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My question is when passive voice is preferred over active voices and vice versa?

  1. I remember that I was taught that in scientific writings, passive voice was preferred over active voice. Is it correct?
  2. If I want to describe several actions of mine, for example:

    I did thing A. I did thing B. I did thing C. I did thing D. ...

    If I keep using the active voice, will that make the description boring? That is why I thought juxtaposition of passive and active voice would make the description better:

    I did thing A. Thing B was done by me. I did thing C. Thing D was done by me. ...

    But a comment led me wonder whether juxtaposition of passive and active voice is good, or when it is good and when it isn't?

marked as duplicate by Edwin Ashworth, choster, Brian Hooper, TrevorD, Rory Alsop Oct 13 '13 at 19:39

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  • 1
    It's not a question of "good" or "preferred"; there are no moral values and plenty of individual preferences. But this is grammar, so you use what you need to to do what you want to. For instance, the passive exists to promote the direct object to an important position (subject and normally first noun phrase), and to de-emphasize an agent subject. When do you want to do that? When the DO is the important thing and the agent isn't. This building was erected in 1972 (by Acme Construction Co.) vs Acme Construction Co. erected this building in 1972. It's obvious which is better here. – John Lawler Oct 12 '13 at 21:59
  • It would be easier to weigh in on part 2 if we had some concrete text to work with. Any chance of a MWE (as it would be called on tex stackexchange)? – Daniel Harbour Oct 12 '13 at 22:08
  • @DanielHarbour: I don't have a MWE. But, for example, when you write a personal statement for graduate school application to describe your several previous projects, will you use passive or active voice or juxtaposition? – Tim Oct 12 '13 at 22:21
  • There are articles at PASSIVE VOICE IN SCIENTIFIC WRITING and All about the passive voice which are very helpful, but I'm sure that this question has been addressed before. – Edwin Ashworth Oct 12 '13 at 22:27
  • For a grad school application, I’d encourage you to emphasize your own agency, either with I or we. You don’t want your passives to imply that just anyone else could have gotten the same result. – Daniel Harbour Oct 12 '13 at 22:32
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I was taught that whether to use active voice or passive voice depends on what you want to put the emphasis on. Sometimes it's the subject, other times it's the object.

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There is a preference for use of the passive in certain scientific genres, where the identity of the agent is irrelevant. For instance, if you describe an experimental procedure in the passive, you invite the reader to infer that, in your opinion, if they do what you did, then they’ll get the same result. That is, you suppress expression of your personal identity/agency, as it has nothing to do with the outcome.

In interpretative or evaluative sections of articles, where authors express personal opinions about implications, causes, mechanisms, improvements, etc., you find more use of personal pronouns, and less of the passive (or at least, that’s my impression from reading papers in cognitive neuroscience, animal behaviour, and related areas).

1

It is really a matter of how it sounds. For someone learning English I realise that that is not particularly helpful. It is certainly a good thing to avoid repetition, both of vocabulary and of sentence structure. It is also a good thing not to start a number of successive sentences with the word 'I'. Especially this is the case when writing a letter, such as one of application for a job. One needs to vary one's sentence structures and the use of the passive voice does provide one such opportunity. But there are others. I'm afraid I may not have been of much help, but it is largely a question of practice and experience at writing in English.

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The passive voice should be avoided, especially in writing.

It is most often used in technical writing — and especially in user manuals. The reason is that the writer wants the object of the sentence to come first, in order to direct the user's attention to the thing to be acted on.

  • Active:

    The test director shall turn the blue frazzis knob clockwise.

  • Passive:

    The blue frazzis knob shall be turned clockwise by the test director.

In other writing, though, the terms "active" and "passive" have much the same connotation as they do in psychology: active = good; passive = not so good.

The active voice keeps the narration flowing; the passive tends to bog it down.

My own opinion is that mixing the two is even worse than using the passive consistently. It gives the writing a kind of staggering tempo, each one tripping over the other.

  • 5
    Well, your first sentence about avoiding the passive in writing is written in the passive voice. And in fact it is often the very combination of active and passive in a text that gives that text cohesion. This is because using the passive is the best way for the writer to comply with the given-new contract (depts.washington.edu/engl/askbetty/cohesion.php). In a first-person narrative, sometimes you will do things and sometimes things will be done to you, so the passive is unavoidable. – Shoe Oct 13 '13 at 4:58

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