Is passive voice ever OK?

Subject: Is passive voice ever OK?
From: KnoxML1 <KnoxML1 -at- TEOMAIL -dot- JHUAPL -dot- EDU>
Date: Tue, 29 Nov 1994 16:13:30 EST

Darcy Harding writes:
Can you use passive voice when your audience expects it? [snip]
If you were writing for the chemistry community, would you fight the active
voice battle, or WHAT? [snip]


In at least three situations, passive voice is BETTER:

1. Unimportant actor. (Often so in scientific writing. For example, nobody may
care *who* did all the mixing & harvesting; what's important
is the sequence of events. Bringing in the actor (who, like as not, is a
nameless technician, not the author) can be a distraction, or worse, a

2. Unknown actor. ("The car was stolen last night"; "the relics were buried for
2000 years.") In scientific writing, things often *happen*, and scientists come
up with *possible* actors or explanations. Hedging is often necessary; the
editor must clarify what is a bona fide hegde and what is the author's need to
appear "professional." (If I had a dollar for every author who told me passive
was more "professional"....)

3. Embarrassed actor. "your account was accidentally debited $10,000 instead of
$10." 'The samples were dropped on the floor and the data had to be thrown

In instructions and procedures, passive voice can really muck up the works. In
Scientific writing, however, passive has a larger place. (Not in every
sentence; the editor's job is to figure out when to switch to active voice and
when to leave things passive.)

Good luck!

Margaret_knox -at- aplmail -dot- jhuapl -dot- edu

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