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Passive Versus Active Voice

February 12, 2007 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 85, Issue 7

Upon reading "Teaching Writing to Undergrads," I was a bit dismayed by John T. Ikeda Franklin's statement on use of the passive versus active voice when writing science reports (C&EN, Oct. 30, 2006, page 45). Franklin is an English professor and director of the Writing Center at Pittsburg State University in Kansas.

The article states that Franklin has spent a good deal of time as a tutor telling students that passive voice is the proper style for scientific reports: "The difference between chemistry and autobiography," he said he explains to students, "is that a lab report is not the story of your life in the laboratory."

I couldn't disagree more. The problems with the passive voice are that it usually requires more words than the active voice to convey the same information; by using more words, it is harder to understand than active voice. Sometimes, passive voice does not specify a "doer" of the action conveyed in the sentence; if it specifies the doer, it usually comes at the end of the sentence in the form of a prepositional phrase. I firmly believe that one should say "I or we" did such and such. The passive voice alternative is to say "such and such was done."

Some enlightenment has entered the scientific literature over the past 20 years or so such that authors are increasingly using the active voice. Those who would argue for always using passive voice in scientific documents assume that science is a strictly objective endeavor, but it is not. The discovery of scientific truths is a human endeavor, and unfortunately, one of the human frailties is that we sometimes err. Thus, the human investigator will apply his or her talents, we hope, to the best of his or her ability. Nonetheless, every scientific discovery will bear the human imprint.

Glenn L. Roof
Sugar Land, Texas



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