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2006.03.16

Active Voice v Passive Voice

The most common change copy-editors perform on my prose is the conversion of passive voice constructs into active voice. By now I've become accustomed to it, and I now try to use active voice whenever possible. It turns out that the proverbial coin has in this case two faces.

A couple of days ago I went over the copy-editing changes of an article that my former PhD student and colleague Konstantinos Chorianopoulos and I had submitted for publication to the Universal Access in the Information Society journal. With dismay I saw that the copy-editors had turned most active voice constructs into passive voice. Here is the email I wrote to the journal's Editor in Chief Constantine Stephanidis presenting my case for the use of active voice. Interestingly, his reply (posted here with his permission) included a number of arguments for the use of passive voice in scientific writing. Personally I remain unconvinced, but now I readily acknowledge that there are valid counterarguments. A couple of months later, Henry R. Rupp, editor of the New Jersey Mosquito Control Association Proceedings and copy editor for the American Mosquito Control Association (AMCA) wrote me to weigh-in in favor of the active voice. The jury is apparently still out on this case.

From: "Diomidis Spinellis"
To: "Constantine Stephanidis"
Subject: UAIS Paper No. 2005-178 Editorial Comments

Dear Prof. Stephanidis,

Many thanks arranging the swift turnaround of our paper. I went over the editorial changes in the manuscript, and was very surprised to see that most involved changing the active voice we used in the paper into passive voice. This is the exact opposite of what numerous guides on editing and technical writing recommend. Here are some excerpts, from a reading list I give my PhD students [8]:

  • "Use the active voice" [1, p. 18]
  • "[...] consider substitutes for weak and passive verbs" [2, p. 4]
  • "Active, not passive. Be direct. A hit B describes the event more concisely than B was hit by A." [3]
  • "Use the active rather than the passive voice" [4, p. 42]
  • "The passive voice is “respectable” but it DEADENS your paper. Avoid it at all costs." [5, p. 44]
  • "Never use the passive where you can use the active." [6]
  • "Eliminate passive verbs." [7]
  1. Aviel William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White. The Elements of Style. Macmillan Publishing Co., New York, 1979.
  2. Claire Kehrwald Cook. Line by Line. Houghton Mifflin, Boston, MA, 1986.
  3. John Grimond. The Economist style guide. 2005.
  4. Michael Shortland and Jane Gregory. Communicating Science: A Handbook. Longman Scientific & Technical, 1991.
  5. Simon L. Peyton Jones, John Hughes, and John Launchbury. How to write a great research paper.
  6. George Orwell. Politics and the english language. Horizon, April 1946.
  7. William H. Starbuck. Fussy professor Starbuck's cookbook of handy-dandy prescriptions for ambitious academic authors or why I hate passive verbs and love my word processor. Current May 2005, 1999.
  8. A Reading List for PhD Students (and their Supervisors)

A strong preference for the active voice is also the experience I have with other editors, such as those working at the IEEE Computer Society, who edit my regular IEEE Software column, and those contracted by Addison-Wesley, who edited two of my books.

It is by no means my intention to derail the editing process of this manuscript: what's done is done; my colleague Konstantinos Chorianopoulos will come back to you with any minor problems he might notice. However, for the benefit of the readers of the journal's future articles, maybe you could coordinate with the publisher to revise the house style giving the active voice the place it deserves.

Best regards,

Diomidis Spinellis


From: "Constantine Stephanidis"
To: "Diomidis Spinellis"
Subject: Re: UAIS Paper No. 2005-178 Editorial Comments

Dear Prof. Spinellis,

Thank you for your email regarding the Editorial Comments on your paper accepted for publication in the UAIS Journal.

We are indeed aware of the ongoing debate among scientific writers concerning the use of passive syntax. Many of them consider the passive voice as less direct and syntactically more complex than the active voice, and suggest avoiding it.

However, others (see quotations below) put forward the argument that, in some cases, indirectness in scientific writing may be less problematic than other syntactic constructs. Such constructs include the use of first person pronouns, as well as of pronouns denoting gender, the latter often causing problems of "political correctness". Additionally, many style guides report that the passive voice emphasises the results rather than the actors, which may reflect the authors' attitude of modesty when describing their own work.

