Find Your Voice: Active or Passive

In traditional grammar, voice is the quality of a verb that indicates whether its subject acts (active voice) or is acted upon (passive voice). This element of writing style allows you to manage how your reader understands what you are saying. It is essential in technical writing. Depending on the communication situation and the document you make, you might want to create a sense of objectivity, authoritative distance, or make the information active and immediately accessible.

Similar to evaluating the appropriate level of technicality for your audience, considering how your word and grammar choices affect your reader will give you better control over how well the information is understood.

It is essential to know the difference between active and passive voice and when to use them. Both active and passive voice can be proper and correct, but misused can lead to confusing and complex sentences.

Active Vs. Passive

Use active voice when it’s important to emphasize the doer of the action; when it’s more important to emphasize the action itself, use passive voice. When writing technical documentation, it is preferable to use active voice.

Use active when a particular action is required of someone or when the user/writer is expected to complete a specific action; use passive when it’s less important who or what completed the action and more important that the action was completed. For instance, I can write:

  • “I turn on the switch” (I want to show that I’m responsible, which is active voice), or
  • “The switch was turned on” (passive voice, indicating that it’s unimportant or unknown who turned on the switch).

In the active voice, the subject of the sentence is the actor — the main verb describes what the “doer” is doing. This is an efficient way to construct simple, direct sentences that communicate an action.

In the passive voice, the subject of the sentence is the thing acted upon. It directs the reader’s attention to something that experienced the sentence’s action (the verb).

However, both “voices” are used in writing. There are variations when the doer is unknown, unimportant, or implied:

  • The city was founded in 1795. (By whom? A lot of people. That’s not the point here — I’m focusing on the date.)
  • My backpack was stolen! (By whom? I don’t know, obviously!)

There are also times when you might consciously choose to minimize the role of the actor:

  • The task failed. (I’d rather not say who’s to blame)
  • Road was broken. (due to circumstances out of our control, but that isn’t important to my reader.)

Ineffective use of the passive voice can cause issues with concision and clarity because it relies on the verb “to be” instead of more precise action words — why say “The manual was written by me” when you can say “I wrote the manual”?

In technical writing, there is a common (but not global) impression that personal pronouns harm the objectivity of the writer or distract from important information. One of the main reasons passive voice appears so frequently in technical writing is that the focus is shifted from the person doing the action.

Personal vs. Impersonal

In technical communication, where the focus is on conveying data, writers aim at avoiding personal pronouns (I, you, he, she, we, etc.). Saying “The wire was cut” rather than “I cut the wire.”

There is not a universal rule against personal pronouns in technical writing. Different contexts and situations will require different approaches.

Nominalization

Nominalization is turning a verb into a noun — essentially describing an action as a thing. The passive voice inherently requires more words than the active voice. Technical writing is prone to wordy, sluggish phrasing caused mainly by inappropriate nominalizations, resulting from misusing the passive voice.

For example:

Verb: to perform → The worker performed a loading.

Noun: performance → A performance of the loading was made by the worker.

You can see here how the sentence became more oversized and awkward. Nominalization is grammatically correct, but it can distract from the “real” action of the sentence by replacing the main verb with a form of “to be.” Too many nominalizations create sentences that are difficult to read and overly complex. This type of writing is more demanding for your reader, and you will be more likely to lose their attention or understanding.

The main thing is to remember that using active or passive voice in technical writing should be a conscious choice that writers make depending on the situation and what should be emphasized and/or de-emphasized. What do you think about voices? Do you feel that active voice is more appropriate for technical documentation, or passive voice helps to express ideas better?

Stay well!

Amrit.

“Follow the river and you will get to the sea.”

Passionate technical writer

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