I am in the midst of grading the first major written assignment for my introductory political science class and, as I grade these assignments digitally, I have my finger constantly pushing one key on my keyboard: That is, the key I programmed in Microsoft Word to automatically create a comment and write “Passive voice” within that comment.
While it is no surprise that undergraduates opt for sub-optimal stylistic choices when engaging in formal writing, this problem does not end at the undergraduate level. Political Science graduate students engage in the passive voice throughout their writing and even many of our top journals and scholars boast volumes of passivity. While there may be some debate as to how improper passive voice really may be, for scientific writing, even in our discipline, engaging in passive voice damages scientific objectivity by removing the subject from their actions. This, by no means, is a new argument, but it is one that we should be aware of as we write our articles; we need special caution in our methodology and data collection sections.
A brief primer on passive voice: Passive voice is simply when a sentence uses the traditional object of the sentence as the subject. An example should suffice to illustrate the difference between active and passive voice:
- “The student wrote the paper.” This is active; we know the subject and what the subject did with the object.
- “A paper was written.” This is passive; the object of the sentence is now the subject (paper) and we do not know who the true subject of the sentence really is. Who wrote the paper?
The second sentence style is prolific in social science writing based on the articles I have reviewed and the ones we publish as a discipline. I wrote in predominately passive voice sentences through a large part of graduate school until another student (a former English major, of course) pointed it out to me. After grappling with what the issue was with my writing, I slowly made an effort to improve my own writing style.
There is a natural proclivity for students and scholars alike to use passive voice in writing due to the nature of what we do: science. Secondary school teachers especially encourage this style of writing in American high school science courses as they teach students to remove the first-person account from their writing to maintain some level of objectivity when describing the scientific process. Teachers tell students that the subject-based experience through the “I” pronoun makes the research potentially subjective and, perhaps, tarnishes the credibility of the research. However, this is exactly the opposite of what happens when we use passive voice. If students were to write, “the data was recorded,” it provides an incomplete account of what actually occurred. Who recorded the data? Was it the author or was it by a second party? This is important information. “I recorded the data” is vastly superior to the former construction.
In our own research, we have these proclivities as well. “The data was collected;” it is likely important to know if the authors of the manuscript collected the data or if graduate assistants (or others) collected the data. In our results section, we are prone to write that variable X “is associated with Y” or “is correlated with Y” when “Y correlates with X” and “Y associates with X” is sufficient to explain the relationship. As a bonus, it saves us a word from our oh-so-very-important total word count as well.
The use of passive voice as the dominate voice is not unique to political science or academic writing in general. It is common in a vast number of written and spoken communication including news media and business/corporate communications. “Actions were taken,” “a decision was made,” “words were said,” “gunfire was exchanged,” and innumerable other examples pervade our discourse. However, even if it is the normal way actors express action in the contemporary world, it is not desirable in our writing where we are trying to document a process. A communique saying, “A decision was made” is doing so to either avoid agency or avoid naming who made those decisions; we do not want to avoid culpability in our writing.
I should also mention that passive voice could be appropriate in various contexts. If we are uncertain about an actor or the decisions made in a situation, it could make sense to employ passivity in that context. If we are reporting on a decision by a group and want to keep that decision anonymous, then that may be an appropriate time for passive voice (though, “the group decided” is still seeming superior to “A decision was made by the group”).
Eliminating misleading styles from our writing can be difficult. It is not a costless action; we have to learn what it means and actively prohibit expressing ourselves in that manner. As such, a natural reaction to learning of a new costly style is to ignore it or believe that it is too difficult to implement in our own writing. Thankfully, software can save us. I, myself, slip into passive voice quite frequently and, when I am reading my own writing, will often gloss over my own mistakes. If I am writing in either Word or LaTeX, I have a solution to overcome this problem.
First, in Microsoft Word, the grammar checker has had an option for checking passive voice; it has had this options for several iterations of the software now (in both Mac and PC). You have to dig for the option to enable it, but it can help you substantially as a formal or technical writer. In Microsoft Word 2013, go to file, options, proofing, writing style (select grammar and style), and click settings. About half way down the dialogue boxes, you will find the option for marking passive style (as well as many other options that can help clear up your writing).
I frequently write my article-length manuscripts in a LaTeX-based program. However, a few years ago, I discovered a similar style checker for .tex documents. Textlint will scan your document and look for several stylistic problems in addition to passive voice. While neither of these programs are perfect, they can aid in the process of identifying problematic sentence constructions.
Generally, expressing our processes and our ideas in a clear manner, instead of obfuscating them, is a goal we should strive towards as it increases the ability for people to consume our research and aids in the replication process; becoming better writers is in our collective interest as a discipline.
Finally, since this post is on grammar, it is only natural that it too contain some number of stylistic and grammatical mistakes; it is the Murphy’s law of correcting other people’s writing.