Passive Actor; Active Verb

Yesterday I opined that sometimes you have to use the passive voice to avoid introducing the user to an irrelevant actor. For example: The report is sent to the printer is better than The printer prints the report.

Using passive voice in this scenario isn’t the worst thing you can do as a writer. But, depending on the subject of the sentence, you can also convert the passive verb to an active one.

Consider these sentences:

  • The dialog box is displayed.
  • The dialog box displays.
  • The dialog box appears.

Each sentence keeps the user’s focus on the right subject–you don’t, after all, want to say, “The system displays the dialog box”–so the only difference is the verb structure: The first sentence uses a passive verb. The second sentence uses a transitive verb intransitively. (Have I mentioned that’s bad grammar?) But the third sentence turns the passive actor into an active subject.¬†

If you’re writing about the product/system/computer doing something, and the user should know that it’s the product/system/computer doing something, then plunking in an active verb where you can serves everyone well.

Here’s another example:

Click “Process.”
The report is opened.

The report opens.


Click OK.

The dialog box is closed.

The dialog box closes.


Click Restart.
The computer is restarted.


The computer restarts.

(An aside: Notice that all of these examples come from procedures–users interacting with¬† a system to complete a task. Outside of procedures, I’m not a fan of using the system/product/computer as the subject. I’ll elaborate in later posts.)

We’ve talked about using the passive voice when necessary, and changing a passive verb to an active one without changing the subject. Next time: The passive voice’s favorite trick: abdicating responsibility.

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