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View Poll Results: What are your thoughts about Passive Sentences?
I never use them and I don't like to read them 2 5.88%
I sometimes use them and I sometimes see the need for them 18 52.94%
I will stay away from a book that uses passive sentences too often 3 8.82%
It has never bothered me in reading and/or writing. 14 41.18%
Multiple Choice Poll. Voters: 34. You may not vote on this poll

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Old 11-09-2010, 01:44 PM   #1
Williamlk
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The Passive Sentence

I heard someone say once that 'good writing' should include no more than 30 percent passive sentence structure.

While I understand the premise, I am wondeing if anyone has experienced (in writing and/or reading) the absolute need for passive sentences.

After studying, editing and rewriting for countless hours, I sometimes find that the passive sentence is the best way to go (In some circumstances)

Anyone have any thoughts on this?
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Old 11-09-2010, 01:55 PM   #2
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Active or passive voice should be appropriate to the context. Except for professional or technical writing, which should be active.
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Old 11-09-2010, 02:09 PM   #3
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Originally Posted by DixieGal View Post
Active or passive voice should be appropriate to the context. Except for professional or technical writing, which should be active.
That depends rather. Scientific papers are normally written in the passive voice.
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Old 11-09-2010, 02:15 PM   #4
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That depends rather. Scientific papers are normally written in the passive voice.

Nuh-uh. Always active. I wrote and proofread scientific papers for 20 years.
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Old 11-09-2010, 03:55 PM   #5
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Nuh-uh. Always active. I wrote and proofread scientific papers for 20 years.
It's certainly conceivable that things have changed in the last 20 years, but when I was writing scientific papers in the 1980s the rule was that you always, ALWAYS wrote in the passive. The argument was that you, as an experimenter, should not be an "active" part of the experiment, and what you did didn't actually matter.

Eg, it's better to say "the solution was agitated for 10 minutes" rather than "I agitated the solution for 10 minutes" because the only thing of importance is that the solution was, in fact, agitated, not that it's you who did the agitating.
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Old 11-09-2010, 04:03 PM   #6
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A letter on the subject from the journal Nature

Quote:
SIR - Maddox's article accusing scientists of being poor writers engendered a reply from one of the growing number of adherents to the use of the active voice in scientific writing. This practice appears to have arisen in the United States over the past 20 years or so and is now encouraged by authors of otherwise excellent texts on scientific writing, Day for example. It is claimed that the use of the active voice encourages clearer and more exciting writing and that the use of the passive voice is more difficult for the reader and is an expression of false modesty. The truth is that both the teaching of the English language and the standards expected of students have declined from the previous high standards upheld by educators in the English-speaking world. Simply put, the writing of precise prose in the passive voice has become too difficult for many of today's scientists. This is unfortunate for a number of reasons.

Using the passive voice in scientific writing allows the researcher to stand at a distance from his or her work. By standing at a distance, an unbiased viewpoint is much more likely to be reached. An unbiased viewpoint encourages a world view and an open mind, surely prerequisites for good science. Many scientific papers published today refer only to literature published in the past 5 years (in other words, easily located using one of the computer databases available ), are parochial in nature and in many cases put forward old arguments as new. John Lawton terms this habit 'reinventing the wheel' and implies a 30-year cycle.

The use of the passive voice encourages disciplined writing, cases must agree, tenses must be used correctly. It is therefore more demanding, but the precision and professionalism displayed is worth the effort. It is possible to be enthusiastic and to write stimulating and exciting prose using the passive voice. How many of the most memorable prose passages in English literature are written in the active voice?

Using the active voice is an easy option. There is no need to discipline one's thoughts. An author can just pour out his or her thoughts. This leads to careless presentation, particularly in methods and materials sections. As any editor knows, many papers submitted for publication appear to be first, or at the best second, drafts. Most authors using the active voice show no consistency of use. Papers alternate between passive-voice statements and active-voice statements, sometimes in the same paragraph, with no logic for the change of voice. This results in a paper full of inconsistencies and, of course, a general mixture of styles.

Using the active voice engenders possessiveness in the results and/or work. By engendering possessiveness an author risks adopting a biased and partisan stance. Wearing blinkers is no way to conduct good science. Thc active voice, with its less professional approach and tendency to foster the use of colloquialisms ("hassle" is one example I came across in a submitted manuscript) can make the writing appear quaint and amateur and akin to the offerings seen in amateur journals of natural history .

