The passive voice in scholarly writing
A diachronic look at science and history
Keywords:passive voice, academic writing, science, history, diachronic study
While much has been written about the passive voice in scientific writing, similar interest involving humanities writing in general has been more modest. A paucity of diachronic studies also raises the need to understand more about how passive use has changed over time and what such changes imply for the norms in academic writing. This study investigated the use of the passive voice in science and history, with the latter serving as a specific case for the humanities. Eighty articles from the English Historical Review (EHR) from the late 19th century to the present were analyzed for passive use, and the statistics were compared with those reported in a recent study involving 80 articles from the journal Science over the same time span. The results revealed that passive use had fallen in Science and EHR, and that fewer passives were found in the EHR articles. The use of non-finite passives, however, remained stable over time in both Science and EHR. The semantic functions of passives also differed between Science and EHR. The study highlights the importance of considering the use of the passive voice in discipline-specific terms. More work involving other disciplines in the humanities and the social sciences is recommended.