RE: Active voice / passive voice studies

Subject: RE: Active voice / passive voice studies
From: "Michael West" <mbwest -at- bigpond -dot- net -dot- au>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Sat, 26 Jul 2003 08:37:38 +1000

Nancy wrote:

> OK, we all know that it's better to use active voice whenever possible.

Well, sort of. Sometimes the passive voice is
quite suitable. ("I was flummoxed.") It's certainly
better to give *instructions* in active voice -- simply
because it's clearer, more direct, and uses fewer

> I'm interested in finding studies that support this claim -- specifically,
> studies that address differences in the way readers comprehend active- and
> passive-voice sentences. I vaguely remember one of my professors saying
> that readers encode sentences in active voice regardless of how they're
> written.

Don't you do this? If I hear "the boy threw the
ball" I can easily and instantly visualize the
action. But if I hear "the ball was thrown" I
have to do a lot more work to visualize what
a ball looks when it's being thrown by an unknown
thrower. And in fact, I can't do it.

Possibly not all readers instinctively visualize.
Possibly not all texts are conducive to visualization.
But it seems that this is a common enough phenomenon
in most languages, ancient and modern, that the preference
for the active voice prevails among educated readers
and writers.

> However, I also recall her saying that the "jury was still out"
> on whether passive voice actually hinders the reading process.

It isn't a matter of the jury being out. It's a
matter of some constructions being better for
some kinds of communication.
> Any ideas? Thanks!

Sure. Read Noam Chomsky's investigations
of structural linguistics. Or go to a
large library and ask the reference desk
to point you towards research in semantics,
linguistics, semiotics, etc.

If you don't have that kind of time, just follow
the advice of the style guides preferred by people
who spend most of their lives reading and writing
good English.

When I was first learning tech writing (on the
job) I found that the quickest and easiest way
to radically improve dull, verbose, confusing
instructional material was to convert about 95%
of the passive voice constructions ("the data is entered")
to direct address, active voice, imperative mood
("Enter the data"). I didn't need studies to convince
me that the material was better, clearer, and
more concise after I'd fixed it up than it was before.

I continue to this day to find the passive voice
(and it's usual sidekick, the unidentified agent)
the number one enemy of clarity in instructional

Mike West
Melbourne, Australia


sourcing tool for FrameMaker that lets you easily publish your content
online. No macro language required!

Mercer University's online MS Program in Technical Communication Management:
Preparing leaders of tomorrow's technical communication organizations today.
See or write George Hayhoe at hayhoe_g -at- mercer -dot- edu -dot-

You are currently subscribed to techwr-l as:
archive -at- raycomm -dot- com
To unsubscribe send a blank email to leave-techwr-l-obscured -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com
Send administrative questions to ejray -at- raycomm -dot- com -dot- Visit for more resources and info.


Previous by Author: RE: Touch-screen terms
Next by Author: RE: Active voice / passive voice studies
Previous by Thread: RE: Active voice / passive voice studies
Next by Thread: Re: Active voice / passive voice studies

What this post helpful? Share it with friends and colleagues:

Sponsored Ads