December 18, 2010

Active, Passive, Poppycock

Posted in Uncategorized at 9:26 am by mariawolters

Use the Active Voice! No, the passive voice should be used! This is a debate that keeps flickering up in the blogosphere.

It taps into two different controversies:

  • Subjectivity versus objectivity
  • Quality of scientific writing

The subjectivity versus objectivity debate is illustrated quite nicely by the comment thread to Sylvia McLain’s recent post on active versus passive. The central assumption seems to be that using the active voice acknowledges the researcher as an agent that introduces subjectivity into the process. Of course, using the active voice does no such thing. It is the methods that determine the extent to which there is leeway for subjectivity during data collection. If the results leave room for uncertainty or different interpretations (which is almost always the case), this should be made clear in the discussion. Whether the active or the passive voice is used for reporting the work is mainly a matter of convention. While the active voice certainly makes it easier to weave a good yarn, it is perfectly possible to write a bone-dry treatise drenched in positivism and realism without using a single passive. It is also perfectly possible to write a paper replete with passives that is a real rollercoaster of a read. Just take the simple sentence: “These results were not predicted by the standard model of particle physics.” BOOM!

This sentence neatly leads me to my next point. It is often asserted that the active voice is the key to good writing. Well, no, it isn’t. Our sample sentence would not be half as effective, had it been written in the active. As it stands, in the passive, the whole sentence is a single crescendo. We start with the results, then learn that they were not predicted, and then learn that the foundations of physics have just been shaken to their very core. The key information is in sentence-final position, where it is more likely to be remembered due to the recency effect. In English, the sentence-final position is also a classic place for presenting new or salient information. Since English word order is relatively fixed, the passive is often the best solution for moving the agent of an event to the end of a sentence.

The passive also comes in handy when it quite simply does not matter who did what. For example, when I wrote “this should be made clear”, the passive neatly avoided the clunky “author(s)” or the agony of deciding whether to say writer(s) instead of “authors” because it is possible to have authorship without having written a single line. I would imagine that something similar holds when describing the methodology of a standard experiment in biology, physics, and chemistry. (Come on, why say “We added chemical X to chemical Y” when the royal plural is meaningless because the lowly PhD student did all the hard work?) In linguistics and psychology, it’s somewhat different, because we tend to ask our guinea pigs / long-suffering students / valued participants  to take in stimuli and do stuff, and this usually lends itself well to descriptions using the active voice.

But if using the active voice isn’t the holy grail of good writing, what is? Well, if you want to know what makes a good text, ask a friendly linguist. Psycholinguists and cognitive psychologists have spent decades studying the effect of linguistic form on the comprehension and retention of read text. There is a whole field of linguistics, text linguistics, devoted to studying the structure of texts. Based on all this research, your friendly linguist would tell you that although active versus passive voice may have an effect on comprehension, that effect is dwarfed by an issue that is often overlooked by grammar fiends: Coherence. A text that does not cohere is not a text, it is a jumble of words and sentences.

There are many ways of achieving coherence. For example, the text could be structured according to an easily recognisable schema, like clinical trial reporting standards. There are also linguistic means for ensuring coherence. These are often called markers of cohesion, following Halliday and Hasan‘s seminal work. Markers of cohesion can be on the level of words (lexical) or syntactic structures (grammatical). Examples from the blog entry so far include the parallel structure “good writing” … “good text”, anaphoric constructions such as “these”, “all this research”, and conjunctions such as “although”. Try removing them from the text and see what happens. How does it affect the flow? Does it become easier or harder to spot the connections between statements?

And I haven’t even gotten started about syntactic complexity, garden path sentences, and exotic vocabulary yet …

Armed with what I have told you so far about the active and the passive voice, about cohesion and coherence, and about the kinds of people who know about language comprehension, I would like to leave you with a little exercise:

Fisk the paper referenced in this blog entry by golden lady Pascale Lane. If you find it hard to get started, look at the references and count the number of references to the linguistic literature on texts, then divide them by the number of references to pontificating prescriptive position papers. You could also go to the literature review, and count the number of statements substantiated by actual experimental results. Feel free to report back in the comments.

For extra points, explain why the authors’ recommendation of standard ratios of active to passive voice in medical journal articles is poppycock and why any journal editors who follow it should be made to read William Topaz McGonagall’s complete works in one sitting, no toilet breaks allowed.



  1. David Dobbs said,

    Try “These results defied the standard model of particle physics.” That delivers a lot more boom.

    I think the bigger issue is variety of sentence structure. Because so many writers default to passive structures, pressing them to change to active, in sentences where that works, immediately enlivens the prose. And well-chosen verbs convey specific dynamics or relationships between things, which itself makes thing cohere.

    Examples? Read Shakespeare. He mixes active and passive structures beautifully. And his verbs tell. Ditto Nabokov.

    Two and two is four.
    Three and three makes six.

    Which carries more meaning?

    No one right way. But I’d say you can improve more sentences and writing by changing passive structures to active than vice-versa.

    • mariawolters said,

      Dang, now *that* is a great rewrite.

      I agree with you that changing passive structures to active is a great way of shaking things up, introducing variety, and improving sentences which would otherwise been overly formulaic.

      The main reason I am pushing back so hard against the active/passive fetishism is that this single issue deflects attention from many far more important problems, such as
      – clearly signposting your argument
      – taking the axe to overlong sentences
      – avoiding unnecessary ambiguity
      – choosing your words wisely

      • David Dobbs said,


        Rather late reply, this.

        I take your point about having any simple maxim distract from other needs, like cutting up long sentences. But to my eye, passive structures amount to one of the most common and deadening errors at the sentence level. Too many overly long sentences rank up there too.

        Maybe it’s just me. But in my own rewrites, I get tremendous mileage out of attacking those two problems alone. Other problems — word choice, ambiguity, signposting, transitions — seem to actively call my attention. But I seem to need to consciously attack the passive and the overly long. In fact, I usually do one (of my many) revisions in which I set out to tend just those two problems. Invariably I address other stuff along the way. But for me, anyway, nothing seems to briskify a piece more than attacking those two.

        Though perhaps I should devote more attention to finding alts for words like ‘briskify.’



  2. Bob O'H said,

    Where does this active/passive mania come from? My impression is that it’s an American thing – I hadn’t come across it in the UK.

    The paper that started this didn’t cite any primary literature, but it does cites lots of how to write books. I wonder how many of them cite used the primary literature to develop their advice.

  3. As one who started college majoring in Chemistry and ended with a BA in English, I can only say, “Wow!” I so rarely see anyone giving attention to whether science writing is also good writing.

    On the Active v. Passive debate, I was taught to prefer the active voice–and I do–but not to extent that it creates awkward phrasing such as you describe. “Prefer” does not equal “use exclusively.” A world in which there was nothing but simple declarative sentences might be clear, but it would be boring. Mixing forms of sentence structure (judiciously) not only avoids awkward constructions, it keeps readers awake and alert… As you did with me.

  4. […] Ben Use the Active Voice! No, the passive voice should be used! This is a debate that keeps flickering up in the blogosphere. It taps into two different controversies: Subjectivity versus objectivity Quality of scientific writing The subjectivity versus objectivity debate is illustrated quite nicely by the comment thread to Sylvia McLain's recent post on active versus passive. The central assumption seems to be that using the active voice acknowledge … Read More […]

  5. […] Active, Passive, Poppycock […]

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