Monday, April 2, 2012

The passive voice is a hoax!

Excessive use of the passive voice in science writing is a self-perpetuated, mutually-perpetrated hoax. Most style guides recommend the active voice, and most readers prefer it. But in some academic fields, especially the sciences, authors use a stilted and awkward style that replaces clear concise sentences like, "We performed the experiment," with circumlocutions like "The experiment was performed."

Asked why they write like that, many scientists admit that they don't like it, but they are under the impression that journals require it.  They are wrong.  Of the journals that have style guides, the vast majority explicitly ask authors to write in the active voice.

Here's what you can do to help stop the carnage:
  • If you are writing scientific articles in the passive voice, check the style guide for your journals. Unless you are explicitly required to write in the passive voice, don't!

  • If you are reviewing articles, check the style guide for your journals. Unless the passive voice is explicitly required, don't "correct" sentences in the active voice.

  • If you are the editor of a scientific journal, make sure that your style guide explicitly recommends the active voice, and make sure authors and reviewers are aware of your recommendation.

  • If you are teaching students to write scientific papers in the passive voice, STOP! There is no reason for students to practice bad writing. If, at some point in the future, they actually have to write like that, they can write a first draft in the active voice and then translate.

  • If you know of any other style guides that make a recommendation on this topic, let me know and I will add them to this page. So far I haven't found any that actually call for the passive voice.
Here are the style guides from some of the top journals in science:
  • Nature
    "Nature journals like authors to write in the active voice ("we performed the experiment..." ) as experience has shown that readers find concepts and results to be conveyed more clearly if written directly."
    The Nature Editorial Staff comment on their style recommendations here, and here is a collection of letters to Nature on this topic.

  • Science
    "Use active voice when suitable, particularly when necessary for correct syntax (e.g., 'To address this possibility, we constructed a lZap library . . .,' not 'To address this possibility, a lZap library was constructed . . .')."
  • Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA (PNAS)

    From personal correspondence with PNAS Editorial:
    "... we do not have a style guide for authors beyond what can be found in the Information for Authors page ( There are no rules recommending passive vs. active voice in research articles. I would recommend looking at some PNAS articles in your specific area of interest to get a flavor of the style used."
    However, their Production Department adds:
    "[We] feel that accepted best practice in writing and editing favors active voice over passive."
    Note: many thanks to my correspondent at PNAS for permission to include these quotes.
  • IEEE

    The  IEEE Editorial Style Manual doesn't make an explicit recommendation
    on this issue, but  for "guidance on grammar and usage,"
    it refers to the Chicago Manual of Style, which says:
    "As a matter of style, passive voice {the matter will be given careful consideration} is typically, though not always, inferior to active voice {we will consider the matter carefully}."
    Update: A reader sent the following: You might be pleased to note that the May 2007 template and instructions for IEEE Transactions articles ( is at least permissive:
    "If you wish, you may write in the first person singular or plural and use the active voice ("I observed that ..." or  "We observed that ..." instead of "It was observed that ...")."
  • ACM

    If the ACM has a style guide I can't find it, but one of their publications, Crossroads, does, and it couldn't be clearer:
    "Active voice replaces passive voice whenever possible." 
  • A reader sent me the following note:
    The American Chemical Society Style Guide, 3rd Edition writes as follows: "Use the active voice when it is less wordy and more direct than the passive." And "Use first person when it helps to keep your meaning clear and to express a purpose or a decision."
The following are journals whose style guides do not address this issue, which I take as implicit permission to use the active voice, as recommended by virtually all non-scientific style guides:
  • Physical Review Letters

    Their style guide is silent on this issue.

  • Applied Physics Letters

    Their instructions call for "good scientific American English," but they don't address the issue of voice explicitly.

    They also suggest, "For general format and style, consult recent issues of the Journal." I chose an
    article at random and found that it was generally in the active voice:

    "We realized the described structure by first creating a 2D hexagonal pattern of etch pits..." with only a few unfortunate uses of the passive voice: " reduce therewith the number of stitching
    interfaces, the magnification of the FIB images was reduced."

    So I take that as implicit permission to write in the active voice...and to use the word "therewith".

  • Structure

    Nothing explicit, but certainly no call for the passive voice:
    "Research papers should be as concise as possible and written in a style that is accessible to the broad Structure readership."
Unfortunately, many journals provide no style guides at all:
Here is an interesting report from an author whose paper was tranformed from active to passive by misguided editors.

