Active voice / passive voice studies?

Subject: Active voice / passive voice studies?
From: "Hart, Geoff" <Geoff-H -at- MTL -dot- FERIC -dot- CA>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Mon, 28 Jul 2003 08:55:58 -0400

Nancy Riccio wonders: <<OK, we all know that it's better to use active voice
whenever possible.>>

If by "possible" you mean "wherever an actor can and should be identified",
I'll agree with you. That's an admittedly subjective criterion, but works
surprisingly well if you apply it from the reader's perspective: it's not
what _you_ know about the actor, but what _they_ need to know that counts.

Note that I said "need to know"; you can often break a problem down into the
list of absolute requirements to solve the problem, and describe each of
those requirements carefully and clearly. That avoids the whole issue of
subjectivity. Of course, not all problems can be decomposed in this manner,
but trying to do so tells you an awful lot about what every reader will need
to know.

<<I'm interested in finding studies that support this claim>>

Don't have any close at hand, but I've found that there's an amazing body of
literature on cognitive psychology available on the Web. Hit Google and see
what turns up, but be aware that the quality of information out there varies
greatly. Even university sites sometimes publish material that would never
survive the peer review process at a journal, so if you don't see a belief
stated in two different places and it appears counterintuitive, odds are
good you should treat the information as suspicious. Not necessarily wrong,
but at least needing confirmation.

As a reductive approach, try conducting a little thought experiment.
Consider a sentence written in passive voice that has three possible actors:
the system administrator, the user, and the system itself. If you describe a
task within that context in passive voice, it becomes woefully unclear to
the reader which of the three actors should be doing the task. That
demonstrates clearly that whatever the underlying cognitive mechanisms, the
issue here is one of speaking clearly to the reader. Passive voice fails the
test of clarity _in this specific situation_. It may meet the test in

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

In my experience, there's a substantial body of anecdotal evidence from
writers and readers that says many in this community dislike unnecessary
passive voice. I've never met anyone who prefers passive voice once they've
been show an appropriate active voice alternative; even old-school
scientists whose work I've edited, people brought up on reading tediously
passive journal articles, have come to appreciate the virtues of active

This is not compelling evidence (preference often does not indicate
performance), but at a minimum, you can treat this as evidence that a
significant fraction of a typical audience prefers active voice. In the
absence of evidence _against_ the effectiveness of _appropriate_ active
voice, this gives you important audience information you can use in
supporting a recommendation to write more actively--but not _only_ actively.

--Geoff Hart, geoff-h -at- mtl -dot- feric -dot- ca
(try ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca if you get no response)
Forest Engineering Research Institute of Canada
580 boul. St-Jean
Pointe-Claire, Que., H9R 3J9 Canada

"I don't read literary theory anymore; it makes my brain hurt... I have way
too much time on my hands and way too little to think about. In this
respect, the laundromat is not much different from the English department
office."--Tim Morris, U of Texas English professor ("Suds", in _The American


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