I’ve been wanting to write a post about use of the passive voice in scientific paper writing. I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit in between learning to navigate facebook, welcoming my parent’s-in-law for an extended visit (halleluja!!!), planning and executing a birthday party for my now 11 year old, and picking up some evil cold somewhere (kids?)- even if I haven’t been writing about it yet. And after my last post about common (not having all the parts, and having too many parts) sentence mistakes, I’m reading my own sentences a little more carefully. I’m afraid the grammar police are going to swoop down on this blog with their evil red pen, and well while that’s necessary in paper writing it would just take all the fun out of blogging. So- I’m warning y’all – this is my blog and I’ll write what I want to how I want to… even while extolling virtuous scientific writing.
Anyway. (See, lots of broken rules there.. no subject and no verb between the capital and the period, nah na na nah na)
So, what’s the passive voice? The passive voice is when whoever is doing the action is not the grammatical subject of the sentence. Uh, er ok. See, kinda like this:
XYZ technology has been used to uncover active promoters and has been applied to my favorite organism (MFO) infections of Kangaroos.
In this sentence (which, more or less appeared in that review article I sweated over during the holidays) the subject isn’t easy to pick out. You can recognize these passive constructions easily by looking for two things: 1. Forms of the verb ‘to be’ (is, are, am , was, were, has been, have been, had been, will be, will have been, being) usually 2) followed by a verb ending in -ed, called the past participle (sometimes though it doesn’t end in ed, so be forewarned). I’m sure you all recognize this because it appears extremely frequently in scientific writing.
What’s the alternative? Why- the active voice, of course! Ya ya ya, I know- that’s a fragment,… but it’s my blog and I’ll write like I want to, write like I want to write like I want to…(examples of converting passive to active)
We used XYZ technology to uncover active promoters of MFO during infection of Kangaroos.
XYZ technology uncovered active promoters of MFO during infection of Kangaroos.
In this active construction the subject and the actor are one, and they are right up front in the sentence. There is no mistaking that ‘we’ (the subject) are using XYZ technology to do the action in the first iteration… and that XYZ technology is the subject in the second iteration.
I didn’t take a formal course in scientific or technical writing, which, from what little I have read and heard teach that using the passive voice is proper in scientific writing. Use of the passive voice supposedly adds objectivity, rigor, and the forced use of ‘disciplined writing’ (see #2 letter by Simon Leather in the link). I learned paper writing on the job from my various mentors, and I guess I get annoyed with papers that use the passive voice excessively. I know that XYZ technique didn’t perform itself- and so it seems a little silly, formal, and unnecessarily indirect to ALWAYS leave out the folks doing the action. I personally think that using the active voice makes writing more direct and stronger, and I appreciate directness. So, I myself err on the side of the active voice. I do recognize however, that writing everything in the active voice also might not strike the right balance at times in scientific writing. It would sound a little odd to have materials and methods sections written completely in the active voice….
We used kanamycin at a final concentration of 123 units in LB plates.
as opposed to…
Kanamycin was used at a final concentration of 123 units in LB plates where appropriate.
See what I mean…
I’m sure there is going to be a comment storm now, so let me know what you all think… are ya active voice, … passive voice.. a little of both… and if you use a little of both… do you do this by section? Is the passive voice more appropriate in the materials and methods than in the results section… how do you balance these?