Re: Usage: 1st Person and Passive Voice

Subject: Re: Usage: 1st Person and Passive Voice
From: Michael Lewis <lewism -at- BRANDLE -dot- COM -dot- AU>
Date: Mon, 2 Feb 1998 11:50:02 +1100

I'm coming into this thread a little late: apologies if I'm merely
repeating something I've missed.

First, a note to Karen Schriver: the use of passive voice to manage
old/new information structures is quite familiar territory to adherents
of Systemic-Functional Grammar. Have a look at Michael Halliday's
"Introduction to Functional Grammar" (2nd ed 1994) for a fairly
comprehensive discussion. (Or talk to John Mackin: he's something of a

For both Karen and Steven N. Gotler: The idea of passive voice is that
we can choose to discuss something from the point of view of "who does
it" or "who / what it gets done to". If we are talking about the victim
of an accident, we say "The guy was hit by a truck"; if we are talking
about the truck, we say "The truck hit a pedestrian". That's got nothing
to do with formality or outmodedness: it's simply a facility the
language offers to put "what we are talking about" in subject position.
The reason passive voice is so often a problem in technical writing is
because tech writing is very often (but not always) concerned with
telling the reader "Here's what you do". Where there's no room for
ambiguity, that aim can often be achieved by adoption of imperative
mood, which doesn't really have active and passive variants. In
procedural-type writing, there often is ambiguity: we then have to
identify the doer of every deed, and that's best done with active voice.

Michael Lewis
Brandle Pty Limited, Sydney, Australia
PO Box 1249, Strawberry Hills, NSW 2012
Suite 8, The Watertower, 1 Marian St, Redfern 2016
Tel +61-2-9310-2224 ... Fax +61-2-9310-5056

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