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what is active RE: passive vs active voice

From: Charles McCathieNevile <charles@w3.org>
Date: Sun, 8 Jun 2003 20:56:31 -0400 (EDT)
To: Gregg Vanderheiden <gv@trace.wisc.edu>
cc: <w3c-wai-gl@w3.org>
Message-ID: <Pine.LNX.4.30.0306081951550.17493-100000@tux.w3.org>

Hi folks,


I think there is a good reason why we should use active instead of passive:
Active voice is easier to understand, and in particular to process

I think we should note that simple descriptive clauses (of the form subject,
verb "to be", adjective or participle) are clear and comprehensible.

I think more complex passive constructions (for example sentences which
include an agent) are generally better as active voice.

I also think we need to do a lot of work on this, and create per-language
techniques for the plain language checkpoint since they are not all
transferable across languages.


I am interested in the problem of identifying parts of a sentence to assist
with automatic simplification or rendering in an augmented form. I don't want
to pretend that we can wait for an artificial intelligence algorithm to
process language. As William Loughborough says it is probably six months
away, just like it was when Marvin Minsky worked on the problem in the
1950's. But when the language is simple enough there are existing tools we
can work with. For those who have Microsoft's "Word" there is a grammar
checker that can do some useful things, and there are a number of online
translation engines such as altavista's babelfish, or google's service for
translating pages it found.

Lisa Seeman has shown a demo that uses RDF to work at the level of vocabulary
- we could extend this to understand (very simple) grammatical constructions.
In particular, active voice "subject, verb, object" is a common pattern, as
is "subject, verb to be, description". Passive voice is not so easy.

I have seen several misunderstandings of what is passive voice, so I thought
I would try to explain the two. (Richard Ishida already did, but his mailer
put so much junk into the message I could not read it properly).

Passive voice is a verb where the action is done to the subject of the
clause, often by something. (The verb "done"  there is the first verb in the
passive voice in this email). The pattern is that there is a subject, a verb,
perhaps an agent (the thing that "does" the verb to the subject, and possible
other stuff too.

Something that seems to confuse people is the pattern of the subject, the
verb to be (is, are, will be, was, etc) and an adjective or participle - a
description of the subject.

For example, "I am confused" is technically in the passive voice. However it
is a description of me like "I am tall" which is definitely not in the
passive voice. The confusion comes about because english uses a similar
pattern to make passive voice.

I suggest that we do not discourage this simple form, whether it is a passive
construction or a simple description.

"I am confused by the passive voice" is the third time I have used the
passive voice in this email. It has the pattern subject - "me", a
verb - "confuse", and an agent - "the passive voice" - the thing which did
the confusing.

For most verbs in english (and many modern european languages) the passive
voice is made by combining the past participle (often "something-ed") with
the verb to be. (That was the fourth example: subject is the passive voice,
verb is to make, agent is the whole description of how to make it). For
example, The example I have used here is the verb "to confuse" - the passive
of "to confuse" is "to be confused".

Combining the present participle (the "-ing" form) with the verb to be is not
a passive voice, even technically. For example "it is raining" is in the
active voice. The subject is "it", and the verb is "is raining". This is
equivalent in english to "it rains" - an active form. The subject here is an
"impersonal" a proper grammar form for statements where you don't identify
exactly who or what is the subject.

There are more complex examples. Think of the statement "they should increase
the chocolate ration" - it doesn't matter who "they" really are. In the
passive voice this would be "the chocolate ration should be increased". This
(example 5) is a simple example - a subject, a simple verb description, no
agent. Indeed, it is a clear way to express the impersonal. It doesn't
confuse people with difficulties like semantic pragmatic disorder because
they don't wonder who the impersonal "they" (who should increase the
chocolate ration) are.

So what are my conclusions?

As I said above, I think we should not be advising against simple "subject,
verb to be, description" constructions. These are relatively easy to deal
with automatically. I think that adding an agent complicates the sentence.

I think there is clearly a lot of work to do here, and we need to enlist the
help of people who are experts in the area. Working with people who are both
skilled writers and and skilled in "plain language" (in the sense of language
that is very easy to understand even for people with intellectual
impairments) would give us some powerful examples, and improve the guidelines

I know that the rules for language change according to the language (for
example latin doesn't have the confusion of english because it has an
unambiguous form of the passive) so we should accept that we may be unable to
create techniques that apply to all languages, and sek out people who speak
languages or language groups that are not present in the current group.
Getting help from the i18n activity would be a start.



On Fri, 6 Jun 2003, Gregg Vanderheiden wrote:

>Hi David,
>Actually, I don't think it says to write in the active voice.
>It says to consider it.  It also says to use as appropriate.
>In fact, if we find that we can't use active and be simple and accurate,
>then we should cite that as an example of why these are worded as "consider"
>instead of as "do".
>And if we can use active and be simple and accurate - then this discussion
>is all moot.  We will have done it.
Received on Sunday, 8 June 2003 20:56:33 GMT

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