Monday, November 28, 2011

‘The field form lost itself to me’ and other uses of the passive voice

Spanish takes a wonderful guilt-free approach to goof-ups, or rather unplanned occurrences.    Se me ha perdido la forma -- the form has lost itself to me.  Se me olvidó la pluma -- the pen forgot itself to me.  Se me acabó la gasolina -- the gasoline ran itself out, leaving me stuck in the middle of nowhere.

In our guilt-ridden Protestant culture we usually take more active responsibility.  I lost the form (actually I think my dog ate it), someone broke the pen, I ran out of gas ... must be something wrong with the gauge.  So isn’t it curious that we generally avoid the active voice in scientific writing, at least in the style that I was taught?  I hadn’t thought much about it until I read an interesting post at the Mermaid’s Tale:  Who is this magical "third person" doing the science?

The current trend appears to be towards more use of the active voice and first-person pronouns.  BioMedical Editor has a nice web page on Clear Science Writing: Active Voice or Passive Voice? with definitions (in case all that grammar stuff has forgotten itself to you), guidelines from specific journals and a bit of history:
“More than a century ago, scientists typically wrote in an active style that included the first-person pronouns I and we. Beginning in about the 1920s, however, these pronouns became less common as scientists adopted a passive writing style.  Considered to be objective, impersonal, and well suited to science writing, the passive voice became the standard style for medical and scientific journal publications for decades.”
It is the end of Week 4 of Highly Allochthonous’s writing challenge and I would have completed draft Results sections ... except that we don’t have results, we are not done with analysis.  So I returned to the Methods sections intent on using the active voice and first-person pronouns:  “we surveyed ninety-nine sites”, “we designed a protocol specific to the type”.  All was fine when using the first-person plural, but it seemed awkward to write in the first person singular:  “I combined data from three projects”, “I mapped all surveyed stands”.  I’m not sure why, for some reason it feels a bit egotistical.  Still, I’m intent on using the active voice.  If anyone has opinions on or experiences with writing in the first person, I’d like to hear.

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