My boss doesn't like it, if I use phrases like "Fig. x depicts" or "Fig. x shows" in scientific publications and wants me to use passive form instead. However, I didn't find any reference that the use of active form is actually wrong and would really prefer to use the active form.

Is there any "official" rule in this regard? Both forms seem to be common in scientific publications, as I see it.

Edit: To clarify, english is not our first language. Thus, it's not an issue of "He who pays the piper may call the tune" (as indicated in the comments), but a question, if said active phrases are wrong.

  • 2
    The "official" rule is "He who pays the piper may call the tune". We've had discussions on the acceptability of the passive here before. I've seen articles on the acceptability of non-passive constructions in scientific English. Fred-down-the-road's boss probably dislikes the passive. This is a matter of style. But if I'm paying, I'm allowed to choose the style. Commented Feb 18, 2015 at 19:34
  • @EdwinAshworth I feel there's a difference in meaning between "figure x depicts" and "as depicted in figure x". e.g. "figure 5 depicts all side-effects that have been obeserved." "As depicted in figure 5, side-effects have been more prevalent in women over 75". To me, if we use "as depicted", an interpretation or conclusion is likely to follow in the same sentence. I'm not really sure, though. Am I wrong?
    – Centaurus
    Commented Feb 18, 2015 at 19:48
  • Just to add to what @EdwinAshworth says, the passive voice is a means to an end -- in some cases the only means, but not in this one. I've not come across a journal style guide which says every sentence must be in the passive, which isn't to say they don't exist but some active-voice constructions are clearer while preserving the impersonal tone. I would (often) personally take your approach, as to recast in the passive is likely to come across as unnecessarily wordy.
    – Chris H
    Commented Feb 18, 2015 at 19:50
  • @Centaurus, I think the key word in your comment is "likely". You could easily have any of "Figure x shows that the model fits the data", "It is shown in Figure x that the model fits the data" and "As depicted in Figure x, the model fits the data". The last -- in such a simple example -- does feel like it wants another clause, but it's not clearly lacking.
    – Chris H
    Commented Feb 18, 2015 at 19:54
  • @ChrisH Thanks. As for your other comment, I agree with Edwin: if it's just a matter of style, whoever has the gold makes the rules.
    – Centaurus
    Commented Feb 18, 2015 at 20:00

1 Answer 1


Every publishing house has is a category of specific prohibitions populated by words and forms of usage whose only offense is to run afoul of the idiosyncrasies of one or more people who rank high enough in the organization to transform their personal language foibles into house policy. The proscribing of "Fig. X depicts" is exactly that type of rule.

Undoubtedly your boss is not the only person in the scientific or publishing universe who has parlayed a dislike of that particular usage into a house ban on its use, but the prohibition in question remains arbitrary and (in my experience as a longtime freelance copy editor) not especially widespread. If you ever move to another organization, the odds are good that you'll be able to use "Fig. [or perhaps Figure] X depicts" to your heart's content.

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