Taking an active role


As a technical author, I’m often stopped when walking down the street to answer questions on active versus passive voice. I do wish it would stop… but it does get me thinking, there are a lot of recommendations that advocate the use of one voice over the other, but could I clarify those in the simplest way possible? Well in this article I shall attempt to do just that, you can judge.

So what’s it all about? What is this active and passive voice thing? Why should I care? Phew that’s a lot of questions, good ones too. It’s all about communicating effectively (spoiler, there’s a theme running through my blogs 🙂 ). To communicate effectively you need to be aware of the words that you use and the way that they work. Active and passive voice refers to two different ways of ordering the parts of a sentence that doesn’t change the meaning of what is being said but does have an effect on how easy it is to read. You should care if you want to have a voice that is easily understood by others, if you have something to say and you want to say it in the best way possible.

What is active and passive voice?

Alright, you got me, in the previous paragraph I glossed over the big question which is “What is this active and passive voice thing?” To answer this question we’ve got to get down into deconstructing sentences. We do this so we can identify the parts of a sentence and then reconstruct them in the voice of our choosing: active or passive (hopefully with none of those annoying bits left over :-S).

The simplest sentence consists of a verb phrase. Some thing (subject) does something (verb). So, for example:

Minnie (subject) danced (verb).

A slightly more advanced sentence (I can’t believe I wrote that) is where the thing (subject) does something (verb) to something else (object). Another example:

Minnie (subject) danced (verb) the hoochie coochie (object).

In this case Minnie is the subject of the sentence and the hoochie coochie is the object. Now this is good, in the order that we read the sentence from left to right the subject does something to the object. But let’s wire this sentence up differently, without changing the meaning. Like this:

The hoochie coochie (subject) was danced by (passive voice form of the verb) Minnie (object).

In this case: the subject of the sentence isn’t actively doing anything it’s passively having stuff done to it; the verb has been cluttered up by the auxiliary verb was in order to make the passive work and poor old Minnie, who was actually doing the hard work of dancing, has been relegated to the end of the sentence. To read this sentence we have to retain the subject, hold onto the verb, get to the object who’s doing all the work and finally reconstruct the sentence to work out who was doing what to who (never mind when and with what). Obviously more work than the active voice.

Ok I’m going to be voiced actively all the time now

So if the active voice is all that, why not always use the active voice? Well… unfortunately it doesn’t always work, particularly where the subject is not significant or not known. In this case we only have the object (the thing having stuff done to it). Consider the following example:

The food is being served.

In this case we don’t care who is serving the food, simply that it is being served now (hope it’s chips). The passive voice is the only one that works. If the person serving was significant we’d identify them:

Jeremiah is serving the food.

But there is another reason for using the passive voice even if we do want to identify the server and that is to emphasize them:

The food is being served by a gorilla!!!

In this case the comic timing (just put a pause between served and by) would not work if we simply said:

A gorilla is serving the food. (yeah, whatever).

Documentation or technical writing

So how does all this tie into your alleged realm of expertise Dave? Alright I’ll tell you voices in my head. In documentation there’s not a lot of room for comedy or drama (it always comes across abysmally), so this sense of emphasis is not usually appropriate. In the spirit of keeping things simple then, a general rule of thumb (advocated by George Orwell by the way) is to use the active voice wherever possible. That way your audience won’t be stumbling their brains around the tricky indirection of your passive voice and having their tongues tied by all the auxiliary verbs you have to add in to make it work.

The conclusion was reached

So the conclusion is, when referring to technical documentation, active voice seems to be the outright winner – as its straightforward approach lays the words of the sentence down in the heads of the readers in the order of the simplest meaning of the sentence. The action flows directly from the subject to the object. Whereas in the passive voice the action flows backwards from the object to the subject and the words have to be slightly twisted to make it fit. But, as always, bear in mind that to cast everything into active voice would not work in all instances and sometimes – just sometimes – the passive can be used to good effect to emphasize the object. In the end the choice is yours, but please use it wisely.

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