Alex (yakshaver) wrote,

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Passive Voice Considered Harmful

I've just caught up on Live Journal after a very busy month, and have yet to put together the events of my own life in that period. And that will have to wait a little while longer; this entry is a reaction to a discussion in siderea's journal, at the conclusion of which she decided that she should write her research paper in the passive voice. I was appalled by some of the comments on this thread. "Acadmia [sic] is all about the passive voice." True — for second raters:

[T]hese days, the use of the passive voice in a research paper is the hallmark of second-rate work.... In the long run, more authority is conferred by the direct approach than by the pedantic pretence that some impersonal force is performing the research.
—Lord May, President of the Royal Society, quoted in a commentary in the New Scientist, 21 July 2001. (I happen to have a copy of the original article in my MIT homedir.)

You may have heard of the Royal Society. Guy name of Newton used to hang out there.

This is what first-rate scientific writing sounded like 150 years ago:

When on board H.M.S. Beagle, as naturalist, I was much struck with certain facts in the distribution of the inhabitants of South America, and in the geological relations of the present to the past inhabitants of that continent. These facts seemed to me to throw some light on the origin of species — that mystery of mysteries, as it has been called by one of our greatest philosophers. On my return home, it occurred to me, in 1837, that something might perhaps be made out on this question by patiently accumulating and reflecting on all sorts of facts which could possibly have any bearing on it. After five years' work I allowed myself to speculate on the subject, and drew up some short notes; these I enlarged in 1844 into a sketch of the conclusions, which then seemed to me probable: from that period to the present day I have steadily pursued the same object. I hope that I may be excused for entering on these personal details, as I give them to show that I have not been hasty in coming to a decision.
Charles Darwin, Introduction to The Origin of Species.

But perhaps the introductory matter is a special case — Darwin does, after all, apologize for being so personal. Picking a random paragraph from the first page of a random chapter (Chapter 10, "On The Geological Succession of Organic Beings", paragraph three):

Species of different genera and classes have not changed at the same rate, or in the same degree. In the oldest tertiary beds a few living shells may still be found in the midst of a multitude of extinct forms. Falconer has given a striking instance of a similar fact, in an existing crocodile associated with many strange and lost mammals and reptiles in the sub-Himalayan deposits. The Silurian Lingula differs but little from the living species of this genus; whereas most of the other Silurian Molluscs and all the Crustaceans have changed greatly. The productions of the land seem to change at a quicker rate than those of the sea, of which a striking instance has lately been observed in Switzerland. There is some reason to believe that organisms, considered high in the scale of nature, change more quickly than those that are low: though there are exceptions to this rule. The amount of organic change, as Pictet has remarked, does not strictly correspond with the succession of our geological formations; so that between each two consecutive formations, the forms of life have seldom changed in exactly the same degree. Yet if we compare any but the most closely related formations, all the species will be found to have undergone some change. When a species has once disappeared from the face of the earth, we have reason to believe that the same identical form never reappears. The strongest apparent exception to this latter rule, is that of the so-called `colonies' of M. Barrande, which intrude for a period in the midst of an older formation, and then allow the pre-existing fauna to reappear; but Lyell's explanation, namely, that it is a case of temporary migration from a distinct geographical province, seems to me satisfactory.

Nope, no passive constructions there either — which actually surprised me; I expected a few, maybe as much as three sentences in ten. But Darwin's other talents aside, he was also a fine writer.

While Lord May, Darwin, and I may stand united in favor of the active voice, the way and the light is not yet firmly established. Even Purdue's generally excellent Online Writing Lab advocates the use of the passive voice — though only in scientific writing. Apparently only nonscientific writing is entitled to not suck (emphasis added):

Sometimes the use of passive voice can create awkward sentences.... Also, overuse of passive voice throughout an essay can cause your prose to seem flat and uninteresting. In scientific writing, however, passive voice is more readily accepted since using it allows one to write without using personal pronouns or the names of particular researchers as the subjects of sentences.... This practice helps to create the appearance of an objective, fact-based discourse because writers can present research and conclusions without attributing them to particular agents. Instead, the writing appears to convey information that is not limited or biased by individual perspectives or personal interests....

In most nonscientific writing situations, active voice is preferable to passive for the majority of your sentences. Even in scientific writing, overuse of passive voice or use of passive voice in long and complicated sentences can cause readers to lose interest or to become confused. Sentences in active voice are generally--though not always-- clearer and more direct than those in passive voice.

So siderea may very well have made the right decision, in context: if she is being taught by people who will mark her down for writing in the active voice, then by all means she should use the passive voice. (Unless, of course, she finds herself lacking windmills to tilt at.) But she should do it knowing it's wrong.

Tags: english, geek
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