When I became a tech writer, all the writing classes I took and all the books I read said that the passive voice is bad, bad, bad. So I never used it. But then, after writing documentation for several years, I noticed that sometimes, occasionally, maybe just once in a teensy-weensy while, to keep the user’s focus on the right subject, a sentence demanded the passive voice.
Then, when I began exploring plain language, I was shocked–shocked!–to learn that even some plain language style guides recommend using the passive voice for the same reason.
Hence this series of blog posts on where plain language, technical writing, and the passive voice intersect. (“Hence” is a flagrant violation of plain-language style, by the way. You’ll live.)
In my post “Is the Passive Voice Ever Okay?” I argued that a rule is a rule because it needs an exception, and passive voice as a rule has just such an exception.
In “Passive Voice, Is that Really You?” I flagged the common traits (and problems) of the passive voice–a verb that just sits there, such as “is,” “has been,” or “will be”–coupled with a less indolent verb, such as “written” or “mailed”–and a B-list actor like “letter” masquerading as the star: “The letter was mailed by her.” I noted that sometimes the star makes no appearance at all: “The letter was mailed.”
Then things got interesting. In “The Purpose of Passive Voice,” I explained that sometimes, especially in user documentation, the passive voice can keep the user’s focus on what the user cares about. For example, in a document that explains how to create a report, “The report is sent to the printer,” is less egregious than “The printer prints the report.”
In “Passive Actor, Active Verb,” I explained that you can replace some being-doing verb combinations with a different doing verb, but that you can’t violate grammar rules to do it. So “The dialog box is displayed” can become “The dialog box appears,” but not “The dialog box displays.”
Finally, in “Mistakes Were Made. Others Will Be Blamed,” I cautioned against using the passive voice to duck any sort of responsibility–as in the example, “A graph and timetable can be included in the report”–and that, depending on the context, you can rewrite such a sentence to state whether it’s the system or the user who does the work.
In technical writing, as in life, sometimes a presumed foe is really more of a frenemy: Useful on occasion, but not someone you leave your husband (or your documentation) alone with.
Now tell me what you think. Do you ever use the passive voice, and if so, how?
Next week: A user’s worst nightmare (or why you never notice your doctor’s receptionist when you’re really sick).