As a group, scientists are not widely admired for their prose style. To no small extent, this derives from their insistence on the passive voice, that boogeyman of basic composition classes. Nevertheless, the style has its defenders: Two experts in scientific style recently took to Reddit to debate the convention, taking positions for and against the passive voice in scientific writing. Their conversation reveals that quarrels about the active and passive voices have more to do with the way our culture discusses science than they do with arbitrary quirks of style.
Few ostensible rules are more poorly understood than the prohibition against the passive voice, partly because the passive voice itself is poorly understood. In the Reddit AMA, Celia Elliott, a grant writing specialist in the Department of Physics at the University of Illinois, took a stand on behalf of the passive voice, but to do so she first had to explain it. As she wrote, “It’s all about the direction of the action. In the active voice, the subject of the sentence does the action. (‘The pitcher throws the ball.’) In the passive voice, the subject of the sentence receives the action of the verb. (‘The ball was caught by the pitcher.’)” Put more simply, the active voice emphasizes agency, while the passive voice puts the focus on objects themselves. Consequently, the active tends to be associated with subjective experience and the passive with objective facts.
When I teach courses on writing, I try to avoid arbitrary rules. Following the late style expert Joseph Williams, I hold that good writing is basically good storytelling. To tell a story well, we need to clearly identify our characters and then show the reader what those characters do. The passive voice makes storytelling more difficult because it hides the characters deep in the sentence—if it shows them at all. On Reddit, Kristin Sainani, an associate professor of health research and policy at Stanford University, took a similar position, arguing that the passive voice “obscures who is responsible for what.” The passive has its place (I used it to open the prior paragraph), but, more often than not, it disrupts the flow of a narrative, making it difficult for the reader to connect one idea to the next.
By contrast, Elliott argues that scientists should use the passive voice in order to highlight their results. She writes, “The main advantage of the passive voice, in my opinion, is that it allows the writer to put the important concepts, ideas, findings, principles, and conclusions first. ...” In other words, the passive voice allows us to discuss discoveries rather than the scientists who discovered them. In theory, it plays an important rhetorical function, because it insists on the factual truth of discoveries by minimizing the role that fallible human subjects play in the equation.
Ultimately, however, scientists may be doing themselves a disservice by downplaying their place in the scientific process. Sainani holds that there’s something slightly untrustworthy about passive constructions, writing, “It’s more accurate and honest to say, ‘We found that …’ since this emphasizes the role that the experimenters played in designing, conducting, and interpreting the experiments.”
Among other things, the passive voice may make it more difficult to celebrate particular scientific accomplishments. When scientists fight for the passive voice, they’re not fighting for their right to write poorly. They think science should speak for itself. But in a time when climate change deniers blind themselves to hard data and vaccine conspiracy theorists blithely cover their ears to public health risks, it has never been more clear that science doesn’t speak for itself.
The success of charismatic scientists like Neil deGrasse Tyson shows that the public responds better to stories about science than they do to simple scientific facts. So long as scientists insist on writing in the passive voice, they may have a harder time telling those stories well.