Sunday, September 23, 2012

Today's Rant: Passive Voice

The subject of today's rant is passive voice

Before going on, let me first acknowledge that passive voice is sometimes necessary. That said, what the fuck? It is used way too often in science. :)

Alright, so now that I've gotten that bit of irony out of the way, what's so bad about it? As far as I can see, there are basically three things wrong with passive voice. I'll illustrate them using an imaginary sentence in a scientific paper that might start with the phrase "An experiment was conducted..." You can fill in something from your favorite discipline to complete the sentence.

(1) It lessens clarity, and that's already a cardinal sin. Who conducted the damn experiment? Was it you? Was it the janitor? Was it done by the authors of the paper you cited a couple of sentences before this one? (D'oh... there goes clarity. Now we don't even know if the experiment was original or not.) Maybe it was done by a bunch of fluffy bunnies?

(2) It dehumanizes science. I suppose I can't make this argument in quite the same compelling manner as I can about clarity, but (seriously) it does do this. You put a human face on science by indicating your ownership of the work, and I think that science (and scientists!) needs all of the humanization it can get. So write it loudly and proudly: "I conducted the fucking experiment!" At least then we know who did the work! (As an exercise, see if you can make an appropriate change at the page proof stage of an article to try to get this exact phrasing in print.)

(3) It's bad writing. In most of its guises, passive voice is just an ugly use of language. Isn't that reason enough to try to minimize how much you use it? (Again, I want to acknowledge that sometimes passive voice really does provide the most parsimonious answer to your phrasing problems, but at least try to find another solution first.)

Here's another question: How in Hell did things get this way? Did a bunch of scientific gods get up one morning and decide that passive voice was somehow the right way to present scholarship? (Because it's really not...) Did the rampant use of passive voice in science just evolve slowly? Anyway, passive voice is bad writing and should be used sparingly. I go through great pains to try to get my students [and other coauthors... :) ] to unlearn such fallacies, and you should do that too. Scientific writing can also be good writing, so let's try doing that, ok?

Corollary: Just as annoying as the unnecessary preponderance of passive voice in science is the use of passive voice to avoid taking responsibility for mistakes. All too many times, I have seen a phrase along the lines of "A mistake was made" coming from the person who made the mistake in question. That's really a bunch of bullshit and a sleazy way to attempt to shirk responsibility. Just admit "I made a mistake." and be done with it---lose the sidestepping bullshit!

This rant was brought to you by the letters A, B, and C, and by the number ε > 0.

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