Re: Usage: 1st Person and Passive Voice

Subject: Re: Usage: 1st Person and Passive Voice
From: Geoff Lane <geoff -at- GJCTECH -dot- FORCE9 -dot- NET>
Date: Sun, 1 Feb 1998 15:36:59 -0000

From: Steven N. Gotler <sngotler -at- RUST -dot- NET>:

> [snip] I think the author's research has focused on obsolete
>issues and encourages technical writers to be lazy and sloppy. Passive
>voice is problematic in technical and scientific writing for many reasons.
>Here are a few.
>Passive voice is an inefficient and outdated form of communication. [snip]
My tutors taught me to use 3rd person, passive voice, indicative mood when
writing up scientific experiments because this style concentrates on the
object of interest, i.e. the experiment. Writing such reports in active
voice places the emphasis on the experimenter. This is considered unethical
in some circles.

>Which leads me to the other problem. Passive voice is also inherently
>ambiguous, and thus dangerous. Without adding even more unnecessary and
>convoluted phrases to every sentence, passive voice assumes the reader
>knows who is doing what, where things are going, and why. That is dangerous
>in technical and scientific writing, which require precise communication.
For the large part, people reading scientific reports need to know *what*
was done and are not concerned with *who* did it. Consider the sentence

The solution was decanted into a beaker and placed on a tripod over a low
bunsen flame.

To recast that into active voice, you need to know *who* decanted the
solution, who placed it on a tripod, etc. Note that this need not be the
same person. The actor need not even be a person (e.g. an automated
process). In this case, the actor is irrelevant and I maintain that passive
voice is the better choice.

>Why do I care? Because I am sick of muddling through poorly written and
>awkwardly phrased sentences in technical, scientific and legal literature
>(have you ever read a patent claim?). It often takes as much time to
>unscramble the meaning of a paragraph as it does to read the text. No one
>has time anymore for these outdated notions of man vs machine, humans vs.
>animals, etc. Tell your reader what they NEED to know. Clarity and
>efficiency should be the paramount concern. [snip]
I couldn't agree more. I too am sick of muddling through poorly written
documentation. Tell your readers what THEY need to know as clearly as you
can. Take into account community conventions -- violating these conventions
alienates your audience. If, when all is considered, passive voice offers
better clarity then use it.

Just my two-pennyworth

Geoff Lane
geoff -at- gjctech -dot- force9 -dot- net

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