In which the passive voice is considered to suck.

Dec 09 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

One of my pet peeves is the passive voice. And it is a thing that almost everyone does in their writing*. The passive voice is, apparently, what many scientists think sound appropriate/formal. Or something. For example:

It was found that the effects of gene x on (blah blah) were significant.

As compared to:

We found that gene x had a significant effect on (blah blah).

Do you see what I did there?

Now, this may be a common problem when you are first starting to write about science. In fact, many people (including me) have a tendency to write like this. But please PLEASE go through and remove the passive voice from your writing before you make someone else read it. If you are lucky, there will be someone that can beat this out of you before it is too late. Sadly, this is not always the case. In fact, I have heard of the horrifying situation where a senior author reverts nice, active sentences into a passive voice! I don't know what advice to offer you if you find yourself in this position. I mean, I guess you could run screaming. That is probably the best option. Really, I can only hope you all avoid such a horrible fate. Good luck!


*heck, some folks even do this when they are talking. WTF????

19 responses so far

  • This post was written in a very good way.

  • While people do tend to overuse the passive voice, it does have its appropriate place. For example, in the methods section of a manuscript, there is absolutely nothing wrong with writing "blots were washed in 10% motherfucken jameson" instead of "we washed the blots in 10% motherfucken jameson". The passive voice has utility exactly when the identity of the actor is irrelevant and a distraction, such as here.

    Where it goes wrong is when it obliterates the existence of an actor whose identity is relevant: "In order to determine whether X protein is necessary for Y process in the adrenal gland, aldosterone synthase CRE mice for tissue specific x gene knock-out were employed" is terrible, because it obliterates the existence of the actors who made that strategic decision.

    The more important issue is failure to use a variety of sentence structures over the course of a paragraph. "We measured X. We found Y. We conclude Z. Next, we measured A. Then, we found B. Thus, we interpret C." is just as painful and boring as "X was measured. Y was found. Z was concluded. Next, A was measured. Then, B was found. Thus, C was interpreted."

    The key is to mix things up and vary sentence structures over the course of a paragraph: "In order to determine blah, we measured X in the presence of snuh. With gruh blocked by snuh, X is greatly increased. This suggests that under normal conditions, gruh either inhibits the production of X or decreases its half-life. To distinguish these two possibilities, cycloheximide was included in the reaction mixture. With protein synthesis thereby blocked, gruh doesn't influence X levels, indicating that under normal conditions, gruh inhibits production of X."

    Using passive sentences here and there, like above, decreases monotony and makes paragraphs flow better. Don't throw the baby out with the bathwater.

    • gerty-z says:

      Fair enough. I agree that the methods section can be an exception. But I still think the there is too much passive voice used, especially by younger scientists. At least that is my experience.

      • scicurious says:

        I think young scientists overuse passive voice because there's so little training on what effective science writing really IS and what it should contain. To young scientists, passive voice is what sounds most "sciencey', which is probably why they overuse it. The more complicated a sentence is, the more 'sciencey' it sounds, and passive voice helps make things sound complicated. Unfortunately most science writing training happens in a mentor mentee situation, and if the mentor is not a good writer, and only learned in passive voice...passive voice is what you get. And of course, no editor of a scientific journal is going to try and deal with that (though I think it might be nice if they did, they've probably got enough going on).

        • gerty-z says:

          totally agree with you! I was lucky to have folks that beat passive voice out of me early. But if your mentor is a passive-voicer then there is not much you can do šŸ™

  • Dr. O says:

    For example:

    It was found that the effects of gene x on (blah blah) were significant.

    As compared to:

    We found that gene x had a significant effect on (blah blah).

    Or: Genex X had a significant effect on (blah blah).

    I like removing extra verbage; it's my favorite activity as an editor. šŸ™‚

    • gerty-z says:

      in general I agree. BUT, there are times that you want it to be very clear that YOUR WORK is the basis for this conclusion. And, as CPP brought up, you also may need to make the sentence longer than absolutely necessary just to make the writing sound interesting.

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    Right on, Dr. O! A mild disagreement with C. P. Because my papers are read world wide by readers whose first language is not English, I tend to use the same sentence structure (not to excess, I hope) and repeat words rather than substituting synonyms. I find the latter a little boring in other situations, and often go back and put in synonyms before hitting send. Note the active voice. šŸ˜‰

    • Steve Bennett says:

      Agreed on reducing verbage. Using synonyms can be confusing, though, if it implies a difference that isn't there: "We found that gene x had a significant effect. We also discovered that gene Y strongly affected protein development."

      The reader wonders: does "discover" mean "find", does "strongly" mean "significant", does "has an effect" mean "affects"?

  • JPop says:

    To speak up for the younger scientists - I was told (by my examiners) never to use We in a thesis, and settled for passive voice to avoid the 6th-grade-science-fair flavour of the first person active voice. The habit is hard to kick in other writing šŸ™

  • katiesci says:

    Passive voice is a hard habit to break. I got used to using passive voice because I was always told not to use pronouns in technical writing. I use ms Word's feature to show me where it is so I can mix things up a bit (just like CPP suggests, wow).

    I definitely agree with Dr. O. A grad school prof has hammered into my head that you don't need to say "was found" or "it was shown". If it was then you just state it as such.

  • Like most rules of writing, you learn them, and then good writers know when and how to break them. I dare any passive voice purist to argue that the original:

    It has not escaped our notice that the specific pairing we have postulated immediately suggests a possible copying mechanism for the genetic material.

    is more effective as:

    We noticed that the specific pairing we have postulated immediately suggests a possible copying mechanism for the genetic material.

    • gerty-z says:

      I think using the "it has not escaped our notice..." trick is cute, but not necessarily more effective (in general). But hey, rules are made for breaking. I could try to take the purist stand here, but I agree that this paper was so obviously groundbreaking (I think even at the time) that acting coy like this made for interesting writing. In fact, it seems to me (based on readings from my own field) that scientists used to be much more conversational and interesting in their writing. I wonder when that all started to change?

  • J Kwasniak says:

    A good place to go for advice on the 'passive' in LanguageLog. There are many posts.

  • Spiny Norman says:

    Here's the question. When you insert six instances of "we" into a Results paragraph, is the paragraph about the Results, or about the investigators? IMO the focus should always be on the science and there is NO problem with judicious use of passive voice -- especially in cases where it aids clarity.

    Like many other stylistic rules, the admonition to use passive voice is unmitigated bullshit, if followed slavishly . Close attention to what great writers do reveals that great writers do in fact use the passive voice frequently and well. But they don't use the passive voice passively.

  • icee says:

    By the time I graduated high school I knew better than to use passive voice. I never slipped up, because my teachers had hammered the rules into my brain. Several years later, when I went to college as a science major I was ripped apart for using active voice in my lab reports šŸ™ My instructors told me that passive voice was the rule for science writing. After being in grad school for a while, I learned that my high school teachers were right all along, and I have to (once again) re-train my brain to avoid passive voice. Ugh.

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