way your readers can understand. Agents play a small but significant part in conveying information and ensuring that your readers know exactly what's going on in your writing.

We could make a bad joke about how all good writers have "agents," but we'll leave it at that.

This post was adapted from the WriteLab Guide. Check out the Guide if you want to learn more about Clarity and agents.

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