RE: Justifying active tense and second person singular?

Subject: RE: Justifying active tense and second person singular?
From: Tony Rocco <tony -at- roundpeg -dot- com>
To: "'Geoff Hart'" <geoff-h -at- mtl -dot- feric -dot- ca>, TECHWR-L <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Tue, 4 Jan 2000 13:02:46 -0800

Well, say something to him like this:

The boss should understand that he doesn't want to be addressed in the third
person because he might find he doesn't like being treated so impersonally
and that he is not, in fact, a third-party in the discourse, but is actually
being directly addressed in the documentation. And, with respect to active
voice, were passive voice to be used, it would be responded to as weak and
vague, without a distinct subject, and that it would be perceived that the
writing was boring and probably overly wordy.

Technically yours,


-----Original Message-----
From: Geoff Hart [mailto:geoff-h -at- mtl -dot- feric -dot- ca]
Sent: Tuesday, January 04, 2000 10:33 AM
Cc: HalterMC -at- navair -dot- navy -dot- mil
Subject: Justifying active tense and second person singular?

Meg Halter is <<...writing a user guide for a piece of software and
my boss feels strongly that the active tense and second person
singular is "too personal".>>

I note from your @dress that you're working for the military, so this
may be at least partially an audience issue. Nonetheless:

<<For example, he changed "If none of the models meet your
requirements, you can add a new model in one of three ways." to
"If none of the models meet the user's requirements, a new model
can be added in one of three ways.">>

The ideal use of passive voice is when the actor (in this sentence,
the person who adds the new model) is either unimportant or
should be specifically concealed. Neither really fits the sample
sentences, but neither is the suggested revision so bad (either long
or convoluted) that I'd fight strongly against it. In fact, if the user
could either be the person reading the sentence or someone else
that the reader may have to provide technical support to, the
revision may even be better.

That being said, you could still tighten up the sentence
considerably and reach a compromise that preserves the more
efficient active voice and your boss' preference to avoid
personalizing it by saying "your/you". For example: "If no model
meets the requirements, add a new model as follows:" followed by
a list of the three ways, separated by "or". If there are only three
possibilities, stating that there are three is generally redundant; if
you want to make it explicit, you could instead say "add a new
model using one of the following three approaches".

<<Does anyone out there have a US Government standard or style
guide that specifically states that the active tense and first and
second person pronouns are good? (I checked with the style guide
here locally, and it doesn't address the subject.)>>

Last year, V-P Al Gore was promoting a "simple language"
amendment of some sort for all government communications; I
don't have a URL handy, but I'm sure someone on the list can point
you to the correct location and tell you whether it's now formally
part of the legislation.

--Geoff Hart @8^{)} geoff-h -at- mtl -dot- feric -dot- ca (Pointe-Claire, Quebec)
"If you can't explain it to an 8-year-old, you don't understand it"--Albert

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