Active or Passive Voice in User Manuals and Documentation

Posted in TechComm on 10/6/20173 min read

Learning Grammar

If you are a native English speaker then the choice between Active Voice and Passive Voice is likely to be obvious to you. But, if you are writing user guides in English or working in an English speaking team while it is not your mother tongue - you should study the vital difference between these two voices.

In this article, you’ll find the difference explained and practical advice given.

In case you are interested in more grammar articles, check out this one that explains the use of Possessive Case with proper nouns.

Basics to Start With

  • Active Voice

    The majority of sentences have a subject. This is the word in a sentence that answers the following questions: who? what?

    In an active sentence, the subject is the doer of the action, like:

    The Support team has solved the issue.

    The Support team is doing the action in this case. While the issue is the receiver of this action.

  • Passive Voice

    With Passive Voice, it is vice versa - the receiver becomes the doer of an action. Let’s transform the same sentence into a passive one:

    The issue has been solved by the Support team.

    Passive Voice is formed with the help of the auxiliary verb to be + the third form of the main verb.

Passive and Active Voices

Now, what’s the difference? The facts seem to be preserved in both the examples: there was an issue, and the Support team got rid of it. Actually, here’s a great deal of sentences where Passive and Active Voices are mostly interchangeable. And, then, there are ones you should be on the lookout for.

What Do You Really Want to Say?

There’s a tendency in English to say what’s more important first. And, it’s only natural - more important information should be delivered faster to get faster feedback in a person's mind.

Check out the two sentences below:

Active - The top managers of the Very Good IT Company approved this research.
Passive - This research was approved by the top managers of the Very Good IT Company.

In the first sentence, the speaker emphasizes that the top management of this company approved something and not anyone else. In the second case, we are being told that the research was approved - that’s what's important - the fact of the approval.

Book

Decide what you want to communicate and place it first.

Who Did This?

Quite often, it is not important who is responsible for an action taken. This is often true for user manuals, support messages, etc. Imaging a 'What's New' article:

Active - We added the ClickHelp Zendesk integration.
Passive - The ClickHelp Zendesk integration was added.

The first option sounds awkward - it doesn't really matter who added the feature, so Passive Voice is better here because it lets us leave the doer of the action unnamed.

Keep in mind that when you are writing an article on some scientist, inventor, etc. you should use active sentences more not to diminish the fact that a person made this contribution.

Active and Passive Voices in Management

As far as management is concerned, Active Voice often helps to establish successful communication with employees. See this example:

Active - Employees need to secure their accounts with stronger passwords.
Passive - The accounts need to be secured with stronger passwords by the employees.

The first sentence is more concise and clear. The structure is simpler, and the word count is lower. The message will be definitely understood and memorized by the employees. Also, the active sentence sounds stronger, and so it will be more likely taken seriously.

Conclusion

As you see, the choice of Voice matters quite often. Hopefully, these pieces of advice will help you improve your writing and management skills. What seems easy and natural for native speakers often means obstacles and tons of research for others. Being a technical writer requires perfect grammar just like other technical writing skills. The more you learn and practice, the more efficient you become at writing knowledge bases, software documentation and other documents in general.

Happy Technical Writing!
ClickHelp Team

 

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