Relentless use of passive voice


Image from ragan.com.

Image from ragan.com.

I have had the phrase “relentless use of passive voice” in my head for years as a criticism of overly dry scientific writing. I thought I learned it from the excellent paper “How to write consistently boring scientific literature” by Kaj Sand-Jensen. Like Gould’s tennis stadium in “Muller Bros. Moving & Storage,” though, when I went back to look for it, it wasn’t where I thought it was. If anyone can tell me where the phrase actually originated, I would be grateful.

Wherever I first heard it, the phase has affected my scientific writing (or should I say ‘my scientific writing has been affected by the phrase’). I have the impression, supported by no hard data whatsoever, that the relentless use of passive voice has declined over the past few decades in scientific writing. It is now common to read about what “we” (the coauthors) did in the Methods and what “we” found in the Results. It’s not even that rare to see descriptions of what “I” did or found in a solo-authored paper (the horror!).

Funniest of all to me is the use of “we” in a solo-authored paper; I think we (scientists) get so used to writing with coauthors that we forget how to use the first person singular. I’ve caught myself doing it during talks. Here’s an example from my Ph.D. advisor (sorry, Rick; all in good fun):

We consider several of the key stages involved in this transition…This is the central question we address. Our hypothesis is that fitness tradeoffs drive the transition..We have modeled this hypothesis…We have studied the origin of the genetic basis for reproductive altruism…[emphasis added]

To be fair, when Rick says “we,” he probably means “I and my lab group.” Still and all, he is the sole author.

This has all been a tangent, though; what really motivated this post was a line from a classic paper on the evolution of anisogamy by Parker, Baker, and Smith (also known as the PBS model):

Biochemical and energetic arguments can be levied against a perfectly precise relationship of this type; it is not felt that these would make it invalid as an approximation. [emphasis added]

“It is not felt”…if that’s not relentlessly passive, I don’t know what is.

If another good example is encountered, it will be welcome in the comments [see what was done by me there?].

Stable links:

Michod RE (2007) Evolution of individuality during the transition from unicellular to multicellular life. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA , 104 Suppl , 8613–8618.

Parker GA, Baker RR, Smith VGF (1972) The origin and evolution of gamete dimorphism and the male-female phenomenon. Journal of Theoretical Biology, 36, 529–553.

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