RE: Active versus passive

Subject: RE: Active versus passive
From: jgarison -at- ide -dot- com
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Tue, 19 Dec 2000 13:01:35 -0500

The classic example (at least for me) that illustrates the obfuscatory
effects of passive voice is the sentence:

The report is generated.

The passive construction, in this instance, totally masks the cause of the
report generation. Does the system do it automatically? Does an operator do
it? God forbid, do I have to do it?

Early in my career I learned that turning to the passive voice was
beneficial when I partially understood something. The fact that the report
is generated is true, and saying so was technically correct. If I knew what
caused the report to be generated, I would add that (and phrase it in active
voice). What I think many people object to is that this promotes lazy
writing - you tell only the part of the story that is easy to verify and
don't investigate more and thus inform your reader of the additional, and
often highly relevant, information.

My 2¢,


John Garison
Documentation Manager
150 Baker Avenue Extension
Concord, MA 01742

Voice: 978-402-2907
Fax: 978-318-9376

-----Original Message-----
From: Sharon Deitch [mailto:sharon -at- sintecmedia -dot- com]
Sent: Tuesday, December 19, 2000 5:59 AM
Subject: RE: Active versus passive (WAS Displays versus Appears-Which
One? )

Mike writes:
> I think a more useful rule is this:
> Passive voice is fine when the
> identity of the actor doesn't matter.
> When it matters, use active voice.

I've seen similar comments on this list about the passive voice not
identifying the "actor." This is simply untrue.

The mess was made by the cat, and that puddle was made by my toddler. In
both these passive-voice clauses, it is very clear who did what.

Compare: The cat made the mess, and my toddler made that puddle. Fewer
words; sharper, clearer writing.

>From what I've read, research has shown that readers, when reading sentences
in the passive voice, tend to turn the sentences around in their head
(unfortunately, at the moment I cannot remember where I read this). I would
imagine this is particularly true for English speakers, who are used to
sentences structured subject, verb, object. Therefore, it makes sense to
write as directly as possible, using fewer words rather than more.

One place to use passive voice in writing error messages, where it is
preferable to state the problem and the required action without ever
addressing the user directly. After all, who wants to be told they screwed
up by a computer?


Sharon Deitch
Technical Writer
Jerusalem, Israel
sharon -at- sintecmedia -dot- com

"It's amazing how much easier it is for a team to work together when no one
has any idea where they're going." Despair, Inc.

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