Passive voice

Subject: Passive voice
Date: Tue, 24 May 1994 14:32:37 PDT

Hi folks. Just joined the club after the STC conference and thought I'd share
a delightful piece I discovered a while ago regarding passive voice. I should
mention that I used to teach composition and business writing and was
something of a stickler about passives, but I loosened up quite a bit when I
read this. The first two points and the postscript are particularly
appropriate to documentation. Enjoy!

*******secondhand quoted material follows (I don't have the book)*******

With a good degree of unanimity, authorities on writing style advise the use
of the active voice in preference to the passive: "John loves Mary." in
preference to "Mary is loved by John." But writers should not translate this
counsel into "Avoid the passive voice." Without doubt the passive often
produces a weaker sentence than the active and it usually requires more words.
Nevertheless, it is unobjectionable in at least four situations:

1. When the thing done is the significant part of what is being said and the
agent performing the action is too obvious or unimportant to mention: "Smith
was arrested in mid-July and indicted a month later in the downtown bombing."
"Cloudy, cold weather was forecast for today's parade."

2. When the agent performing the action is indefinite or unknown: "More
vandalism is being reported in the city these days than ever before."

3. When the passive voice helps in positioning an element of the sentence at
the end for emphasis: "The famous poem about Chicago was written by Carl
Sandburg." "We can't use our television set because it is being repaired."

4. When the desire is to convey an air of detachment and to avoid the
forceful language that the active voice sometimes produces. This quiet tone
is favored particularly in the fields of science and diplomacy: "Patients with
severe lacerated or punctured wounds caused by objects soiled with dust,
pavement brush burns, and wounds or compound fractures should be given much
larger amounts of tetanus antitoxin than the customary dose... particularly
when first given several days after the injury was received." "The United
States delegation has been given the impression that the attitude of the other
side has been somewhat modified."

With a list like this, there is often a postscript. In this case, it concerns
a use of the passive voice that does not deserve to rank with the four others.
The passive voice is sometimes desirable to relieve the monotony of a string
of similarly constructed sentences using the active voice. But even in such
instances it may be better to achieve variety by altering the structure of a
sentence in the midst of the monotony.

--From "Miss Thistlebottom's Hobgoblins, The Careful Writer's Guide
to the Taboos, Bugbears, and Outmoded Rules of English Usage"
by Theodore M. Bernstein


Perhaps a good rule of thumb is that if you use passive voice it should be for
a deliberate purpose; avoid using it carelessly. Cheers.
Rich Julius Oracle Corporation
Senior Technical Writer Box 659504
Tools and Multimedia Division 500 Oracle Parkway
(415) 506-4971 Redwood Shores, CA 94065

"The advantage of a classical education is that it enables you to despise the
wealth which it prevents you from achieving." --Russell Green

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