Friday, April 12, 2013

Use Passive Voice

today has been declared "passive voice day" in some quarters. Fun idea, I guess; language games are always entertaining. And since it's Friday morning, let me spend a few minutes about the use of passive while waiting for my coffee.

• "Passive voice" is when the recipient or victim of an action is also the subject. The effect is the focus of the sentence, not the cause. It's tricky to get right, and since passive works differently in other languages, non-native speakers of English, like myself, can have a real problem using it.

"Somebody opened the window" has the mysterious "somebody" as the focus of interest. "The window was opened" has the effect on the window as focus; we don't care how or why or who did it, but only that this (and not something else) happened to it.

• Passive voice can sometimes sound more impartial, but also mealy-mouthed and weasely. The important thing really is if the focus of the sentence matches the content.

"Mistakes were made" is a prototypical I-take-responsibility-for-nothing-I-did passive statement. Who is responsible is a major issue, but this puts the focus away from that. The grammar and the content doesn't match.

"I got vaccinated" is proper use of passive. What happened to me is important. Who did it — my usual doctor, a nurse at a vaccination center, a medical student temping at a health clinic — doesn't matter.

• Many people (me included) frequently get the definition wrong, and believe some sentences that really are not passive is, while some passive sentences are not. "The window is open" is not passive, for example, as there's no change to the state of the window. This may or may not be a problem.

If your focus is on grammar or language structure, then it matters a lot, of course. If you don't get your definitions right you can't discuss properly with other linguists or do any systematic data analysis.

But if your focus is on practical writing style, then you can treat the term "passive" as a wrong-but-convenient shorthand for grammar that avoids naming the actor or cause. It's good enough for discussing style, and as a bonus you will incense any nearby grammarians, which will be good for their circulation and mental agility.

• People like using passive voice in scientific writing. And quite often it is the best way to describe things.

"The rats were placed in a water maze." What happens to the rats is the important part; we don't care who did the placing.

But researchers — and young researchers especially — sometimes go overboard with this, and express every sentence in the passive. It is, I think, a combination of wanting to sound "professional" and not having the confidence to stand up for your own work.

"The data was analysed." is not wrong, but I certainly prefer "We analysed the data." Using "we" as shorthand for "one of more of the people listed as authors" is common and accepted.

"That the proposed method is effective and useful is concluded." No. Stop. Don't do this. Any guess, estimation, proposition, conclusion and so on are opinions, and who makes those is part of the semantic focus.

You didn't care about who placed the rats above, since it doesn't affect the outcome; you do care about who is drawing conclusions or making guesses. You don't want to find out that it was the lead authors mother or the guy at the hot dog stand around the corner that thought it seemed effective and useful. "We conclude that the proposed method is effective and useful." Stand up and take responsibility — and take the credit for the work.

It's worth noting, I think, that the older and more successful a researcher becomes, the more they insert themselves into their papers. Papers by big names frequently use "we" or "I", and can feel very readable and informal, sometimes even a little chatty.

If you want to sound like a successful scientist, avoid overusing the passive voice. But do use it; it's sometimes the best way to express an idea, so don't shy away from it. Use it in moderation, but use it.

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