Mainstream style guides gang up on passive voice with the single-mindedness of Sisyphus pushing his boulder up the hill. And, like Sisyphus, their efforts are doomed from the start. While active voice is preferable in most situations, there will always — always — be exceptions. A good technical writer has to be able to tell when to use active voice over passive, and vice-versa. Getting it wrong will make your copy less clear. You don’t want that, right? Let’s start with the basics: How do you know it’s passive voice? Add “by zombies” at the end of it. No, really. Passive voice consists to be + past participle, but just because something follows that structure doesn’t automatically mean it is passive voice. So add “by zombies” to it and see if it still makes sense. If it does, it’s probably passive voice. Otherwise, it’s very likely not. For instance: Alex was thrilled to win the chess tournament by zombies. ⇒ Not passive voice. (You can try to add “by zombies” anywhere in that sentence and it still won’t work.)Alex was chased away from the library by zombies. ⇒ Passive voice. So what’s wrong with passive voice, anyway? Strunk and White, whose disastrous legacy continues to damage professional use of the English language to this day, say active voice “makes for more forcible writing” and “is usually more direct and vigorous”. Two of the three terms they use — forcible and vigorous — are both ambiguous and highly subjective. What makes a sentence “vigorous”? Is “forcible” really the kind of tone you want to be going for? (Unless you write debt collection notices for a living, I highly doubt it.) Besides, it’s not like Strunk and White themselves knew what passive voice actually is (read this piece by Erica L. Meltzer to see just how wrong these two got it). When should you use passive voice? Most of the style guides I’ve worked with have parroted this advice in some form or another, which made for a number of frustrating encounters with technical editors who were so far removed from the subject matter they couldn’t see how adding an actor (or several) hurt more than it helped. In memory of all those wasted work hours, here’s how (and when) passive voice can be a better choice. When there are several possible actors Are you familiar with the primacy effect? Quoth Wikipedia: “The primacy effect (…) is a cognitive bias that results in a subject recalling primary information presented better than information presented later on.” In simple English, a reader is more likely to remember the beginning of a sentence than the middle of it. There’s wisdom in the old journalistic adage, “Don’t bury the lede.” Consider an action within a mobile app that can be triggered in three different ways: by a userby the phone’s operating systemby the app itself If you want to describe a specific behavior that the action triggers, which one’s clearer? A: When the action is triggered, your phone will vibrate.B: When you, your phone’s operating system, or the app triggers the action, your phone will vibrate. With A, the succession of events is immediately clear: this thing triggers that thing. B introduces not one, but three unrelated things before it gets to the point, and the core message is lost by zombies. N.B.: I’ve seen proponents of active voice, as in “When the action triggers.” That’s not technically accurate; the action doesn’t fire off on its own. I’m also reminded of this delicious edit I received back in the day: “When a job is posted posts to your internal job board…” When you don’t know the actor Consider: A: The statue was vandalized last night.B: Someone vandalized the statue last night. Which one sounds more impactful? Hint: It’s not the one that kicks off with the vague, superfluous word. It’s obvious “someone” did it; the statue didn’t vandalize itself. In technical writing, you might be inclined to think that not knowing the actor is a Bad ThingTM. And you’d be right, generally. The problem is, whatever you’re documenting (for instance, an app) doesn’t function in a vacuum. It interacts with other apps, an operating system, and a host of other things you may not even be aware of. It’s far better to use passive voice than to introduce an actor that’s misleading or incorrect. When the focus is on the object receiving the action I’m going to fall back on the Microsoft Style Guide for this one, because Microsoft’s passive voice guidelines demonstrate an admirable mastery of common sense: A: That site can’t be found. Double-check the site address in the Address bar. Twisting the sentence to make it active at all costs would just make it harder to scan. Get to the point. When it sounds better When all’s said and done, you want your copy to sound like it was written by humans, for humans. If a sentence sounds more natural in passive voice rather than active, then use the passive and move on. Your editor might grumble about it, but you’re not writing for them. You’re writing for your users. If you lose sight of your main goal — that is, to give users the information they need in a clear, concise, and accurate manner — your copy can be 100% style-conforming and still miss the mark, and that’s much, much worse. Further reading Orwell was not always right: in defence of the passive voice (Michael Skapinker)Fear and Loathing of the English Passive (Geoffrey K. Pullum) Cover photo by David Pennington on Unsplash.