Spare me the Passive Voice!

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…


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16 Responses to “Spare me the Passive Voice!”

  1. The trouble with the active voice is that it can become quite egotistical, which is inappropriate for a scientific paper. Students are expected to use something approaching the style of a research paper for their reports as part of the process of learning that style.

    Would we really want a research paper to have something like this?

    “I have improved the techniques used by others. I extended the depth of the analysis by … I have achieved a considerable advance over previous studies.”

    • One can write in the active voice without being as bombastic as your example, but I agree that it is a danger. I don’t find anything particularly wrong in saying, e.g. “We improve upon the technique of Jones et al. (1848) by introducing a variable doofer in the MacGuffin control, thereby removing gremlins from the thingummy process”. Apart, of course, from the fact that it’s gibberish.

      I would feel uncomfortable writing a journal paper in the first person singular, but I think it feels less egotistical to use “we”, even if there is only one author (which is increasingly rare in any case). If it’s good enough for the Queen it’s good enough for me.

      However, I just looked “we” up in Chambers dictionary and found

      ..used when speaking patronizingly, esp to children, to mean `you’.

      which wasn’t at all what I had in mind!

  2. astrofairy Says:

    I’m not sure that the lab instructors do say to write in passive voice. I remember demonstrating the labs and making sure students wrote about what they were doing in real time as they were doing it -students are supposed to be marked on how well they record their work during the experiment, so it should be active voice. It’s possible that they are told to use passive voice for the more formal write up of their report but they weren’t when I was a lab demonstrator.

    I usually use “we” too but maybe I won’t after the Chambers dictionary definition!

  3. May you be spared the passive voice!

  4. Jade Powell Says:

    On page 7 of the first year lab book is a paragraph saying the students must use the past tense passive voice when writing reports.

  5. Steve Eales Says:

    I am an experimental scientist (sort of) and I’ve been telling people to write scientific papers in the active voice for years. Totally agree on the general rant. However, I disagree that single-author papers should be written as ‘we..’. To me that sounds weird. I generally write in the first person, or at least I did in the last single-author paper I wrote, back in 1992. I don’t think it is egotistical, just punchier and straightforward.
    Steve

    • telescoper Says:

      Steve

      I (sometimes) like “we” when there’s, e.g., a complicated mathematical derivation. It seems the reader line by line through a lengthy piece or difficult technical argument seems friendlier if you imagine that the reader is trying to do the calculation along with you as you write it: “if we differentiate the right hand side of equation (8), use the expression for x obtained in equation (97), expand y in a power-series and take away the number we first thought of we find…”.
      The “we” isn’t necessarily the author with delusions of grandeur (or schizophrenia), but instead denotes a joint operation between author and reader.

      Peter

  6. Woken Postdoc Says:

    I share this peeve. I struggle with collaborators who prefer passive wording. I tend to smother students’ draft reports and theses with red ink: urging simpler, active language. Often, five or six words of backhanded syntax could shrink to a single, sharp, monosyllabic, active verb.

    OTOH, one remarkable student used first-person language for almost everything (“I” this, and “my” that) … even to describe eternal, mathematical truths. A better text distinguishes clearly between the author’s voice, other peoples’ thoughts, and universal absolutes. Isn’t it creepy when a mortal drifts into writing on behalf of divinity, “The Community” or “The Paradigm”?

    Please pardon my anonymity: the students don’t deserve indirect outing, and anyway the powers-that-be would disapprove of me spending time on advising/supervising.

  7. John Peacock Says:

    The distinction between active and passive voice is way down the list of things that should be concerning readers of lab reports. Only a very small fraction of students seem able to write english that is succinct and clearly structured, in any voice. This state of affairs is not improved by the standard gratuitous howlers of confusing their and there, its and it’s etc., plus peppering the text with commas in a purely stochastic fashion; to say nothing of failing to realise that the semicolon exists, never mind what it is for.

    I really don’t understand how/why things are this bad. I went through senior school in the 1970s, which was probably the nadir of grammar teaching (i.e. none). But if you read books at all, the ability to write semi-decent English ought to be picked up subconsciously.

    • Mr Physicist Says:

      I agree. The standard of English in any tense or voice is depressingly poor these days. This is not limited to students – just look at the comments on popular blogs, websites, etc. My biggest worry is that we are producing generations of people who have no grasp of spelling, grammar or punctuation…. and even worse they don’t care.

    • Monica grady Says:

      I am (or was) a chemist, and was taught at school that all experiments had to be written up in the third person past passive. Anything else was marked down. I now struggle to rid myself of that style of writing. I am, however, proud to report that all my students are taught the correct use of the construction “due to” and the difference between “can” and “may” ( or “possum” and “licet”, as I was instructed at my father’s knee).

    • telescoper Says:

      John,

      I’ve always assumed the problem physics students have with writing is that they don’t get enough practice doing it. I get the impression that many just sit down and start writing without giving any thought to the logical flow, how this should be signposted with headings or paragraphs breaks, and so on.

      I like to cite the example of John Barrow (my PhD supervisor) who is a prolific writer. What struck me when we wrote papers together was how rarely he re-wrote anything. He made a few notes as a kind of map and then off he went. Everything I wrote went through so many iterations it seemed to me I might as well have let him write it in the first place.

      Anyway, this experience all taught me the most important thing about writing, which is not to try to write anything until you’re ready and have thought enough about it that has taken shape in your mind and all you need to do is transfer it to the page (or screen) via the keyboard.

      Punctuation and grammar are problems, of course, but it’s a lot easier to correct grammatical errors than it is to unpick prose that goes around in circles with no sense of logical progression.

      Peter

  8. Anton Garrett Says:

    I suspect that the passive is used more often in single-author papers, in view of the anomaly that “we” is acceptable in scientific papers but “I” isn’t. “We” can be used by a single author when it may be taken to mean “the writer in partnership with the reader”, of course, but some singleton authors use it regardless. A physics journal editor once had a blitz against such usage in the era before word processors. One prospective singleton author who had used “we” throughout, a nuclear physicist called Hetherington, was unable to face rewriting his paper in the passive and simply invented a fictitious co-author – his cat, Willard (named ultimately after the great 19th-century physicist Willard Gibbs). You can google “Hetherington and Willard” for details. (Or “One can google…” – scope for another discussion?)

    My school chemistry teacher advocated the passive but hated superfluous use of the verb “take” (or similar) in phrases such as “A 500ml flask was taken and was filled with distilled water…” The words “was taken and” never got past his red pen.

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