It is tempting when writing from a partisan viewpoint to descend to spite and denigration of other work. This too often manifests itself in biased and anonymous peer review of manuscripts and grants;. There is also the possibility that use of thc active voice and the resulting adoption of results and hypotheses as the author's own personal property lead to an unwillingness to see those results contradicted or refuted. This may, in the worst-case scenario, lead to the fabrication of results, something seen much more today than 20 years ago when the passive voice was de rigueur, as judged by the number of articles concerning the subject seen recently.

In conclusion, the use of the passive voice encourages precision and probity. and when used correctly can generate as much passion and stimulation as the skilled use of the active voice. Thc active voice encourages carelessness, partisanship, and as used by many of its adherents, does no favours to the English language or science.
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Old 11-09-2010, 06:21 PM   #7
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The author of that letter is making a huge number of unsupported statements. Why should, for example, "I agitated the solution" lead to the writer having more of a claim on the results than "the solution was agitated"? It might or might not be true, but "because I think so" isn't a scientific reason. He's confusing correlation for causation -- there are more published cases of fabricated results, and more use of active voice, so active voice must be causing fabrication. Since I'm not aware of any proof that there is more fabrication of data going on -- it's entirely possible that it's merely being detected more often -- even that element of his correlation is questionable. Again, we have unsupported assertions. Then we have this: "The use of the passive voice encourages disciplined writing, cases must agree, tenses must be used correctly." By implication, active voice does not require discipline, cases need not agree, and tenses can, it appears, just be picked at random. I don't even know where to begin.

In short, the author of that letter is saying "passive voice is better because I said so." That's neither good science nor good writing.
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Old 11-10-2010, 01:24 AM   #8
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I really prefer the active form when reporting some original material, whatever it might be: an approach to a problem, an experimental finding, a bit of theory, ....
I also make use of the the first person as subject. In this way I take responsibility and merit. The impersonal form, both in the active and passive, seems to imply that mistakes and imprecisions just happen, out of the author's control.
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Old 11-11-2010, 03:01 AM   #9
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Active sentences are certainly easier to read. You can at least tell who is doing what to whom or what, or what to what or who.
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Old 11-11-2010, 06:40 PM   #10
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Active & passive voices are tools. One uses them based on one's objectives. Active voice tends to clarify. Passive voice tends to obscure. Who ya gonna call?
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Old 11-11-2010, 06:55 PM   #11
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Whether the sentence was active or passive was not given a damn.
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Old 11-12-2010, 07:20 AM   #12
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As a linguist I read and wrote scientific papers about language for about thirty years : I never thought that some day I should read a whole discussion about the ethical merits of active and passive sentences... Rarely saw as silly a discussion...
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Old 11-12-2010, 08:31 AM   #13
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Harmon View Post
Active & passive voices are tools. One uses them based on one's objectives. Active voice tends to clarify. Passive voice tends to obscure. Who ya gonna call?
Why do you say that "passive voice tends to obscure", Harmon? Obscure in what way?
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Old 11-12-2010, 06:56 PM   #14
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Quote:
Originally Posted by HarryT View Post
Why do you say that "passive voice tends to obscure", Harmon? Obscure in what way?
By hiding the actor.
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Old 11-13-2010, 12:02 PM   #15
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The passive voice is preferable when the subject is unknown, unimportant, or imprecise.

The maxim, "Rome wasn't built in a day" is written in the passive voice for two reasons. One reason is that it is more succinct than the active voice (disproving the active voice zealots claim that the av is always more direct); in active voice it is "Romans didn't build Rome in a day." It is also redundant to mention the subject; we already assume that the Romans built Rome. It would only be necessary to use the subject if someone other than the Romans built Rome.

The second reason is that to use the active voice would be to completely change the meaning of the maxim. By leaving out the subject, the maxim implies that any grand undertaking, such as the building of Rome, cannot be done in a short period of time. The subject is irrelevant. To use the active voice would specify that it was the subject (the Romans) that couldn't build Rome in a short period of time; perhaps they weren't smart enough or industrious enough, but someone else could have possibly built Rome in a day. By being general, the passive voice is timeless and universal.
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