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Folks, I apologize -- I thought I was clear about what I was looking for
here. My whole point was to bypass the folklore and see what the research
says about this topic. I would, however, like to thank the one person who
actually responded to my original question.
For anyone who's interested, Jan Spyridakis, a professor at the University
of Washington, coauthored an article that summarizes the research very
well. It's posted at Technical Communication Online, August 2000, Vol. 47,
No. 3. I've included an excerpt of the article below. The results are
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"Many believe that active voice is more effective than passive voice;
however, the research literature to support this folklore shows
inconsistent results. Active voice has been found to be more effective in
oral studies with listeners who are impaired, young, stressed, or
exhausted (for example, Precious and Conti-Ramsden 1988; Pleszewska 1985;
Ryman, Naitoh, and Englund 1985). Slobin (1968) found that adults
generally retold stories in active voice when passive voice sentences
included actors. However, passive voice stories with no mention of the
actor were generally retold in passive voice. Other studies have found
better performance with active voice when sentences were read individually
and without context (Gough 1966; Coleman 1965).
Blount and Johnson (1971) found verbatim recall was best for active
sentences, but recall of content in general was equivalent for both active
and passive sentences. Rhodes (1997) found equivalent comprehension for
subjects who read either active or passive versions of four expository
passages. Although Bostian (1983) found no comprehension differences
between readers of active and passive versions of passages, readers were
faster with the active versions, preferred the active style, and judged
the active versions more familiar than the passive versions. The shorter
reading time may be due to the fact the active voice sentences are usually
shorter than their passive voice counterparts.
Examining functional documents, where the reader is "reading to do,"
Flower, Hayes, and Swarts (1983) had readers orally interpret a government
regulation. Subjects frequently revised the written text and structured
their sentences around people performing actions (that is, they gave
active voice interpretations to the passive voice statements in the
original text). The study also compared the number of people and
action-based scenarios in a government regulation to those in a revised
regulation written by expert writers that had been "praised as easy to
read" (Kintsch 1993). They found that the revised regulation focused on
people and actions almost twice as often as the regulations written by
nonexpert writers. In other words, the revised regulations contained
clauses with people as subjects and human actions for verbs (for example,
"The homeowner must make mortgage payments . . . .") versus the nonexpert
regulations, which were more likely to approach information inanimately
(for instance, "Mortgage payments are due . . . .").
While the literature on the effect of active versus passive voice is
mixed, active voice can be effectively used in Web writing. Not only do
readers move more quickly through active voice text, but they prefer it
and feel more familiar with it. Readers may even encode passive voice text
in active voice. Writers can save space on the page and mental effort for
the reader by using active voice when it suits the content's purpose."
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