Why does MS Office spellchecker query use of pass¡ve voice?
Thread poster: neilmac

neilmac  Identity Verified
Spain
Local time: 14:31
Spanish to English
+ ...
Jul 16, 2012

I recently noticed that some professional scientific journals - and in other areas - now advise against the use of passive voice in articles submitted for publication.

Is it just my imagination or is there a generalised dumbing down of texts worldwide?


 

Christine Andersen  Identity Verified
Denmark
Local time: 14:31
Member (2003)
Danish to English
+ ...
It is not possible Jul 16, 2012

A good few years ago now, I was asked by a client to remove the passive voice from a manual.

I could get away with sentences like 'The motor will start when you press the switch' - until the same client objected to the 'you'.

OK, the operator presses the switch, and the machine starts.

I explained it was a waste of time, and certainly not an improvement of the text.

You/we/someone very soon get(s) into tangles about who does what in the process, and it is far easier to forget who the active subject of the process is, because it is irrelevant.

Of course the passive can be misused (er - you could misuse it, but I am assuming you would not, and I feel uncomfortable even implying ... icon_razz.gif )
The passive certainly has its uses!

So why the spellchecker queries the passive is a mystery to me too.


 

matt robinson  Identity Verified
Spain
Local time: 14:31
Member (2010)
Spanish to English
Cynical reply Jul 16, 2012

Perhaps the supposed impartiality of scientific research has finally been put to rest

 

Anna Spanoudaki-Thurm  Identity Verified
Germany
Local time: 14:31
Member (2009)
German to Greek
+ ...
Not recently Jul 16, 2012

It has been so for more than a decade, as far as I know. The reason is that the majority of authors as well as the majority of readers are non-native english speakers. The journals "force" the use of simple language, so that the article remains understandable.

In a scientific conference (physics), during the discussion following a presentation, two members of the audience, both native english speakers, got involved in a discussion on a particular question. The rest of the audience soon gave up following the discussion, let alone taking part in it, until the chairman interrupted with: "Would the two gentelmen please LOWER the level of their language?". This caused waves of relief and was greeted enthusiastically by the audience.



[Έγινε επεξεργασία στις 2012-07-16 19:40 GMT]


 

neilmac  Identity Verified
Spain
Local time: 14:31
Spanish to English
+ ...
TOPIC STARTER
Pearls before... Jul 17, 2012

Anna Spanoudaki-Thurm wrote:

...The reason is that the majority of authors as well as the majority of readers are non-native english speakers. The journals "force" the use of simple language, so that the article remains understandable.

In a scientific conference (physics), during the discussion following a presentation, two members of the audience, both native english speakers, got involved in a discussion on a particular question. The rest of the audience soon gave up following the discussion, let alone taking part in it, until the chairman interrupted with: "Would the two gentelmen please LOWER the level of their language?". This caused waves of relief and was greeted enthusiastically by the audience.



[Έγινε επεξεργασία στις 2012-07-16 19:40 GMT]


I agree that this is probably the reason, but there is a big difference between spoken native language and the written word. I was personally dismayed and slightly affronted to find that some journals now advocate non-use of this perfectly normal grammatical structure. Passive constructions per se need not be impenetrable if used correctly! Surely if things continue along these lines, eventually there will no longer be any need for translators, and any old author, irrespective of their L1, who can cobble a few basic sentences together, will be able to blithely submit their texts for publication without fear of rejection?

In the end, it makes me wonder if all these years of formal education followed by the nitpicking and "silk purse out of sow's ear-making" of text revision/proofing/editing have been a waste of time...


 

Christine Andersen  Identity Verified
Denmark
Local time: 14:31
Member (2003)
Danish to English
+ ...
The whole misunderstanding is that passive = difficult Jul 17, 2012

My source language has TWO passive forms, which are a delight when used properly.

They may be a challenge to translate, but hey, that is what makes this job enjoyable. It is occasionally tempting to construct a kind of double passive, which IS convoluted and difficult to understand for anyone, especially in spoken language.

On other occasions - perhaps more in law than science - a neat passive makes the whole sentence clear and unambiguous, while the active sentence in the source language is unclear if translated in the active voice. (Again with reference to Danish, with various structural features like more differentiated pronouns.)

The spellchecker queries so many things - commas, the numbers of verbs, whatever. And does not catch typos like an/and, from/from ... Clients must simply be told that it is a machine, and no more infallible than other forms of machine in connection with language.

You cannot categorise sentences as passive = difficult, active = simpler, because it depends on so many other things as well.

In science, where the focus is so often on the process or result rather than the agent, the use of the passive is absolutely indispensable. It is not a question of dumbing down at all.

