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The passive voice and web accessibility

January 25, 2009

The grammatical rule against the passive voice always mystified me; sometimes it’s the only elegant way to express a thought.  Yet there’s Microsoft grammar checker with its squiggly green line, bothering about the passive voice. 

But the passive voice can be overdone.  (See?  Try that sentence in all active voice.  You wind up bending it into a pretzel.) I’m reading Sarah Horton’s Access by Design; a guide to universal usability for web designers, and she wallows in it:

When information is displayed on a printed page, its content and presentation are inextricably bound.  The expression of the information is tied to its visual design, and the reader must be able to access and interpret the information as presented.  When access is subject to requirements such as 20/20 vision, the information is bound to be inaccessible to some readers. (p. 44)

That’s ok in small doses but Horton wrote the whole book that way.  Here, I’ll take a crack at it:

Displaying information on a printed page inextricably binds content to presentation – in this case, the visual design of the page.  The user must correctly understand that presentation in order to access and interpret the information it contains.  If the presentation requires that the user have 20/20 vision, for example, some users will be unable to overcome it.

A real writer could certainly do better, but I gots to start paying attention to overusing the passive voice.  I’ve heard Sarah Horton speak in person, and on a separate occasion, her Web Style Guide co-author Patrick Lynch, and hadn’t realized what a leavening influence Lynch had on her writing. 

But no, this does not mean I’ll be turning on Grammar Checker.  The grammatical mistakes you read here are mine, dammit, and won’t be tainted by advice from any dunderheaded software program.

Otherwise, the book is pretty good.  I have not decided yet if I agree with all her conclusions, to the extent I can “access and interpret” them in all that passivity.  So far I’m much more enjoying another book, Bulletproof Web Design by Dan Cederholm.  Maybe it’s just me; I tend to prefer the style of a detective novel or ideally, a comic book.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. January 26, 2009 at 09:12 | #1

    Your version is immensely better.  It flows, it doesn’t drag, and it makes sense to someone who would’ve been in bed ten minutes ago if the cat hadn’t decided to climb into her lap and start purring.  That’s no mean feat!

    The passive voice drives me absolutely crazy.  I don’t edit my blog posts for it, because if I obsessed that much I’d never get anything else done, but in my fiction writing, the second draft sees me slashing and stabbing each passive bit whilst shouting “DIIIEEE!!!”  Well, except for the bits where passive voice is inescapable.

    I should just hire you instead.  ;-)

  2. January 26, 2009 at 20:06 | #2

    …But you can overdo passive voice.

    Using passive voice is a good way to hide responsibility.  And using passive voice is a good way to hide poor content.

    Here’s the test paragraph, boiled down to its basics:

    “Because people associate content with presentation, presentation is important.  If people can’t see what they read, they can’t read it.”

    How about…

    “When you’re designing a webpage layout, imagine the presentation from a variety of users’ perspectives.  For example, a user without 20/20 vision may not be able to read your text.”

    Technical writing.  Think like Hemingway, not like Faulkner.

  3. January 28, 2009 at 15:04 | #3

    There was a recommendation for a book titled “Bulletproof Web Design”, which was subsequently ordered by me and thanks were transferred to the person making the tip ;-)

  4. January 28, 2009 at 15:14 | #4

    There was a recommendation for a book titled “Bulletproof Web Design”, which was subsequently ordered by me and thanks were transferred to the person making the tip

    The purchaser may be assured it will not be regretted!  A quality of excellence may be attributed to the book.

  5. Still Me
    January 28, 2009 at 19:46 | #5

    I read a few of the reviews of this book on Amazon’s page.  They were glowing.  I hope web site designers will utilize the book well. 

    One thing that gets overlooked in any sort of design is negative space.  Negative space is as important as the content.  Great painters know how to move your eyes around the artwork in a specific direction.  They use color and shape to do this.  For example, red is a hot color and draws the eye immediately. 

    I think that too many web designers are able to do the mechanical bits but they fail at the artistic bits.

  6. January 28, 2009 at 20:04 | #6

    That’s a good point about negative space.  The problem is, that content stakeholders see negative space and think it should be filled with their content.  Every unoccupied pixel should be a little RGB monument to their greatness.  The web designer then tries to explain that brevity and simplicity are truly the soul of wit, and someone says; “But can’t you just put in one more link/logo/image/thing?” 

    The information design guru Edward Tufte said that the scarcest resource in computing is not hard drive space, RAM, or CPU cycles; it is screen real estate.  But which gets more attention; a skyscraper in Tokyo, or a single farmhouse under the North Dakota sky?

  7. Still Me
    January 28, 2009 at 20:12 | #7

    George, you wrote,
    The web designer then tries to explain that brevity and simplicity are truly the soul of wit. . .

    Yeah. . .
    Awesome, man. 

  8. Still Me
    January 28, 2009 at 20:16 | #8

    Have you ever heard of or seen that million-pixel advertising site?  Can’t think of its URL.  It costs a dollar a pixel to advertise on it.  It looks like a two-dimensional, full-color Borg.  Makes one wonder about the similarities between the two : )

  9. Still Me
    January 28, 2009 at 20:34 | #9

    VID, (Very Important Distinction) follows:

    Actually, if you are not familiar with The Borg . . . what I meant to say is that the million pixel advertising site really looks like is a Borg SHIP (not an individual). 

    VID #2: I am not a Trekkie.

  10. January 28, 2009 at 22:01 | #10

    No Worries, Still Me, I speak tolerable Trek, bearable Battlestar Galactica, a bit of Babylon 5, though only a whisper of Who.  Along with credible Clarke, adequate Asimov, and heavy Heinlein.

    What were we talking about, again?  Oh yeah… million-pixel site.  Remind me of the 1-second Miller High-Life ads.  Or the Blipverts in Max Headroom.

  11. Still Me
    January 28, 2009 at 22:05 | #11

    I enjoyed Max Headroom when it was on network tv.  I can’t remember much of it anymore.

  12. Still Me
    January 28, 2009 at 22:31 | #12

    Anyway, to get back on topic without belaboring the issue…
    I brought up the million pixel site (million dollar homepage dot com) because it’s …sorry, I must say it: it’s so ugly…. It’s beyond me how anyone except the promoter is making any $ off it.  Yet, there it still is.

    That is all.

  13. January 29, 2009 at 07:48 | #13

    As George Carlin said; “You nail together any two things that have never been nailed together before, and some schmuck will buy them!”  I think this explains the million-pixel site, among others.

    I noticed a trend in the opposite direction a few years ago; beauty in advertising.  Nike had a commercial of people running, set to music, that was amazingly beautiful.  Even Dow Chemical has commercials that are like 60-second art films with poetic narration.  I love to see stuff like that because after all, why should anything we make be ugly?

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