Scientific Writing and Passive Voice: When It Does and Doesn’t Work


Passive voice gets a lot of bad press and for good reason. You may have heard it discussed in the oft-ridiculed phrase "mistakes were made," which is often used to dodge any implication of responsibility. But when it comes to some more technical areas, some situations call for writing in passive voice. Here are three tips for deciding when it's time to combine scientific writing and the passive voice:

  1. Don't use passive voice to sound objective. Removing the actor who's making the assertions makes it seem like a document is unbiased. "The data was analyzed and a conclusion was reached" doesn't suggest as much possibility for bias or human error as "we analyzed the data and reached a conclusion." But when it comes to analysis and experiments, objectivity isn't constructed on the page. It's constructed in the process. Trying to distance yourself from the material by writing in passive voice is only cosmetic.
  2. Don't use passive voice to sound professional. Active voice is generally clearer and more direct than passive, making it the more professional option. But many engineers and scientists use passive voice under the assumption that it's a way to maintain professionalism . In many cases, this has to do with college admonitions to avoid first-person point of view, which is a misleading guideline on its own. First-person is professional if it focuses on communicating the relevant information and doesn't engage in tangents or personal minutia.
  3. Do use passive to emphasize the most important information Compare the sentences "Fifty conference attendees attended the panel" and "The panel was attended by 50 conference attendees." In the first, the emphasis is on the number of attendees; in the second, the emphasis is on the panel itself. This could be useful if, perhaps, you wanted to draw a distinction like "By contrast, the lecture from our CEO drew crowds of over a hundred."

To learn more about scientific writing and the passive voice, contact us today at Hurley Write, Inc.

Image via