This morning I was reading an article on a local news site about weather conditions in my area. A couple of paragraphs in, this sentence poked me in the eye:

Snowfall is expected to end about lunchtime.

Perhaps for other reasons—reasons well beyond the scope of this little post—it touched a nerve, but it got me thinking how much I really hate passive voice in any kind of article or report that gives predictions, forecasts, or recommendations.

Without going all English 101 there are really two problems with passive voice from a practical standpoint:

  1. It's far more taxing on the reader cognitively
  2. It implies a lack of confidence

Rewriting the prediction in an active voice solves both problems:

We expect snowfall to end about lunchtime.

The cognitive problem

The cognitive problem isn't immediately obvious in this case because it's such a short sentence shown in isolation, but if you read thousands of pages of technical papers over the course of a year like I do, you know what it's like to have your head caught in the vise of a passive-voice-infected paper.

I've never seen a study that compares reading times between passively and actively written papers, but I would love to see one if anyone knows of one. Send it to me, please. Based on my (non-scientific) experience, it takes roughly 3–5 times longer to process technical literature riddled with passive voice.

The confidence problem

To me, someone who writes "snowfall is expected to end about lunchtime" just doesn't sound all warm and fuzzy that what they're saying is true.

Passive voice is the unconfident, if subconscious, mind's trick of deflecting responsibility from itself into abstract nothingness. I mean, who expects snowfall to end about lunchtime? The writer? The local news station meteorologist? Dark Sky? Nostradamus?

As a reader I have no idea, and that's kind of the point. There is no "we," "he," or "she," in "snowfall is expected to end about lunchtime." No one is at fault when snowfall ends well before or well after lunchtime.

Snowfall itself cannot expect itself to end about lunchtime, so if I'm being really cynical, I can only conclude that no one expects snowfall to end about lunchtime.

Snowfall is pretty innocuous, but there are plenty of other passively written forecasts in the world that are not. Maybe "inflation is expected to increase" or "it is suspected that vaccines are linked to autism." Many of these will translate to "bullshit is assumed."

You should always question anyone who makes recommendations without assuming responsibility or citing someone else.

Use passive voice as a tool for getting better

It's totally fine to write a rough draft in passive voice. The trick is to use it as a self-confidence barometer. If you catch yourself using passive voice when making recommendations or reporting results, ask yourself:

  • Do I really believe what I'm writing?
  • Do I really know who said what I'm writing? If yes, why am I not using their name?
  • Should I publish this at all?
  • Can I say this in simpler language?

And then. . . do the right thing, which is rarely the easy thing. You'll know what I'm talking about when you're at this point.