Breaking the Rules: “Don’t Let Good Grammar Spoil Good Writing” and Passive/Active Voice

 

Oldies can be goodies: one of the wonderful things about the IEEE PCS Newsletters Archive is that much of its advice to writers remains valid.

Philip Yaffe’s “Don’t Let Good Grammar Spoil Good Writing,” from the April 2009 IEEE PCS Newsletter, tells us why breaking grammar rules can create positive results, depending on context and purpose. For example, Yaffe argues against the rule: if we start a sentence in the past tense, we need to stay in the past (same) tense. Following this rule, we’d write:

The United Nations this morning reported that malaria was still a worldwide health menace.

Yet the whole point of this sentence is to indicate that malaria presents a current threat to our health, and therefore, would be more correctly written with “reported” and “is” – two different tenses.  His article focuses on rules around past versus present tense, bullet points, and paragraphing, but provides a good reminder for us to reevaluate our adherence to grammar rules that might hamper the function of our sentences.

For example, it’s really time to update up thinking around certain “rules” (and misconceptions) involving the Active versus the Passive voice.

Always write in the Active!

There’s a reason that the active is the preferred voice: it’s simpler and more concise – mostly because it carries the subject-verb-object relationship that holds the key to meaning in the English language more clearly.  Look, for example, at the following two sentences:

This simple experiment bears the weight of modern science. (9 words)
vs.
The weight of modern science is borne by this simple experiment. (11 words)

In the first sentence, the real actor of the sentence (experiment) performs the action (bears) to the object; in the second, the real actor (experiment) occupies the position of object in the sentence, and we have two additional words required to make the sentence grammatically correct (Two words might not seem like much, but it’s a 22% increase in the word count of the previous sentence).

But there are real reasons to write in the passive voice, such as when you want to hide agency – in other words, when you want to hide the actor. Which of these would you prefer to deliver to your supervisor on Monday morning?

The file containing the results of our last experiment was lost in the migration last weekend.
vs.
I lost the file containing the results of our last experiment in the migration last weekend. 

The first hides the actor (and therefore doesn’t assign blame to the speaker); that’s one reason passive is used, and often preferred in scientific and technical writing.

Scientific and Technical Writing requires the Passive Voice!

This “rule” arises from the goal of objectivity and reproducibility in science and engineering, and makes its way particularly into the methods section of technical documents. By eliminating the actor (scientist or engineer) from the text, we can, especially in describing methods, create the (false) sense that these tasks were objectively enacted rather than performed by a subject. Methods written in the passive seem more objective, even as they necessarily imply a subject, because this actor is hidden in the sentence.

Yet this is a only a disciplinary and cultural convention (or preference), and conventions (and preferences) change. In fact, if you look at even just the abstracts of the most recent issue of Science, you’ll notice very little use of the passive voice, and even the first person active:

“We fabricated solar cells with certified efficiencies of 20.1 and 19.5% for active areas of 0.049 and 1.1 square centimeters, respectively, achieved via low-temperature solution processing.”
vs.
“Solar cells were fabricated…” [1]

“Data returned by the Visible and InfraRed Mapping Spectrometer on board the Dawn spacecraft show a clear detection of an organic absorption feature at 3.4 micrometers on dwarf planet Ceres.”
vs.
“A clear detection … was shown by …” [2]

“We found that sugar-fed moths had lower oxidative damage to their flight muscle membranes than unfed moths.”
vs.
“sugar-fed moths were found to…” [3] 

So it appears that this “rule” is no longer universally held, and its status as scientific convention may be in doubt.

Why?

My hypothesis is that, in the highly competitive world of scientific publishing and research, taking ownership of actions and possession of your accomplishment may just have become necessary. Or maybe, science may just be catching up with good grammar!

Keep that in mind as you write your next technical report!

[1] M.C. De Sanctis, E. Ammannito, H.Y. McSween, A. Raponi, S. Marchi, F. Capaccioni, M.T. Capria, F.G. Carrozzo, M. Ciarniello, S. Fonte, M. Formisano, A. Frigeri, M. Giardino, A. Longobardo, G. Magni, L.A. McFadden, E. Palomba, C.M. Pieters, F. Tosi, F. Zambon, C.A. Raymond and C.T. Russell, “Localized aliphatic organic material on the surface of Ceres,” Science, vol. 355, pp. 719, 2017.

[2] H. Tan, A. Jain, O. Voznyy, X. Lan, d.A. García, J.Z. Fan, R. Quintero-Bermudez, M. Yuan, B. Zhang, Y. Zhao, F. Fan, P. Li, L.N. Quan, Y. Zhao, Z. Lu, Z. Yang, S. Hoogland and E.H. Sargent, “Efficient and stable solution-processed planar perovskite solar cells via contact passivation,” Science, vol. 355, pp. 722, 2017.

[3] E. Levin, G. Lopez-Martinez, B. Fane and G. Davidowitz, “Hawkmoths use nectar sugar to reduce oxidative damage from flight,” Science, vol. 355, pp. 733, 2017.