Re: Is passive voice ever OK?

Subject: Re: Is passive voice ever OK?
From: Ian White <Ian -at- IFWTECH -dot- DEMON -dot- CO -dot- UK>
Date: Sun, 4 Dec 1994 13:16:42 +0000

> Darcy Harding wrote:
> *****************
> Can you use passive voice when your audience expects it? [snip]
> If you were writing for the chemistry community, would you fight the active
> voice battle, or WHAT? [snip]

> *******************

Margaret Knox replied with some excellent advice.

> In at least three situations, passive voice is BETTER:

> 1. Unimportant actor. (Often so in scientific writing
> ...

The convention in scientific writing is to efface the role of the
actor and the observer. Since the observations are supposed to be
reproducible, the actor could have been anyone.

When editors see a scientific paper written in active voice, the
usual reaction is "Oh no, not another victim of a 'Better Writing'

If Rule 0 of technical writing is that the writing mustn't get in
the way of the information, it's important to be sensitive to the
reader's expectations. When the reader is expecting the passive,
active voice comes across like SHOUTING in a library.

> 2. Unknown actor.
> ...

> 3. Embarrassed actor.
> ...
Or actors who are unsure of the case they've made, and are afraid
of committing themselves: "It is concluded that..."

> In instructions and procedures, passive voice can really muck up the works.
> ...
The imperative is usually best ("Press the Enter key"), so that readers
are sure what to do. Be polite and respectful, but don't say "please".

Passive voice sometimes has a place in instructions for software or
some other kind of active device, to describe the actions of the product
itself: "Press the Enter key and the files will be deleted." This avoids
over-use of the product's own name as the 'actor': "FileMangler does this.
FileMangler does that. FileMangler falls over."

> ... the editor's job is to figure out when to switch to active voice and
> when to leave things passive.


Darcy Harding mentioned "fight[ing]... the... battle".

Always be prepared to exercise your professional judgement as a technical
writer. You have to serve the needs of your immediate clients (or employer)
and also those of the ultimate readership. But that isn't a matter of
"doing battle". There's no real conflict of interest, because whatever is
good for the ultimate readership is also good for your clients. If you
give in to ill-judged demands from the client, that's doing them no service.

(It may *feel* like a battle to persuade your immediate clients to step
back take this broader view, and the client may be all to ready to join
battle; but none of that is reality.)

Always cast yourself as a skilled intermediary and advisor, and never
as a protagonist. They'll respect your professionalism for doing that.

Ian White | IFW Technical Services, Abingdon, England
| Clear English for high-technology companies
ian -at- ifwtech -dot- demon -dot- co -dot- uk | Tel/fax (0 / +44) 1235 535981

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