Re: In Defense Of Passive Voice

Subject: Re: In Defense Of Passive Voice
From: techwrtr -at- crl -dot- com
To: "Murrell, Thomas" <TMurrell -at- alldata -dot- net>, TECHWR-L Mailing List <TECHWR-L -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Tue, 9 Nov 1999 07:32:10 -0800 (PST)

> However, I would be leery of abolishing passive voice altogether. Sometimes
> passive is the best way to say what needs to be said.

I haven't been following the UK/US thread...has someone suggested abolishing
passive altogether? If so, that person doesn't understand what the passive
voice is definitely has a purpose.

What I learned in one of my technical writing courses years back (or was it my
Grammar & Rhetoric of the Sentence class?) is that a rule of thumb is that no
more than 10% of your sentences should be passive, in any kind of writing.

There *are* times when passive sentences make sense. As you pointed out, when
the agent is unimportant or, more commonly, is assumed or already known, then
making all sentences that include that agent active would be very annoying:

The application opens the window. After you click OK, it closes the window
and applies the changes. It stores these settings in a file
called "programname.ini." It loads these settings every time you start the

Instead, it is smoother when you assume that the user understands that you're
talking about the application:

The application settings window opens. After you click OK, the changes you've

made are applied, and are stored in a file called "programname.ini." These
settings are loaded every time you start the application.

It changes the focus from the *application* to what the application is *doing*.
It also reads faster (and, in this particular case, actually uses fewer words).

If I were to reword your rule of abolishing all passives, I would probably
reword it to say "abolish passive sentences with an explicit 'by' construct
whenever possible." It's the sentences with "such-and-so is done by
this-or-that" that tend to be wordy and mealy-mouthed.

-David Castro
techwrtr -at- crl -dot- com
thetechwriter -at- yahoo -dot- com


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