'Active Voice' - Technical Writing One - Google

— 4 minute read

Introduction permalink

This is the second of several posts about the Technical Writing course provided by Google. They will each be tagged Technical Writing.

This particular post covers the third unit:

3 - Active Voice

The course itself goes in to more detail in each topic, these notes aim to be a brief review in order to better fortify the concepts covered.

Learning Outcomes

"Technical Writing One teaches you how to write clearer documentation."

According to the welcome page this course teaches the fundamentals of technical writing.

This post covers the following learning outcomes:

  • Distinguish active voice from passive voice.
  • Convert passive voice sentences to active voice.
  • Identify three ways in which active voice is superior to passive voice.

Active Voice permalink

Sentences in technical writing should usually be written in active voice.

How to Distinguish Active Voice from Passive Voice permalink

In an active voice sentence, an actor acts on a target. In a passive voice sentence this formula is reversed.

See the two formula below, followed by a basic example of each:

Active Voice:
actor + verb + target
'The cat sat on the mat.'

Passive Voice:
target + verb + actor
'The mat was sat on by the cat.'

In each example the actor, the verb and the target remain the same:

Actor: the cat
Verb: (was) sat
Target: the mat

The passive voice can also sometimes omit the actor. In this case the actor is unknown. Eg: The mat was sat on.

Omission of the actor can lead to a sentence being amiguous - in this case the reader is unaware of who sat on the mat. It may have been a dog, or any other animal. Good technical writing will be clear about who is doing an action.

How to Recognise Passsive Verbs permalink

A passive verb will usually be made up of a form of be and the past participle verb. To make sense of that, you can break it down further:

  • A form of be will typically be:
    • is / are
    • was / were
  • The past participle verb will typically be the plain verb plus the suffix ed. Some examples are:
    • interpreted
    • generated
    • formed

There are also some irregular past participle verbs. In these cases the past participle form does not end with ed. Some examples are:

  • sat
  • known
  • frozen

Some of the same examples as passive verbs are:

  • was interpreted
  • is generated
  • was formed
  • is frozen
  • are known

If the phrase does contain an actor, a preposition ordinarily follows the passive verb. For example:

  • was interpreted as
  • is generated by
  • was formed by

Imperative Verbs are Typically Active permalink

An imperative verb is a command. Sentences that start with an imperative command are typically in active voice. They can often be confused as passive though because they do not usually contain an actor - however, the use of an imperative verb implies an actor. The implied actor is you.

A usual example of active voice with an imperative verb is in a list:

1 - Open the configuration file

2 - Set the Frombus variable to False.

Some Examples permalink

These images are taken directly from the course website (I hope google do not mind...):

Passive & passive voice example

Active & active voice example

Use Active Voice More Often than Passive Voice permalink

Active voice should be used most of the time. Passive voice should be used sparingly. Active voice has a few advantages for writers and readers:

  • Most readers will mentally convert passive voice to active voice in order to better understand. Sticking to active voice removes this processing time for readers.
  • Passive voice reports action indirectly. In doing so, it obfuscates the presented ideas.
  • Passive voice can omit the actor altogether which forces the reader to guess critical information which could have been provided to them if the active voice had been used.
  • Generally active voice is shorter than passive voice.

Be bold — be active.