21 responses to “Losing your voice”

  1. K

    Yay, active voice for scientific writing!!!
    I have this debate so much – I’m talking to you GEARS – active voice just makes the writing so much more interesting. Keep on pushing it Cherish!

    1. GEARS

      shit, you beat me to it….

      Active voice is total crap for tech writing. I hate to do this but


      you should be independent of the quality of the work.

      We’re getting a divorce.

      1. K

        way to have a marital fight on engineer blogs, Gears. And by the way, you’re wrong. Allow me to say it in a way you’ll understand: He was found to be wrong.

        See what sounds stronger:
        I proved him wrong.
        He was found to be wrong.

        Research does not exist in a vacuum. It is done by a person (or group). Using the passive voice says that the work floats freely in space and just assembled without any input from humans.

  2. GEARS

    I’m going to disagree with you on this. Students (especially those going in to research fields) should learn to write in the passive voice. Active, first person should only be used when describing the results.

    For example:
    “We demonstrate an accurate positioning system capable of six degree of freedom motions with an on-board espresso machine.”

    Other than context, passive voice should not be used. The point of research and academic publications is to present your work, independent of the researcher. Yes, we know you’re superawesomesauce because you had the idea, but that’s why you’re first author. If anyone else were to duplicate your work, they should be able to do it because the fundamentals are correct and not because you have magic voodoo. If you’re the only one that can do it, either you’re not giving enough information for others to duplicate it or something is wrong with your fundamentals.

    I find it very arrogant and annoying when I read papers written in the first person because it screams “look at teh skillz’. I’m more likely to think that researcher is highly arrogant and not someone I want to work with as well.

    FYI, DrWife writes in active voice, almost to the detriment of our marriage. Everything she proofreads of mine, she wants to change to active voice (and vice versa).

    Resumes are supposed to showcase a person’s work. Thus, active voice should be used.

    In a general sense, using something like “mistakes were made” is a joke and those words should never be used in conjunction with research work. That’s a politician’s statement after infidelity or something of that sort.

  3. Hermitage

    imo, the usual issue isn’t that passive voice is always badbadbad, but that people are bad at writing in passive voice. It makes sense, because we use ‘active’ language in everyday speech, so switching over to passive is hard and often results in clunky language. The rule should be to use whichever voice gets your thoughts across most clearly and effectively.

  4. Miss MSE

    I empahasize passive voice for my lab class not because I really perferit, but they need to learn how to write in either voice. In K-12, students are very likely to have been taught active voice. However, theymay at some point be asked to write a technical paper in 3rd person passive voice, so they need to learn how it works. My job isn’t to declare one better than the other, it’s to teach students the one they don’t really know.

    Basically, I agree with Her Hermitage, with the caveat that I try and teach students how to do unclunky passive voice.

    1. Miss MSE

      Also, iPhone typing makes for difficulties in proofreading…

  5. Fluxor

    I love a good language fight on an engineering blog, especially one about style. Perhaps we should move on to discussing one or two spaces after a period. Or how engineers prefer periods over semicolons. And how sentences should never start with ‘or’ or ‘and’.

    1. Chris Gammell

      The commenter will be allowed to complain about posts about writing when he comes back and starts writing about engineering 😉

      1. Fluxor

        Post suggestions were made. Suggestions were interpreted as complaints. Feelings were hurt. Passive voice +1.

  6. Paul J Calrke

    In general I agree with GEARS to a point as follows:

    A technical paper is just that, a technical report of the processes and results that were found. This is unfortunately as black and white as that. There should be no ‘we’ or ‘I’ or any touchy feely words as its about pure fact.

    However this is about a person or group so some option is required. This should however be restricted to the front and back in general terms of the document. You can discuss and have an option in the introduction, that’s fine but not in methods and results. Results should only be that and not have an option, these are raw facts, x=n for example. However after your results you should have a section to review your findings. This is where you can be all touchy feely again as well as in your conclusion.

    With reference to the example “I proved him wrong” then this is too far and sounds arrogant. We are technical people with reasoning and we understand that and other views may differ. but people have emotion and this invokes a emotional response that the reader cannot predict and one that could be positive or negative. It would however be better to say that you have proven Mr X’s theory to be floored, his methods or results, not him personally.

    1. Paul J Calrke

      For correct document structure and style I use this book>

      Reference: Writing for Science and Engineering (papers, presentations and reports) By Heather Silyn-Roberts ISBN 0-7506-4636-5

  7. Charles J Gervasi

    I use passive voice describing an experiment except in cases where it seems awkward. I also avoid it when describing mistakes because I feel like readers are on alert for the passive voice blame-avoiding when reading about something that went pear shaped; no one is fooled by “mistakes were made”.

  8. GMP

    There is the issue of evolution of “accepted style.”
    I have heard several people say that active voice is simply more modern in technical writing (papers, proposals). It used to be passive voice everywhere, all the time. It seems that the acceptable style has moved away from dry and matter-of-fact to more fluid and conversational. Why that happened is anyone’s guess, but I think it has to do with more showmanship needed nowadays from scientists and engineers, emphasis on accessibility of work to the broader community, also greater necessity to pitch ideas for funding and whatnot… Passive voice is being frowned upon as somewhat archaic, so even though there is nothing wrong with it, it now has a bad rep so it’s best avoided.

  9. NJS

    I *hate* passive voice, or at least its over-use in scientific writing. I concede that it has it’s place.

    As a test of my advisor’s style, I wrote my master’s thesis proposal in active voice. He changed everything to passive and I heaved a sigh of resignation. Okay, I’ll write in passive voice for the next several years, though it may suck out my soul and grind it into the keyboard.

    In order to dodge such a sentence, I’m dabbling (or a bit more) in journalism. Weeee!

  10. gasstationwithoutpumps

    I taught a tech writing class for engineers for 14 years, and I can assure you that almost no students need to be taught to use passive. They need to be broken of the habit, and quickly. Removing passive does not mean inserting “we” everywhere. To take an example from the above, you can leave out the developers by saying, “The novel on-metal RFID tag antenna has a lower profile than commercially available tags.” This construction brings the important noun phrase to the subject position, but in a more straightforward way than using passive.

    One important point: in a thesis (senior, MS, or PhD) it is essential to use “I” and not “we” (unless you have an explicit antecedent for “we” earlier in the paragraph). A thesis is about establishing the research skills of an individual and must be crystal clear about that individual’s contribution.

    “We” is not a formal form of “I” and should only be used when there are multiple authors, when “you and I” is meant, or when there is an explicit antecedent. “I proved him wrong” is arrogant—”we can prove him wrong” would be ok only if “you and I can do this together”—it would still be arrogant if “we, the multiple authors, can …” were the intended meaning.