Here is a note from another reader:
"I also found this gem which you may have already read: Use of the Passive Voice in Medical Journal Articles, Robert J. Amdur,MDa; Jessica Kirwan, MAb; and Christopher G. Morris, MSc, AMWA JOURNAL •VOL. 25, NO. 3, 2010"

Amdur et al measure the use of passive voice in medical articles and find that 20-30% of sentences are passive, compared with 3-5% in their reference corpus, the Wall Street Journal.  They write:
"We could not find a survey study or consensus statement  addressing the question of why authors of medical journal articles use the passive voice so frequently. No publication guideline mentions goals or limits for the use of the passive voice, and some of the most prestigious references are worded in a way that may encourage authors to use the passive voice whenever it is acceptable to do so. For example, the AMA Manual of Style says that, 'Authors should use the active voice, except in instances in which the actor is unknown or the interest focuses on what is acted on.'"

One point of clarification: I am not an absolutist on this issue. The passive voice has its uses. What I am objecting to is the obsolete tradition of writing scientific papers primarily in the passive voice.  Finally, please do not send me email triumphantly pointing out the (occasional and appropriate) use of the passive voice in my essays.


In response to this article, I heard from several readers who found journals that explicitly ask authors to use the passive voice.

Jonathan Livengood indicted the ICES Journal of Marine Science which recommends the passive voice in its style guide:
Note too that the Journal prefers text to be written in the passive voice (e.g. “An experiment on XXX  was undertaken …”) rather than in the active voice (e.g. “I undertook an experiment on XXX …”), though modest use of the active voice is acceptable.
David Weisman reported the style guide for Clinical Oncology and Cancer Research, which recommends:
Materials and Methods:  Use the "passive voice" when describing experimental detail.
Note too that they compound the offence with spurious use of "quotation marks."

Donna Tucker found a borderline case.  She wrote, "The American Meteorological Society no longer recommends the use of passive voice.  It has not been that many years since they did...   They do, however, have specific requirements for the abstract...
First person construction should not be used in the abstract, and references should be omitted because they are not available per se to abstracting services.
Donna continues, "So if I cannot say 'We collected the data.'  I am left with 'The data were collected'.  Although this requirement does not explicitly mandate the use of the passive voice, it does make it unavoidable in certain circumstances."  The journal gets extra demerits for gratuitous use of "per se."

Finally, Michael Allen indicts the Journal of Animal Ecology for this:
The passive voice is preferred in describing methods and results. The active voice may be used occasionally to emphasize a personal opinion (typically in Introduction and Discussion sections).
Thank you to everyone who submitted a claim.  I welcome additional nominations to the Hall of Shame.


  1. I can confirm that the Physical Review journals, as well as every other physics / astronomy journal I've published in, allow the active voice. I use it most of the time and have never gotten a complaint from an editor.

  2. Psychology grad student here. Our teachers encouraged us to use the active voice, and all social science journals allow it. I struggle with it as i tend to slip into passive voice mode without thinking about it. Luckily my wife is more in tune with writing and corrects my poor passive passages!

  3. The passive voice is hated by us.

  4. Interesting, thanks. Where do you stand on using the first person plural active voice in a single-author paper or thesis?

    1. I am undecided. I wrote my dissertation in the singular (at my adviser's insistence), and I write this blog in the singular (obviously), but for most of my single-authored papers, we are magically plural.

    2. Whenever I see a single author use "we" for self-reference, I always wonder whether to attribute this to pregnancy or tapeworms. The New York Times Magazine had an article on this subject:

  5. I got this from 2 reviewers.

    Reviewer 1: There are too many subjective wording through this manuscript, such as "I consider" (line 57), "I identify" (line 81), "I solve" (line 179) etc. All these sentences need to be reconstructed into the passivity sentences to qualify for the scientific writing.

    Reviewer 2: The first-person narrative was also distracting. Otherwise it was well written.

    1. Groan. Does the journal you submitted your article have a style guide you can point the reviewers to?

      I assume, of course, that winning this battle is more important for you than getting your article published :)

  6. Here's one more journal that advocates the use of the passive voice -- Journal of Ambient Intelligence and Smart Environments.

    The instructions to authors ( contains this gem:

    "The use of first persons (i.e., "I", "we", their possessives, etc.) should be avoided, which can nicely be expressed by the passive voice or other ways. This also applies to the Abstract."

    1. That's just awful, but thanks for passing it along.

      Do you want to write to the editors and send them a link to this article?

    2. I might well do so ... (:

      I'm now in the midst of analyzing a set of documents from Folia Zoologica, and -- surprise, surprise -- they too advocate the use of the passive. Here's the advice to authors (

      "Text should not be written in first person, the passive voice should be used."

    3. Wow, even their style guide is in the passive voice. That's hard core!

  7. You'll want to add the Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology, which very explicitly says, "All papers should all be written in third person, passive voice." Having perused their journal, though, I noticed that not all of their articles even do that!