W3C home > Mailing lists > Public > w3c-wai-gl@w3.org > April to June 2003

RE: what is active RE: passive vs active voice

From: Charles McCathieNevile <charles@w3.org>
Date: Mon, 9 Jun 2003 11:03:29 -0400 (EDT)
To: Gregg Vanderheiden <gv@trace.wisc.edu>
cc: <w3c-wai-gl@w3.org>
Message-ID: <Pine.LNX.4.30.0306091037020.26748-100000@tux.w3.org>

I don't know if I can help you.

Confused is a past participle - a form of a verb that works like an
adjective. So "I am confused" is a standard passive construction.

The verb to be is intransitive (it doesn't happen to anything, the subject
just does it). So when used with an adjective it is active.

But it is also used as an auxiliary verb - in "I am confused" the verb part
of the sentence is "am confused". (In latin you can say "audio, video, amo" -
I hear, I see, I love - and "audior videor amor" - I am heard, I am seen, I
am loved - but in at least half a dozen modern european languages you need
two or more parts to make the statement, and one of them is often the verb to

Because this construction works the same way as the verb to be with an
adjective, I think it is OK to use this simple construction in general
(compared to using complex passive sentences).

I think the guidelines should be in the active voice, in the imperative mood,
but I think that is the sort of thing a technial editor should suggest
towards the end of the drafting process. If we want the drafts to conform to
WCAG 1 to the highest degree possible, of course, we should aim to keep the
language simple.

Mostly I wanted to clear up some misunderstandings I had seen about what is
passive or active.



On Sun, 8 Jun 2003, Gregg Vanderheiden wrote:

>Hi Charles,
>I think I got this.
>But I am still a bit confused.
>I followed it all until you said.
>" For example, "I am confused" is technically in the passive voice. However
>is a description of me like "I am tall" which is definitely not in the
>passive voice."
>And then I was confused.
>"I am confused"  is passive but  "I am tall" is not ??  Aren't confused and
>tall both adjectives?
>And your conclusion seemed to say that our current form for the checklists
>which is of the form...    "subject, verb to be, description"      was ok.
>But I wasn't sure if that was passive or active. (Since you started out
>saying that we should use active at the top of your memo.)
>Can you help me.
> -- ------------------------------
>Gregg C Vanderheiden Ph.D.
>Professor - Ind. Engr. & BioMed Engr.
>Director - Trace R & D Center
>University of Wisconsin-Madison
>-----Original Message-----
>From: w3c-wai-gl-request@w3.org [mailto:w3c-wai-gl-request@w3.org] On Behalf
>Of Charles McCathieNevile
>Sent: Sunday, June 08, 2003 7:57 PM
>To: Gregg Vanderheiden
>Cc: w3c-wai-gl@w3.org
>Subject: what is active RE: passive vs active voice
>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
>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
>- we could extend this to understand (very simple) grammatical
>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
>perhaps an agent (the thing that "does" the verb to the subject, and
>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
>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
>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
>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
>that is very easy to understand even for people with intellectual
>impairments) would give us some powerful examples, and improve the
>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
>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
>>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.

Charles McCathieNevile  http://www.w3.org/People/Charles  tel: +61 409 134 136
SWAD-E http://www.w3.org/2001/sw/Europe         fax(france): +33 4 92 38 78 22
 Post:   21 Mitchell street, FOOTSCRAY Vic 3011, Australia    or
 W3C, 2004 Route des Lucioles, 06902 Sophia Antipolis Cedex, France
Received on Monday, 9 June 2003 11:03:31 UTC

This archive was generated by hypermail 2.4.0 : Thursday, 24 March 2022 21:07:30 UTC