Re: Use of the First Person

Subject: Re: Use of the First Person
From: Debbie Stewart <Debbie_Stewart -at- SIECOR -dot- COM>
Date: Thu, 5 Feb 1998 11:27:55 -0500

We should not think of passive voice as the enemy. There are times passive
voice should be used. However, passive voice has a bad reputation because
it has been used to avoid responsibility. Passive voice is a very useful
tool when used properly.

I think Richard Lauchman summarizes passive voice usage very well. He
states that many of us
were taught (esp. tech. writers) not to use the first person, which
produces passive sentence construction.
It is a matter of emphasis, for one. Lauchman uses the example:
The Redskins beat the Eagles. (emphasizes the Redskins.) - active
The Eagles were beaten by the Redskins. (emphasizes the Eagles, but
credits the Redskins.) - passive voice
The Eagles lost to the Redskins. (does not credit the Redskins.) -
active voice

(I would have used the Denver Broncos and GreenBay Packers in this example,
but . . . )
Lauchman says, "Don't despise the passive voice. Use it when emphasis and
context demand its use."

There are times when using the passive voice to conceal the actor is
allowed, according, again, to Lauchman. In a statement that explains a
particular decision was made or a fact was stated, it is allowable

if only the fact of the decision is pertinent, but who decided it is
if the writer does not know and can not say with accuracy who made the
or the context emphatically implies who made that decision.

"The Na-Knu Na-Knu was believed to be extinct," and "It is suppose to rain
tomorrow," are both great examples of passive construction that are very

_BUT, if it is used to avoid responsibility, which, regrettably it happens
too often, then you have a real breach of trust. At that point, Lauchman
says all style and usage considerations are irrelevant! Just be honest.

Referenced Richard Lauchman's "Plain Style - Techniques for Simple,
Concise, Emphatic Business Writing"
Debbie Stewart
TechWriter - IS

Jane Bergen wrote:
>> FWIW, I think we (there I go) technical writers are often too paranoid
>> about using the passive. Most grammar/composition texts allow it when
>> you want to diminish the impact of the actor.
>I'll go along with that. Sometimes you can really complicate an issue
>by trying to force an active voice. The passive voice also helps to
>soften what the reader may view as an unpleasant message. Depending on
>the audience and the purpose of the document, the passive voice can be
>our friend

Mike Huber replied:

No, it doesn't. What it does is take the focus off the perpetrator.
There are times when that is a good thing, but (when used for bad news)
at best it changes the reader's attitude from directed anger to general
malaise. And when the reader has already given a name to his pain, it
can make things much worse.
When writing an unpleasant message, a detectable weasly tone is an
extremely bad thing, and the passive voice sounds weasly, at least to
some audiences.

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