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When Did Scientists Turn Passive?

Kathryn S. Brown's article in The Scientist's Jan. 20, 1997, issue (page 16) discussed today's deplorable and stilted style of science writing. In college I saw it as my duty to insist that my students write their lab reports in the passive voice. But when, where, and why did that practice begin? No doubt scientists wanted to emphasize that they were not voicing opinions but reporting observations that others could confirm. The first observer is merely a reporter, the observations being valid

Theodor Benfey

Kathryn S. Brown's article in The Scientist's Jan. 20, 1997, issue (page 16) discussed today's deplorable and stilted style of science writing. In college I saw it as my duty to insist that my students write their lab reports in the passive voice. But when, where, and why did that practice begin?

No doubt scientists wanted to emphasize that they were not voicing opinions but reporting observations that others could confirm. The first observer is merely a reporter, the observations being valid regardless of who reported them. The objectivity of science was the refreshingly new element, as Albert Schweitzer noted when he switched from philosophy and theology to the study of medicine. Nowadays what interests us is the creative process: the path, often convoluted, by which the scientist arrives at his or her discoveries. For that the usual article gives few clues.

When did the passive voice become established? The...

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