passive voice is discussed actively

Subject: passive voice is discussed actively
From: Tim Altom <taltom -at- IQUEST -dot- NET>
Date: Thu, 18 Jan 1996 14:44:00 EST

Thom Remington opined recently, that:

>Yes, I like to write in an economical style. Yes, I *detest* passive voice.
>Use of passive voice should be avoided.


>When you get down to it, this stuff is what our audience is used to,
>and they don't have any trouble understanding it. It may offend my
>sensibilites as a writer, but it gets the job done. I can still add a lot of
>clarity, even when I'm forced to use passive voice. (Of course, if you run
>Word's grammar checker, it tells you over and over and over again that a
>verb _may_ be in passive voice....)

That's the rationale for rejecting passive voice, that it dilutes clarity.
Or, more accurately, that it CAN dilute clarity. It by no means does so
inevitably. It all depends on the context. Our teachers, though, decided
that blanket prohibitions were more helpful than case-by-case analysis,
figuring that we would work that out on our own. And so we have. It's only
the most pedantic of us who ALWAYS object to passive voice just because of
its construction.

The reason passive voice imperils clarity is that it relies on the reader's
preconceptions to work. If the reader lacks the preconception, he's lost. He
has no cause to go with his effect. In journalism, it's a cardinal sin to
use passive voice, for that very reason. But in our work, we're often more
interested in effects than causes. "The pump is installed in the center
cavity" doesn't tell us HOW to put the thing in, but it does (presumably)
tell us enough for our purposes.

I've taken the position that I'll use active voice when possible, and fight
for its usage when necessary, but to accept the inevitability of passive
voice. My test, as always, is "Will the reader be confused?"

Tim Altom
Vice President
Simply Written, Inc.
Technical Documentation and Training
Voice 317.899.5882
Fax 317.899.5987

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