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Which of the following sentences should I prefer?

All widgets may be assumed perfect.


All widgets may be assumed to be perfect.

To my eye, the first seems a little terse and the second rather verbose. What would you suggest?

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Assume all widgets are perfect ? – mplungjan Mar 1 '11 at 14:47
up vote 2 down vote accepted

Of the two, the second ("All widgets may be assumed to be perfect") sounds more natural to me than the first. Depending on the context, I might prefer to write this in active voice instead of passive voice, which is frowned upon in some situations, including many formal ones.

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In many fields, the passive is preferred in formal writing over the active in order to avoid the use of first or second person. – Kosmonaut Mar 1 '11 at 15:30
@Kosmonaut: That's true, which is why I didn't say it has to be active voice. For example, if you were writing an operations manual, you might write, "If the machine does not output any errors, all widgets may be assumed to be perfect." If you were teaching a seminar, you might say, "If the machine does not output any errors, you may assume that all widgets are perfect." – Andy Mar 1 '11 at 15:40
I wanted to mention that it is nuanced specifically because some people have the wrong idea that passive is always, or almost always, bad. (Sorry to go after parts of two answers of yours in a row, by the way!) – Kosmonaut Mar 1 '11 at 15:58
@Kosmonaut: And again, thank you for helping clarify, for my benefit as well as that of anyone reading these questions. :) – Andy Mar 1 '11 at 16:00

Part of the problem is the ambiguous meaning of these sentences. The use of the word perfect implies no doubt about the quality of the widgets. Adding the phrase "may be assumed" brings back that doubt, and puts the onus on the audience to decide wether or not to make the assumption.

I am a native English speaker with a technical background. To me, these sentences raise an immediate question: Why would I assume that all widgets are perfect? If the author had no doubt about the widgets, they would simply have said: "all widgets are perfect". This implies that widgets are not all perfect (which seems realistic), but I "may" assume that they are.

To address this problem, I would use the following sentence instead:

It is safe to assume that all widgets are perfect

This sentence maintains the passive voice, but specifically addresses the ambiguity. It acknowledges that there is no such thing as a perfect widget, but implies that the author has considered the situation and is confident enough to treat all widgets as ideal. The author takes responsibility for the quality of the widgets, and leaves the audience free to ignore any imperfections in the widgets for the remainder of the discussion.

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