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When writing academic papers in English I use three different spelling and proofreading tools: Word, Grammarly, and Ginger. In the settings of all these tools, I specify that the document is an academic article, where possible.

Before I posted this question, I had a look at the question «Is using passive voice "bad form"?», but there they discuss more general cases, regular texts, while I'm interested in a subject «the passive voice in academic writing», which usually has different rules and recommendation, comparing to general essays.

What is strange for me, why do all these instruments mark the usage of passive voice as a style error? What's wrong with the passive voice in terms of academic writing? I know, that passive voice is not optimal for regular texts and difficult to understand, comparing to the active voice, but I always assumed that for the academic writing passive voice suits well, isn't it?

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    Why do you trust automated tools? They can give useful hints, sometimes, but that's all. Sometimes they're wrong. – TRiG Sep 6 '17 at 11:10
  • @TRiG, I don't really trust, I just paid attention to the phenomenon that they mark passive voice as something negative. – Mike B. Sep 6 '17 at 11:23
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    About 50 years ago passive voice was the norm for certain types of scholarly writing, but "authorities" (rightly) deduced that the excessive use of passive was a hindrance to both good writing and ready comprehension. So guidelines changed to discourage its use. – Hot Licks Sep 6 '17 at 12:15
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    Re your edit: if you're specifically interested about the use of the passive in your academic writing, you should see if there is anyone at your associated institution who can give you style advice. Matters of style differ between different groups. For a general overview, see Mix active and passive voice in the thesis, Style Question: Use of “we” vs. “I” vs. passive voice in a dissertation, Use of “I”, “we” and the passive voice in a scientific thesis – herisson Sep 6 '17 at 12:37
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    First, it's bad writing that is hard to read, and dull - whether in academic journals or elsewhere. Secondly, by leaving out the subject, it creates ambiguities and misunderstandings that aren't immediately obvious. Writing in the active voice is more precise, and more interesting. – Steve Bennett Sep 6 '17 at 12:47
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In any type of writing—academic or informal or anything in between—passive voice can be used. As was noted in the posted question, in a number of word processing programs any passive constructions are marked as problematic, but such style advice is not required to be obeyed.

Moreover, again as pointed out above, academic writing has long been viewed as an area of expression in which passive voice is especially accepted and even respected. Indeed, the case is not overstated that in academic writing passive voice is widely preferred.

Often the more serious problems that are encountered in the publishing process are related to the reactions of the editors or reviewers who are employed in the vetting of the manuscript. But here, too, the opposition to passive voice may be dismissed as an irrational bias or as a vestige of a time when arbitrary style rules were widely adopted and indiscriminately enforced.

Whether the hostility to passive voice in Word and similar programs will be retained is to be doubted, as prescriptive formulas for "good writing" are more and more generally discounted or rejected outright. In the future what is written may be permitted to be left unchallenged by artificial gatekeepers of theories that are grounded in a style that is outdated and largely discredited.

  • A fly try: wry, dry, and sly. – tchrist Apr 22 '18 at 1:05
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@SvenYarg's answer here and particularly his fuller one on the page linked to in the OP's question are a good analysis of when the active is to be preferred to the passive, and vice versa.

Just a couple of extra points. Firstly, Microsoft Word does not mark passive sentences as 'style errors'. Here is an extract from its advice:

For a livelier and more persuasive sentence, consider rewriting your sentence using an active verb (the subject performs the action, as in "The ball hit Catherine") rather than a passive verb (the subject receives the action, as in "Catherine was hit by the ball").

I find the assumption that active sentences are per se "livelier and more persuasive" questionable to say the least. But the Word alert may be useful for writers who are not aware that they have written a passive construction and may indeed wish to consider if it could be improved by rewriting. Word does not, however, mark the passive as an 'error'. (It would be interesting to know exactly how Grammarly and Ginger formulate their response to passives.)

Secondly, for a much more detailed analysis of the passive and the clueless advice to avoid it, I suggest reading "Fear and Loathing of the English Passive" by Professor Pullum, co-author of the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language and Language Log contributor.

Here is a brief extract:

If using a passive construction is a hallmark of bad writing style, we need to know what is supposed to be bad about it—what justifies the allegation of stylistic badness. But in fact that condition is not met either. The claims about the alleged faults of passive clauses are never justified. Passives are variously alleged to be

  • dull and static rather than lively and dynamic
  • sneaky or evasive concerning agency or responsibility
  • feeble and weak rather than bold and strong
  • avoided by good writers

All the allegations are unsupported, and to some extent clearly false.

Pullum goes on to rebut each of these allegations.

My advice would be to avoid all generic advice about the passive (!) and decide construction by construction if the active or passive is the better choice. Even more useful would be to read several texts by the experts in your academic field and note how they construct their arguments and analyses. You could choose to construct your own texts to be stylistically similar.

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Regarding the Active and Passive Voice styles, apart from a stubborn stand of any 'proofreading tool', the advice of William Strunk and E.B White is apt and moderate. (The Elements of Style, Chapter 14)

The active voice is usually more direct and vigorous than the passive:

I shall always remember my first visit to Boston.

This is much better than

My first visit to Boston will always be remembered by me.

The latter sentence is less direct, less bold, and less concise . If the writer tries to make it more concise by omitting "by me," My first visit to Boston will always be remembered, it becomes indefinite: is it the writer or some undisclosed person or the world at large that will always remember this visit? This rule does not, of course, mean that the writer should entirely discard the passive voice, which is frequently convenient and sometimes necessary.

Although the Passive Voice is acceptable and unavoidable, it seems, wherever possible the Active Voice is preferable because it is action-oriented, clearer and more concise. But when the doer is unknown or unimportant, Passive Voice is the only resort.

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Passive voice is the preferred style for at least some academic journals, particularly in the physical sciences. Check your journal's guidelines and don't trust MS Word on this one (unless your journal says no passive voice).

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