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"The students were chosen voluntarily for the study". I saw this phrase in an article and it made me wonder. The author clearly means that the students voluntarily participated in the study, but has he used a correct phrase for it?

P.S. Let me elaborate more on my point. I'm thinking that voluntarily is modifying the verb chose here. If I turn the sentence into an active form, I think the result is: "The researchers voluntarily chose the students for the study", which does not seem to be the case here.

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    I wouldn't say that it's 'incorrect' - but it's 'awkward' and inelegant. I would say "The students volunteered for the study.", which seems much clearer & is also shorter.
    – TrevorD
    May 22, 2016 at 17:51
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    "The researchers voluntarily chose ..." doesn't even make sense to me! I don't think your first sentence is ambiguous - just 'strange'.
    – TrevorD
    May 22, 2016 at 18:02
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    If you are learning English, you may find the English Language Learners site better for your questions.
    – TrevorD
    May 22, 2016 at 18:03
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    I agree that it's borderline "oxymoronic" to use "chosen" with "voluntarily" like this. I interpret it to mean: "The students were chosen [randomly] among/from volunteers for the study.
    – Papa Poule
    May 22, 2016 at 18:09
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    I am sceptical that a journalist would actually use that phrase, could the OP please tell us what was written immediately before and after the citation? Was the article written by a native English speaker journalist or by a blogger?
    – Mari-Lou A
    May 22, 2016 at 18:28

4 Answers 4

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Literally, it means that whoever did the choosing, did so voluntarily. Whatever the author meant was not stated clearly.

Can someone be “chosen voluntarily”? – YES.

It happens in the military all the time (on TV at least). Case in point: in Paths of Glory, one of the accused drew the shortest straw, 'voluntarily' choosing himself. That is to say that he was chosen at random but it is not my place to say what your author meant.

Does it make sense to you? – NO

If whatever journal this is in, adheres to the same standards as SE, it will be discarded as, "Unclear what you're asking."

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When a study is done, it is designed to measure certain parameters. Subjects are chosen for studies based on their fitness for the study parameters. Technically, all subjects (for medical studies, anyway) are volunteers; still, if a person with an ulcer volunteers for a study excluding ulcer patients, they will not be chosen, no matter how enthusiastically they volunteer. Some studies (non-medical; usually sociological) do not use volunteers; they just use data gathered for (usually) other purposes.

The writer probably meant the subjects were chosen among volunteers, and it could be more elegantly stated.

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I've seen it before and I agree it is awkward as it sounds like an oxymoron (two words together that have opposite meanings )

I would read it as they were chosen voluntarily (i.e. they volunteered) as opposed to being chosen randomly, chosen by phone etc

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  • +1, but I think it's possible that they could have been chosen randomly from a pool of volunteers.
    – Papa Poule
    May 22, 2016 at 18:12
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I think the sentence means something different than the writer intended.

Let me offer an illustrative example. In the movie "Sophie's Choice" a mother is taken to a Nazi death camp and is forced to choose which of her two children lived and which died.

She chose, but she did not voluntarily choose.

Perhaps a less unpleasant example: Mom says to son -- you must choose either broccoli or cabbage to go with your dinner. The kid must choose but he does not volunteer to choose.

So to "chose voluntarily" is to volunteer to chose, it is to choose without being coerced to chose. It is the ones who made the choice that volunteered, not the ones being chosen.

However, most likely that is not what the original meant. Most likely what was meant was either "they choose volunteers for the study" or simply "some volunteered for the study."

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