Stop Using Passive Voice

As I mentioned in a previous post, testers must learn to communicate efficiently and effectively. Today, I want to focus on a form of communication I see all too often and why you should try to avoid it at all costs.

The term “passive voice” refers to a form of grammar in English where the subject of a sentence is being acted upon rather than doing the acting. For example, “The decision was made to move forward with the current plan” or “The bug was found during the test pass.”  In the first example, “the decision” is the subject, but it’s not clear who made the decision; it was just “made”.  In the second example, “the bug” is the subject, and again… who found it?

Alternatively, an “active voice” sentence is one where the subject is doing the acting: “Sally found the bug during the test pass.”  In the latter, Sally is the subject, and in this sentence there is no question about who found the bug.

Hopefully, you can now see why active voice is the better choice. For one, active voice provides more clarity, whereas passive voice leaves the reader/listener with questions.

Another reason to prefer active voice is that it more directly attributes the result with the “doer”. Passive voice can come across as not taking accountability for a bad result or not properly attributing success to the specific behaviors that led to it. Hopefully you work in a culture that applauds and encourages taking accountability rather than shifting blame to some unseen actor. If you don’t, run.

Luckily, many word processors with grammar checking can help point out usage of passive voice for you. Before you try that, let’s try a quick example. Which sentence do you think is more helpful for knowing what went wrong and how to fix it?  

  1. The tests weren’t included in the test pass because a miscommunication occurred.
  2. Oscar did not execute the tests in the test pass because he misread Rolph’s instructions.

I tried to make it obvious there by including not one, but two passive voice phrases in the first sentence and two active voice phrases in the second. After hearing the first sentence, you might be left wondering who didn’t run the tests, what the miscommunication was, etc. The second sentence makes these points clear, however. Of course, you still need to understand whether Oscar was careless in his reading of the instructions or if Rolph’s instructions were too confusing, but at least you’re one step closer to getting to the bottom of the situation.

As testers, part of our job is to root-cause problems in products and processes. Active voice provides a much more direct way to present a root cause, and that should in turn provide a more direct route to a solution.

Homework

Pay attention to communication you receive today and try to count the number of times you hear or see passive voice being used. Pick one or two examples and re-form them in active voice.

If you have any questions on how to rephrase passive to active voice, let me know and I’ll try to help.