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5d. Surface the agent and action ... so users don't have to guess who does what.

  • Make the subject of your sentence the agent—the person, program, or thing carrying out the action—unless the agent is unknown, unimportant, or already pretty clear.
  • Make sure that the verb describes the action that agent is carrying out. Do not hide the "real" verb in an aside, a prepositional phrase, or a subordinate clause. Make sure your reader knows who did what.
  • Use active voice unless you have a very good reason to use the passive. (Say "He did it," rather than "It was done.").
  • Put the object of the verb after the verb. (Say "He hit the ball," not "The ball was hit by him.")
  • When telling people what to do, use the imperative. Do not say that they "may" do it. Do not say that "it is done." Tell people, "Do this now!"










People require 25% more time to understand simple passive than simple active sentences.—Miller (1962)

Readers are likely to feel that they are reading prose that is clear and direct when

(1) the subjects of the sentences name the cast of characters, and

(2) the verbs that go with those subjects name the crucial actions those characters are part of.

Williams (1990)

Activate the passive. The passive voice is an occupational hazard in many fields: Science, technical specialties, academic writing, and bureaucracy are all rich sources of the passive voice. It’s so common that most writers in such fields don’t even know when they’re using it—and if they do know, they’re proud of themselves for doing so. They think they sound professional. … Passive voice raises another problem for web writers: It means more words. —Kilian (1999)

Governments, politicians, and officials of all kinds love the passive because individual actions are buried beneath a cloak of collective responsibility.  --BBC

While the literature on the effect of active versus passive voice is mixed, active voice can be effectively used in Web writing. Not only do readers move more quickly through active voice text, but they prefer it and feel more familiar with it. Readers may even encode passive voice text in active voice. Writers can save space on the page and mental effort for the reader by using active voice when it suits the content’s purpose. —Spyridakis (2000)

See bibliography: Broadbent (1978), Flower, Hayes, and Swarts (1983), Herriot (1970), Horton (1990), Kilian (1999), Kintsch (1993), Miller (1962), Spyridakis (2000), Tarutz (1992), Williams (1990)


Original Paragraph

The alarm system has been activated by the security personnel, and the door panels have been sensitized, so when contact is made by an unauthorized person, alerts will be dispatched.

Revised Paragraph

The security personnel have activated the alarm system, making the door panels sensitive, so when an unauthorized person makes contact with the door, the system will send out an alert.

Other ways to make your text easier to understand:

5a. Reduce the number of clauses per sentence.

5b. Blow up nominalizations and noun trains.

5c. Watch out for ambiguous phrases a user might have to debate.

5e. Make a positive statement.

5f. Reduce scrolling.

5g. Let users print or save the entire document at once.

Resources on thoughtlessness

Taking a Position on Thoughtlessness

Heuristic Online Text (H. O. T.) Evaluation of Cognitive Burdens




Audience Fit
If visitors want... How well does this guideline apply?
To have fun An occasional passive does no one any harm.  But get in the habit, and you put your readers to sleep.
To learn Passives are OK when there is no true subject.  Avoid them when you want to help students understand concepts, processes, or ruling principles.
To act Follow the guideline to be clear.  Better yet, write in the imperative.  Tell people what to do.  Give orders!
To be aware Some passives reflect reality.  The person does nothing, but is transformed.  Still, keep the passives to a minimum.
To get close to people Somehow, folks know you are covering up, exaggerating, or lying when you overuse the passive--they'll say you sound just like a bureaucrat.

Ready for some challenges?

Don't make me think.


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