RE: active voice v. passive voice

Subject: RE: active voice v. passive voice
From: KMcLauchlan -at- chrysalis-its -dot- com
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Tue, 20 Feb 2001 13:18:37 -0500

Carnall, Jane [mailto:Jane -dot- Carnall -at- compaq -dot- com] sez:
> New: Two topologies are available in defining Cats: pedigree or moggy.
> Old: You can define two types of Cats: pedigree or moggy.
> He said "Personal preference: I just don't think that saying 'You can'
> sounds good." I suggested that, post deadline, we discuss
> whether active
> voice or passive voice was appropriate. My co-worker may be fairly
> representative of the audience for this manual in his
> distaste for active
> voice, second person pronouns.

Well, "they" say you should always consider your audience...
before dashing their foolish and unreasonable expectations
and getting on with the job.

Regardless, I'm not happy with your example.
I might prefer the "New" version if your friend had said:
"Two TYPologies...", in which case, his sentence would
have been saying what needed to be said in the context of
the parentage of domestic cats.
With TOPolgies in there, he seems to have attempted to
hijack a term from another discipline (math) without
understanding what it means.

Nevertheless, if the sense of his new version is otherwise
accurate, then your old version is not conveying the same
sense... active and passive considerations notwithstanding.

The types are already defined. You can assign cats to one
or the other of two available types. Or, you can define a
particular cat as belonging to one of the two available types.

But, getting back to the endless debate at hand, I favor
(favour?... Jane's a Brit...) a healthy mix of active and passive.
Too much of active voice begins to seem either dictatorial
or perhaps condescending ("Boys and girls, you can do this,
and you can do that. Now you try." [Said just a bit too
brightly and perkily for anybody's good....... bah!]).

Too much passive voice has the effect of removing both
responsibility and immediacy. "Yeah, it would probably be
nice if this were to happen before that, and it's faintly
possible that the-other-thing could be allowed to occur,
if only there were somebody who's actually supposed to *do*
any of it... but there doesn't seem to be, so let's just
wallow off into a passive funk and hope that breathing at
least remembers to get itself done... perhaps..."

Anybody who goes about anally evicting ALL passive voice
or ALL active voice from a document is being... well...
anal. Each has its place, and the trick is to use
both to best effect. Current practice is a bit of a
rebound or overreaction to decades of dry military-speak
in technical documents. If your prose is directing the
reader to do something, then by all means tell her to
DO it! You may imply the "you" at your discretion. :-)

In the portion of your doc that is merely explaining the
background, and not exhorting some precise action, then
go ahead and sprinkle some passive constructions. They
aren't poisonous. They're actually less allergenic than
cat hair.

Good night.


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