Of course it can be misused, but belive me, so can the active voice!
So the tendency must be resisted, judiciously - and actively... icon_wink.gif


 

Michael Wetzel  Identity Verified
Germany
Local time: 14:31
German to English
motivated passive Jul 17, 2012

Hello,

The querying of every use of passive is another feature that makes Microsoft's grammar checker a waste of time that I don't bother with (although I personally find the impossibility of selecting between -ise and -ize spelling with British English considerably more annoying). I used to use the checker fairly often: Every now and then it was genuinely good at spotting problems, but 90% of its queries or suggestions were false hits and it also missed a substantial number of errors.

As to passive: I also agree that motivated passive voice (passive that is a natural result of the content of a sentence) is much easier to understand than unmotivated active voice (forced on a sentence to obey a rule). And I agree that there are a lot of fields and types of texts where good writers will correctly choose to use passive for 80-90% of their sentences.

That said, I translate out of German, which is an inflected language in which passive voice is in absolutely no way disruptive or "difficult". For this reason, passive is often (and legitimately) used as a stylistic means to liven up sentence structure. I almost always convert sentences of this type into active voice in English, because I really do think that it is correct to see active voice as the appropriate "default setting" for MOST writing in English.

In short: I don't think the issue is about "dumbing down" texts, but about the ignorance of some decision makers who have either gotten out of their field of expertise or are simply unwilling to pay attention. (I would guess that either the editors suggesting the rule haven't done much scientific writing of their own or that the scientists suggesting the rule use 80-90% passive in their own work - unbeknownst to themselves).

Sincerely,
Michael


 

Phil Hand  Identity Verified
China
Local time: 20:31
Chinese to English
Good reasons and bad reason Jul 17, 2012

The good reasons are related to the use of simplified technical English: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Simplified_English

The bad reasons are silly claims about how the passive voice makes you sound weak (passive).

Avoidance of "you" in manuals is pretty standard, too.

To be honest, I rather like these strictures. They become linguistic challenges: how can you write clearly and effectively while sticking to whatever rules (silly or sensible) have been laid down in the house style.


 

neilmac  Identity Verified
Spain
Local time: 14:31
Spanish to English
+ ...
TOPIC STARTER
Definition of DUMB DOWN: Jul 18, 2012

Transitive verb: to lower the level of difficulty and the intellectual content of (as a textbook).

NB: My spellchecker had only recently started doing this,which is why I was so surprised. The grammar checker had been activated somehow. I have now switched off this irritating feature (between that and Dragon not distinguishing my "phoned" from "found" I was going spare) and am back to relying on my own judgement and experience. Thanks to everyone for the comments.


 

urbom
United Kingdom
Local time: 13:31
German to English
+ ...
Two separate questions Jul 18, 2012

The OP asked two separate questions in the thread title and initial post.
neilmac wrote:

Why does MS Office spellchecker query use of pass¡ve voice?


It is my impression that the rules used by the grammar checker in MS Word are heavily influenced by The Rules that have been drilled into generations of Americans by their high-school English teachers. One of these Sacred, Immutable Rules decrees that Good Writing should avoid the passive voice.

http://www.google.com/search?hl=en&as_q=writing%20rules&as_epq=avoid%20*%20passive

These Rules, which continue to be parroted by many people long after they have left high school, seem to have their basis in a little book entitled The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E. B. White, and to a lesser extent in the Six Rules set out by George Orwell in his essay, 'Politics and the English Language' (though the sixth of Orwell's rules seems to fall by the wayside in popular interpretations).

Readers of Language Log may be familiar with Prof. Geoff Pullum's vigorous refutations of Strunk & White's claims. He performed a fairly comprehensive demolition job in the pages of English Today a couple of years ago -- article available at http://www.lel.ed.ac.uk/~gpullum/ETfinalProof.pdf.

So I would view the advice generated by the MS Word grammar checker as being on a par with the sort of Rules that are quoted by US high-school English teachers.

neilmac wrote:

I recently noticed that some professional scientific journals - and in other areas - now advise against the use of passive voice in articles submitted for publication.

Is it just my imagination or is there a generalised dumbing down of texts worldwide?


I suspect one person's 'dumbing down' is another's 'making texts more accessible to a wider range of non-native readers'.

Surely it's not contentious to state that the English passive is difficult -- that is, more difficult than the active -- for L2 readers in general?

Neilmac, can you explain how the sole act of changing verbs from the passive voice to the active "lower[s]... the intellectual content of" a scientific article?


 

Narasimhan Raghavan  Identity Verified
Local time: 18:01
English to Tamil
+ ...
My own posting in another Kudoz forum on this subject Jul 18, 2012

Plese see http://www.proz.com/forum/office_applications/206927-has_the_word_2003_a_bee_in_the_bonnet_about_the_passive_voice_in_its_spellcheck.html


I have blogged this too, see http://raghtransint.blogspot.in/2011/09/has-word-2003-bee-in-bonnet-about.html

Regards,
N. Raghavan

[Edited at 2012-07-18 10:05 GMT]


 


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