The Purpose of Passive Voice

Yesterday, after explaining why the passive voice goes against nature, I dropped a coconut shell: Sometimes, in technical communication, you gotta run naked through the jungle.

Consider these procedure and feedback statements:

To print the report, click Print.     
The report prints.

OR

To print the report, click Print.
The printer prints the report.

OR

To print the report, click Print.

The report is printed.

The feedback statements do the following by turns:

  • Use a transitive verb intransitively.
  • State the actor in the sentence unnecessarily, thus making the sentence longer.
  • Use the passive voice.

So which is the least among these evils?  Let’s pick apart the first two options to find out.

  • “The report prints.” Hearing that, I find myself waiting for the end. “The report prints….what? And I didn’t even know reports could print things!”
  • “The printer prints the report.” Now, seriously: What other object would?

The third option, however, neither breaks the laws of usage nor burdens the user with pointless information. It simply keeps the focus on what the user cares about–the report.

I thought I was alone (and brilliant) when I discovered this truth, but alas, I am not alone: My favorite plain-language style guides state the same:

From A Plain English Handbook: “The passive voice may make sense when the person or thing performing the action is of secondary importance to another subject that should play the starring role in [the] sentence.” (p. 21) 

From the Federal Plain Language Guidelines: “In a very few instances, plain language may be appropriate. For example…when it doesn’t matter who is doing an action.” (p. 22)

From The Oxford Guide to Plain English: “Passive verbs have their uses and it would be silly–as well as futile–for the style police to outlaw them….[For example, use the passive voice] to avoid having to say who did what, perhaps because the doer is irrelevant or obvious from the context.” (p. 68)

Who knew? Tomorrow: How to turn the passive voice to active while keeping the user’s focus on the same subject.

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