Language problems

We often see the same language problems over and over again in the manuscripts we receive. Here we discuss some of the more common problem categories.

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Passive voice versus active voice

In the active voice, the subject of the sentence performs the action (We investigated the effect of the drug). In the passive voice, the subject receives the action (The effect of the drug was investigated). Note that with the passive voice, the doer of the action can be omitted, and that becomes a problem when readers want to know who the doer of the action is. Sentences that begin, It was hypothesized that, are especially confusing because the reader cannot tell whether the authors are presenting their own hypothesis or are referring to someone else’s—and that is essential information.

In the early days of scientific reporting, passive voice was the rule. That has changed. Because active voice is livelier and more concise—and because it tells us who is responsible for the action—most journal editors now prefer the active voice. For authors who are not used to writing in the active voice or are self-conscious about starting sentences with I or we, we like to cite what is perhaps scientific literature’s best-known example of active-voice reporting: We wish to suggest a structure for the salt of deoxyribose nucleic acid (D.N.A.) (Watson JD & Crick FH. Nature. 1953 Apr 25;171(4356):737-8).

There are times, however, when the passive voice is appropriate. One such time is when the receiver of the action is more important than the doer (Charles Darwin was buried at Westminster Abbey), and another is when the doer prefers to remain anonymous.

“. . . mistakes were made.”  Ronald Reagan, 27 Jan 1987

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Tower of Babel

Tower of Babel, Pieter Bruegel the Elder (ca. 1525-1569)