Usage and Grammar

Q. I recently reviewed a scientific test report and my comments included recommendations to correct the use of over 80 instances of passive voice. I rewrote (corrected) each of the instances of passive voice for the author and included them in my comments. The author rejected each of my comments with the rationale that the avoidance of passive voice does not apply to scientific test reports. Is this true?

A. It is true that scientists have a long tradition of using the passive, probably because it is usually clear that the writers performed the actions being described. In such contexts the passive can be more efficient and less distracting than the active (“the temperature was adjusted to 212°F and the beakers were positioned in order of volume” rather than “Roger and I adjusted the temperature to 212°F and Harriet and Waldo positioned them in order of volume”).

On the other hand, passives can obscure the actor in places where it should be revealed (the “mistakes were made” problem). They can also be awkward (“the weights were lifted by the subjects”) or pretentious (“it was concluded that”) or invite a dangler (“after measuring, the beakers were filled”). And when overuse of the passive makes for dull reading, changing some instances to the active voice is an improvement.

Since there is nothing ungrammatical or inherently wrong with the passive and all good prose makes some use of it, it’s hard to say whether you overstepped by trying to eliminate it. But if you marked every instance of the passive as incorrect regardless of whether it caused a problem, then you may have annoyed the writer and damaged your credibility, causing the writer to reject your editing wholesale.