Personally, I also think that natural languages, being evolutionary systems, progressively eliminate those syntactic constructs that native speakers feel as too demanding in terms of comprehension. If the passive voice in the English language was completely useless, it would have disappeared with time, without the need of stylistic rules.

In any case, the Editorial Comments that the UAIS Journal provides to authors are simply suggestions for what the Editor-in-Chief considers as potential improvements. As with any stylistic matter, preferences may vary, and the final decision rests with the authors.

Best Regards

Constantine Stephanidis
Editor-in-Chief, UAIS journal

Quotations

  • "Some passives are necessary and useful. In scientific writing, for instance, sentences are routinely written in the passive voice; the authors are therefore given less importance, and the facts are made to speak for themselves. Even in non-scientific writing, not all passives can be avoided." [1]
  • "The truncated passive used in descriptions of experimental procedures is almost synonymous in many people's minds with "the scientific style," and has probably received most attention in discussions of scientific style." [2]
  • "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 (see the third example above). 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." [3]
  • "The nature of scientific and technical report writing often requires using the passive voice. Professional reports emphasize results and the objects of actions. The actor (who produced the results or acted on the object) is less important."[4]
  • "Another circumstance under which the passive voice is sometimes appropriate is in scientific writing, where the identity of the experimenter is irrelevant to the description of an experimental procedure or to the results of the experiment." [5]
  1. Jack Lynch. Guide to Grammar and Style.
  2. Lilita Rodman. The passive in technical and scientific writing.
  3. Purdue University Online Writing Lab. Active and Passive Voice.
  4. The Passive Engineer.
  5. Hamilton College. Style Sheet.


From: Henry Rupp
To: Diomidis Spinellis
Subject: The passive voice
Date: Thu, 20 Apr 2006 17:22:18 -0400

Dear Dr. Spinellis,

I came across your blog, dds: 20060316, as I was searching for articles about the use of the passive voice in scientific writing. First, let me explain the cause of the search. I am a former college English teacher who spent the majority of his adult life in mosquito control. I have been the editor of the New Jersey Mosquito Control Association Proceedings, a non-refereed publication, and have served as a copy editor for the American Mosquito Control Association (AMCA). After I had retired in 1991, I had the opportunity to "improve" the English of papers written for the Journal of AMCA (JAMCA) by those whose first language was not English. More recently I have been working with authors from Latin America to help them with their English in journal articles.

As I am sure you are aware, Spanish has many reflexive constructions that are effectively passive-voice constructions. Translating Spanish resumenes into English summaries can prove frustrating if you do not feel particularly fond of the passive voice. Your list of bullets should have additional items. First, the passive voice not only deadens one's prose, it also gives it a squishy feeling, an evasiveness, a lack of solidity. Second, the use of the passive voice can lead to some rather contorted language. Let me give you an example from an article published in 2005 in JAMCA: "Active WNV [West Nile virus] surveillance in mosquitoes was recently found to be more sensitive to human risk than bird surveillance (Brownstein et al. 2004)." Although I understood the meaning of the sentence immediately, I had to read it a few times to convince myself that anybody could twist such a short sentence so effectively. How simpler things would have been were the sentence written: Brownstein et al. (2004) found active WN surveillance in mosquitoes more sensitive to human risk than bird surveillance. No need for "recently" as Brownstein et al. came out only the year before.

There is another benefit accruing from using the active voice. Usually, you can save several words per sentence. I would think that copy editors, oriented toward space saving, would look on the active voice as a gift from the gods. The "truncated passive" is more often than not anything but truncated. It tends toward prolixity, surely not a desireable quality in scientific writing.

You are right to remain unconvinced. The passive voice is the voice of the past. The arguments about loss of objectivity are specious. Everybody knows who did the work and who drew the conclusions from that work. If an author gets in the way of his work, surely he will get his come-uppance at scientific meetings from his peers.

Keep up the battle, Dr. Spinellis; you are on the right side.

Yours truly,

Henry R. Rupp

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