Tuesday, 3 March 2009

Active vs passive voice

Some authors struggle with the problem of whether to use active or passive voice. I get the sense that they have a vague notion that the tradition in scientific writing is to write in the third person. This is manifest in their fear of using first person, or an active voice. I think of it as fear for two reasons. First, it's irrational. Second, they go to great lengths to avoid active voice or first person. I say it is irrational because when I ask them about it, they don't even understand what active or passive voice is. Just to clarify: if the verb relates to the person or thing, then we are using active voice, whereas if the verb is not connected to the doer, then passive voice is used. For example, in the preceding sentence, "use" is used in both voices, first actively then passively. The differences between first and third person is, perhaps, a little more straightforward.

I think that the fundamental problem is about using passive or active voice, and a lot of people seem to get very confused about this. Active voice is good, if you want to engage the reader. Passive voice is good if you want to stand to one side and look at the data, analysis and conclusions dispassionately. The confusion arises when authors pretend to change active to passive by changing "I" to "the writer" or "the author", which is just a clumsy way of revealing that they do not know what this active/passive thing is all about!

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