The passive voice is political

Eric Martinez, Francis Mollica and Edward Gibson of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Edinburgh won an Ig Nobel Prize for literature this year for their work on what makes legal documents so hard to read. Ironically, the abstract of their paper, published in July 2022, is also very hard to read, coming in at 165 words in just five sentences:

Despite their ever-increasing presence in everyday life, contracts remain notoriously inaccessible to laypeople. Why? Here, a corpus analysis (n ≈10 million words) revealed that contracts contain startlingly high proportions of certain difficult-to-process features–including low-frequency jargon, center-embedded clauses (leading to long-distance syntactic dependencies), passive voice structures, and non-standard capitalization–relative to nine other baseline genres of written and spoken English. Two experiments (N=184) further revealed that excerpts containing these features were recalled and comprehended at lower rates than excerpts without these features, even for experienced readers, and that center-embedded clauses inhibited recall more-so than other features. These findings (a) undermine the specialized concepts account of legal theory, according to which law is a system built upon expert knowledge of technical concepts; (b) suggest such processing difficulties result largely from working-memory limitations imposed by long-distance syntactic dependencies (i.e., poor writing) as opposed to a mere lack of specialized legal knowledge; and (c) suggest editing out problematic features of legal texts would be tractable and beneficial for society at-large.

But nitpicks aside, I hope the award will bring more attention to why writing in the passive voice is problematic.

  1. It makes for duller reading.
  2. It glosses over actors who are performing an action and focuses on those on whom the action is being performed.

The first problem is not an opinion: readers like to be able to visualise what they’re reading. It makes reading a more interesting and immersive experience. This is why “show, don’t tell” is always good advice. But when the writer leaves out the performers of an action – everything from day-dreaming to a heist – a part of the picture disappears. The second problem is obviously dangerous but it can also impart the narrative with political overtones that the writer might like to do without. For example, writing “B was hit” instead of writing “A hit B” keeps the focus on the nature of the violence and recipient. A, the perpetrator, stays out of the picture, out of the narrative and out of readers’ conception of what really happened. If a writer intends to keep the focus on B as a way to humanise them, it doesn’t have to come at the cost of forgetting A. The way to construct the identities of A and B is with narrative – and not with grammatical techniques like the passive voice. If all the sentences in a given piece are in the passive voice, it will still be possible to build a narrative that is fair to B and suitably consternated towards A. The inverse is also true: you can write a piece using the active voice in all sentences and still build up to a narrative that’s unfair to B. The passive voice may not compromise your ability to faithfully describe reality but it will get in the way of what the reader takes away. Reading is a psychological experience and every little adjustment matters to whether your attempt to persuade succeeds.

Unfortunately, many science writers in India – especially those who have trained as scientists – employ the passive voice in a way that reveals the clear influence of scientific writing on their brand of English. In scientific writing – i.e. the labour that produces the text in research papers – both narrative and grammatical technique converge on the desirability of removing the scientist, as the performer of an experiment, from the picture. I dislike this sort of writing because a) it’s founded on the premise that the scientist’s identity or choices don’t matter to the experiment’s outcomes, whereas there are several examples in history of researchers’ identities influencing the questions they choose to ask, and answer, and b) as the Ig Nobel Prize has acknowledged, it makes for needlessly difficult reading. And not just me: even scientists have spoken up about how they’re having a harder time making sense of scientific papers. I’ve written before as to why science communication is not an add-on to science itself but a separate enterprise animated by its own skills and goals. Switching from the narrative-grammatical coincidence associated with ‘good science’ to the narrative-grammatical separation is one of the dividing lines. When scientists don’t make this switch, they’re at risk of participating in a communication exercise that’s liable to overlook the relationships between scientists’ identities and their ideas.

Note that, in India, a non-trivial number of people come into sophisticated forms of English use by engaging with the scientific enterprise. When The Wire Science first published its ‘submission guidelines’, some readers told us that our decision to enforce them was unfair because different people write in different ways. I agreed – but didn’t edit them because something someone told me at ACJ still rings true: before you attempt poetry, you must understand grammar so you know how exactly to break it.

Being introduced to English in the walled garden of science habituates people to using English in a certain way – a way that they consider to be good and effective but which is so only in the limited context of scientific work. It fails significantly and repeatedly when writers use it to engage with non-experts from the problems I noted above. It also doesn’t help that the bulk of scientists conducting research in India at the moment are (cis)male and Brahmin, thus not likely to perceive discrimination along these axes, and thus not likely to perceive the need to acknowledge it in the way they use their language. If you had “writing about particle physics” in mind and have been using it to contextualise my arguments, you may not have much luck; instead, I suggest considering “agriculture”, “psychology”, “biomedicine”, “pedagogy” or “astronomy”. (It’s not a coincidence that India’s lower-tech scientific enterprises have been more assailed by such discrepancies.) Irrespective of whether it is good/bad English, the passive voice doesn’t make for good communication. It may not, and never, affect readers’ ability to understand what you alone are communicating, but ditching it for the active voice could a) engender a habit among readers to expect it, and b) encourage other writers to adopt it when they’re writing on topics where the difference is crucial.