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In an Ubuntu installer bug I mention that this text:

You need to restart the computer.

...should be changed to:

The computer needs to be restarted.

The developer objected based on the assertion that "a different set of people will object to the passive voice". That is ridiculous, as it is not me who "needs" to restart the computer, but rather the computer that needs to be restarted.

Is the comment that the text needs to be changed a valid UI issue, or am I just being a jerk?

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One issue with active voice is that in languages like German, you now need to decide how to address the user, since we have different words for "you" depending on formality. But I suspect the choice between active and passive voice might differ between languages. –  CodesInChaos Mar 24 '12 at 23:46
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In either examples, you're not telling the user why she needs to restart. I would prefer: "Installation is complete. You must restart your computer." –  Jung Lee Mar 25 '12 at 4:08
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"The computer needs to be restarted." Fine, who should do that? You didn't say. I'll wait for someone to restart it. –  Kris Mar 25 '12 at 9:57
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3 Answers 3

up vote 5 down vote accepted

Passive works better for things like automatic updates: Things like this are the computer's fault, not the user's. :)

Active voice works fine for an installer because the user invoked the installer process in the first place. Active voice is more suited to time-dependent stuff. It tells the user to do the restarting so they're more likely to take action straight away.

Without the word 'now', "The computer needs to be restarted" is more of a notification.

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The active voice is significantly easier to read, because text reads best when it has identifiable agents performing strong actions. Almost every resource on clear writing will guide you to using the active as a preference.

In this case, the active voice is semantically valid because it's you who needs to restart the computer to complete the action that you initiated. With the active voice, it's a lot easier to attach an instruction to a user's goals and aspirations, and to make them the agent. Used properly, this can create some very motivating copy.

Typically, the passive voice is best when it puts in the tail of a construction the fact or concept that needs to be emphasised. In your example, "The computer needs to be restarted" works best when there's confusion about exactly what thing the computer needs - if another resource or entity implied you needed to install another application, for example.

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I think it's fine in the active voice. Users are used to it. Just be consistant.

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