The Passive Voice is a Hoax!

The Passive Voice is a Hoax!

by Allen Downey

Most style guides recommend the active voice over the passive 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 explictly ask authors to write in the ACTIVE VOICE.

Use of the passive voice in science writing is a self-perpetuated, mutually-perpetrated hoax!

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.

  • Council of Science Editors Scientific Style and Format is, according to its web page, "the most recognized, authoritative reference for authors, editors, publishers, students, and translators in all areas of science and related fields."
    {I am wait for a copy by ILL, but if you have it, please send me the relevant section.}

  • 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}."

  • 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.

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.

Other essays by Allen Downey are available here.