December 6, 2012

Weekly Language Usage Tips: passive/active voices and using ‘using’ & deflecting blame with a question

Posted in active/passive voice, deflecting blame with a question, using at 6:33 am by dlseltzer

Before we start the tips today, I just want to mention something. In two manuscripts that I reviewed this week, the authors put two spaces after each period. You know there should be only one space, don’t you? We used to use two spaces a long time ago. Using two spaces is a relic of the typewriter which had only one typeface (Courier) and it was a non-proportional typeface (that is, each letter used the same amount of space—an ‘i’ took the same space as an ‘m’), and it was challenging to read. The break of the two spaces made it a little easier to read. Now, with computers and tablets and phones and other devices, we all use proportional type (that is, the letters are of varying sizes), and it is easy to read. So now, we only use one space at the end of the sentence. Please stop using two—it is not necessary, and sometimes (in grant proposal writing) we can use the space. Gee, some of you probably have never even seen a typewriter! One space please!

Tip 1: Passive and active voices and using ‘using’

A reader writes:

I’m pleased to have found this blog that addresses  scientific writing. I revise scientific manuscripts written by non-English speakers, so I need to be alert to all kinds of writing-related difficulties.

One common problem I have is with the use of participles, particularly “using.” There’s usually no problem if the text is written in the active voice. However, most manuscripts that I receive are written in the passive voice (subject understood). The required style is often not stipulated in the instructions to authors.

I usually change “using” to “by” (for methods and procedures) or “with” (for pieces or equipment or materials), as recommended in a style manual that I have consulted. However, I’m not sure whether this is always necessary, and I’m never sure which to use for models and equations. Could you write something about this please?

The first thing I would say is to tell your authors to start writing in the active voice. While it is true that scientific writing used to call for the passive voice (something about demonstrating objectivity or modesty by not using the first person), it is not true anymore, and it hasn’t been true for a very long time. The reasons for using the active voice are myriad, yet simple. The active voice makes the writing more vibrant and the meaning  clearer. The active voice uses fewer words to communicate. The active voice is more straight forward. I am not saying that we shouldn’t use the passive voice at all, we should just use it in moderation. In fact, it is appropriate to use it when we don’t know who took an action (e.g., The store was robbed.). But where the active voice is lively, the passive voice is lifeless and leads to flat and boring sentences.

But the reader was asking about ‘using.’ Let me just say that language evolves. It’s been a while since I spoke about this. Some of the changes are fine with me (e.g., ending a sentence with a preposition), and some I abhor (e.g., using ‘impact’ as a verb), but it doesn’t matter. Language changes, and the way we write and use words changes, too. The use of ‘using’ is changing as well, and what was verboten in the past is acceptable now.

Let me give you an example of what the reader is talking about.

 The study was conducted using a randomized controlled trial design.

Now, a stickler would say that the study wasn’t ‘using’ anything, we were. We could change this to the active voice and say:

We used a randomized controlled trial design in the conduct of this study.

But I don’t think we improved the sentence tremendously; we just changed it. As the reader notes, we could replace ‘using’ with another word.

 The study was conducted by means of a randomized controlled trial design.

Again, I don’t think it is necessarily an improvement—in fact, I think it is a tad awkward. These days, I think the use of ‘using’ as in this example is okay.

Let’s try a couple more examples; the reader talked about pieces of equipment and models.

 The experiment was performed using pipettes to hold the liquid.

 We could change it to the active voice:

We used pipettes to hold the liquid during the experiment.

Or we could leave it in the passive voice and change the word.

The experiment was performed with pipettes holding the liquid.

Again, the use of ‘using’ in this example doesn’t bother me. We see it used this way all of the time, and it doesn’t lead to confusion.

 The model was calibrated using a national data set of liver transplants.

Again, we could change it to the active voice:

We used a national data set of liver transplants to calibrate the model.


We calibrated the model using  a national data set of liver transplants.

Or we could leave it in the passive voice and just change the word:

The model was calibrated with a national data set of liver transplants.

Here is an example from a paper I read recently:

Continuous variables were compared using two-sample t-tests.

 Again, we could make it active:

We used two-sample t-tests to compare the continuous variables.

 Or we could change the word:

Continuous variables were compared by means of two-sample t-tests.

Not really an improvement as far as I am concerned.

In general, I would always go with the active voice, but I think it’s fine to use ‘using’ when you are writing in the passive voice. I think this use has changed over time, and it is alright to embrace it.

To be fair, I want to tell you what Goodman and Edwards say about this (See for the complete reference).

“Samples were analyzed using a mass spectrometer…”

[NOTE: I changed the spelling of ‘analyzed’ from the UK ‘analysed’ to what you see above.]

“Using using where an appropriate preposition will suffice is one of the easiest and most common ways of introducing unnecessary complication into a sentence. It also offers the temptation to invert the sentence and write ‘a dangling participle’… Samples were analyzed with a mass spectrometer or by mass spectrometry are better alternatives.”

So you’ve been warned. But I still think it’s okay.

Tip 2: Deflecting blame with a question

A reader writes:

Here is wlut query I’ve been thinking about lately.

Acknowledging a mistake or shortcoming via question-and-answer, as in

Government spokesman: “Could we have done a better job sending emergency supplies [to a town that had been ignored for a week after the earthquake]?  Yes.”   OR

Campaign spokesman:  “Could Governor Romney have done a better job reaching out to Latino voters?  Yes.”

I hate these formulations, which seem to be a linguistic effort to deflect or evade responsibility for error, and I hope you do, too.

I am probably not as passionate about this as this reader is, but yes, I dislike this language, too. And I agree with the reader. I think this is clearly an effort on the part of the speaker to distance him- or herself from the issue and not take any responsibility or blame. Asking a question and answering it keeps the issue removed. It is quite different from saying:

We should have gotten the supplies there faster.


Governor Romney was not effective in reaching out to Latino voters.

Also, notice the language—in neither example was it indicated that there was a problem involved or something was done badly—it was that something could have been done even better than it was.

I’m getting more and more annoyed sitting here thinking about it. Okay, I guess I could get myself worked up about this, but this is a long wlut. Let’s save it for another day.

Staying calm.


  1. Frankie said,

    Thank you! Your comments on using “using” have clarified most of my doubts! I’ve maybe been overzealous in changing this in the texts that I revise. My point about models (and equations) was whether you should say “by” a model or “with” a model. I suppose if models are considered as tools, it should be “with”.
    I’m not so sure about the active/passive voice argument though. I don’t think the active voice is necessarily more interesting to read. I also think it’s quite distracting when authors jump from one style to another. When reading round a subject recently, I saw this combination in an already published paper: “This paper focuses on…A fire was simulated…We also simulated ….The models were sensitive… Our results…” And that was just in the abstract!
    By the way, in my original message I said “non-English speakers” instead of “non-native English speakers”. If anyone reading this has to review manuscripts written by non-native English speakers, please spare a thought for the authors. It’s no easy job to write well and clearly in a language that it not your own!

  2. Joanne said,

    I battle every day with researchers whose second language is English and who instinctively rely on passive voice. Unfortunately, many universities still teach them to write like this in their first language and not every researcher is willing to adjust their style when writing for publication in English.

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