Archive for December 16, 2010

Spare me the Passive Voice!

Posted in Education with tags , , , , , on December 16, 2010 by telescoper

I’ve felt a mini-rant brewing for a few days now, as I’ve been reading through some of the interim reports my project students have written. I usually quite enjoy reading these, in fact. They’re not too long and I’m usually pretty impressed with how the students have set about the sometimes tricky things I’ve asked them to do. One pair, for example, is reanalysing the measurements made at the 1919 Eclipse expedition that I blogged about here, which is not only interesting from a historical point of view but which also poses an interesting challenge for budding data analysts.

So it’s not the fact that I have to read these things that annoys me, but the strange way students write them, i.e. almost entirely in the passive voice, e.g. “The experiment was calibrated using a phlogiston normalisation widget…”.

I accept that people disagree about whether the passive voice is good style or not. Some journals actively encourage the passive voice while others go the opposite way entirely . I’m not completely opposed to it, in fact, but I think it’s only useful either when the recipient of the action described in the sentence is more important than the agent, or when the agent is unknown or irrelevant. There’s nothing wrong with “My car has been stolen” (passive voice) since you would not be expected to know who stole it. On the other hand “My Hamster has been eaten by Freddy Starr” would not make a very good headline.

The point is that the construction of a statement in the passive voice in English is essentially periphrastic in that it almost inevitably involves some form of circumlocution – either using more words than necessary to express the meaning or being deliberately evasive by introducing ambiguity. Both of these failings should be avoided in scientific writing.

Apparently our laboratory instructors tell students to write their reports in the passive voice as a matter of course. I think this is just wrong. In a laboratory report the student should describe what he or she did. Saying what “was done” often leaves the statement open to the interpretation that somebody else did it. The whole point of a laboratory report is surely for the students to describe their own actions. “We calibrated the experiment..” is definitely to be preferred to the form I gave above.

Sometimes it is appropriate to use the passive voice because it is the correct grammatical construction in the circumstances. Sometimes also the text just seems to work better that way too. But having to read an entire document written in the passive voice drives me to distraction. It’s clumsy and dull.

In scientific papers, things are a little bit different but I still think using the active voice makes them easier to read and less likely to be ambiguous. In the introduction to a journal paper it’s quite acceptable to discuss the background to your work in the passive voice, e.g. “it is now generally accepted that…” but when describing what you and your co-authors have done it’s much better to use the active voice. “We observed ABC1234 using the Unfeasibly Large Telescope..” is, to my mind, much better than “Observations of ABC1234 were made using..”.

Reading back over this post I notice that I have jumped fairly freely between active and passive voice, thus demonstrating that I don’t have a dogmatic objection to its use. What I’m arguing is that it shouldn’t be the default, that’s all.

My guess is that a majority of experimental scientists won’t agree with this opinion, but a majority of astronomers and theoreticians will.

This guess will now be tested using a poll…