The passive voice is not specific to the English language, but I feel that this voice is more common in English than in other languages, at least in formal texts.

I think this is particularly true for impersonal passive constructions like "is believed to" or "is thought to". For instance: "Global warming is thought to be caused by human activity." Here, there is no explicit mention of who is thinking. The sentence implicitly refers to a large consensus. This kind of phrasing is very common in scientific articles written in English.

What about the usage of the passive voice, and specifically the impersonal passive voice, in formal Esperanto writing? Is it possible to translate my example as Tutmonda varmiĝo estas pensata kiel kaŭzata de homa agado? If yes, is it considered good style? Another possibility would be to use oni: "Oni (kutime) pensas ke tutmonda varmiĝo estas kaŭzata de homa agado." Does it sound better?

It is maybe just a matter of style. I looked at the few scientific texts in the Fundamenta krestomatio, but it did not give me a clue.

  • The use of the passive voice is irrespective of language. It is a general feature of formal texts in any language, and it is often used to avoid assigning an agent (as in your global warming sentence), which makes it more impersonal (and thus formal). Spoken language tends to be less formal, hence the passive voice is not used that often in speech as opposed to writing. – Oliver Mason Nov 18 '16 at 9:03
  • 1
    Oliver - Notice that there are two passive constructions in the one sentence about global warming - is believed and to be caused. In one case the agent is left to the imagination. In the other it's spelled out in the phrase "by human activity." I thought this was quite clever, since it allows two different solutions in the Esperanto translation of a single sentence. – Tomaso Alexander Nov 18 '16 at 12:08
  • Well, I have not thought that far. But indeed, my example turns out to be well chosen. – Sambuko Nov 18 '16 at 12:35
up vote 9 down vote accepted

Thinking back to my own school days, I seem to recall that the passive voice is considered bad style even in English. (See what I did there?)

When you can avoid the passive in Esperanto, it is a good idea to do so. Two alternatives to passive voice in Esperanto are constructions with oni and constructions with -iĝ-. You can also use active voice and change the word order - remember the accusative and the flexibility that gives.

  • Oni pensas ke tutmondan varmiĝon kaŭzas homa agado.
  • I too learned to avoid the passive voice in English, because it is not used as much as in my native language. Other languages (such as Portuguese) use the passive voice much more often. Regarding Esperanto, I would guess that blindly using -iĝ- could change the sentence's meaning, so oni and a different word order should be tried first. – marcus Sep 15 at 15:40

I once took part in a discussion in the Londona Klubo run by John Wells where we were discussing a translation of an English text. The English version had a sentence which was in the passive voice and it was translated into Esperanto using oni and the active voice. John Wells at that point said that the passive voice in English tends to be translated by oni in Esperanto. I think this is good advice and perhaps English only makes do with the passive voice because it doesn’t really have an indefinite third person pronoun any more. (In theory one can say “one” but in practice it sounds very pompous and is hardly used). In Esperanto oni is a common everyday word so there is no problem using it.

However I wouldn’t say that your example using the passive voice is erroneous but I think the second suggestion with oni is better style.

One thing to note about the passive constructions is that English does some odd things with them that don't work in Esperanto, so be careful. Basically the rule in Esperanto is that the subject of "estas X-ita/ata/ota" is the direct object of "X-i", where X is the verb root. I think that's why the example sentence (Tutmonda varmiĝo estas pensata kiel kaŭzata de homa agado) feels particularly awkward, as you can't really convert it to "oni pensas tutmondan varmiĝon kiel kaŭzata de homa agado". "Tutmonda varmiĝo" doesn't strike me as a thing that you can "pensi". So, kion oni pensas? Oni pensas, ke tutmonda varmiĝo estas kaŭzata de homa agado. Thus, one could say "Estas pensate, ke tutmonda varmiĝo estas kaŭzata de homa agado", but that also sounds awkward. In this case it is especially advisable to use the "oni" construction, as it makes the sentence flow a lot smoother.

As for the second part, with estas kaŭzata, it would not be wrong to use the passive construction here; it's a lot simpler than the first part because the subject is a simple noun phrase and not a whole sentence. But whether "tutmondan varmiĝon kaŭzas homa agado" is better or not is, like most stylistic matters, a matter of preference, to some extent. For many people, that would take a bit longer to read and understand, due to the unusual word order. While reversing the word order to "homa agado kaŭzas tutmondan varmiĝon" makes it sound like more of a statement about human activity, than about global warming, as now the human activity is not only the subject, but also at the beginning of the clause. So, for clarity and proper emphasis, I prefer "estas kaŭzata".

And the same reasoning would apply to similar sentences.

Formal scientific writing is often different and follows somewhat different rules than regular formal writing. In scientific writing generally the rule is to be 1) consistent with the literature 2) use simple, clear, unambiguous language. Avoiding any complicated constructions is probably a good idea to begin with, unless there is some subtle shade of meaning you wish to express that only works in passive voice. In fact, scientific writing often breaks style guides, since the preference is for "simple, clear, unambiguous" over "sounds well".

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