1. ohmyrichard
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    ohmyrichard Active Member

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    It was said that or it is said?

    Discussion in 'Word Mechanics' started by ohmyrichard, Apr 21, 2010.

    Hi, everyone.
    Today, I used a chapter taken from a writing book as my teaching material in class. When I was explaining the following paragraph to my students, I suddenly felt that there is something wrong with the underlined part.

    Of course, it takes a lot of practice to be able to write fast. It was said that Hemingway was a master: when he was writing a story,he liked to write on a bar counter as high as his chest instead of sitting at a desk--he would write as long as he could stand.

    I was doubtful about "It was said " and thought that it should be changed to "It is said". My reasoning was that although Hemingway's being a master in this respect was something in the past, many modern people still talk about it and often cite it to illustrate their point. I talked about my doubt and my correction suggestion in class. And also I said that I would do some research on this issue and that I expected my students to do the same after class.

    When I got home from work, I immediately went to my dictionaries and got in my Oxford and Longman dictionaries the following example sentences:

    It is said that she lived to be over 100.
    It is said that he was a spy during the war.

    It seems that my reasoning in class was correct. Just now I googled "It was said that" in order to make my research complete, but I failed to get something really helpful.

    Please tell me how you find my judgement on the underlined part of the paragraph I used in my lecture? Should it be changed to "It is said that"? Does there exist "It was said that" in English? And what is the difference between the two structures?

    Thanks.
    Richard
     
  2. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    I won't pretend to know off of the top of my head the part of speech the word that plays in this construction, but...

    If you compare these next two constructions, you can see how the word that serves to separate it was said from the rest of the sentence in order to avoid confusion.

    It was said in 1949 that there were few efficient cars.

    It was said that in 1949 there were few efficient cars.



    In the first example the construction leads the reader to the idea that the statement was actually made in the year 1949. In the second construction the timing of the utterance is not clear but it is clear that the idea behind the statement relates to facts as they were in 1949.
     
  3. madhoca
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    madhoca Contributing Member Contributor

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    In your examples,
    It was said that Hemingway was a master...
    and
    It was said Hemingway was a master...
    There is no difference between the two sentences in meaning; both are correct.

    However, people often choose to put 'that' for academic writing because it gives more 'weight' to the sentence (which is why it might be less desirable to use it in creative writing).

    Academic sentences very often start, e.g.
    It has been shown/thought/believed etc THAT ....
    or:
    History has shown THAT ...
    So, it is fine for your students to use it.

    Wreybies' example above also shows why 'that' might be necessary for clarity.
     
  4. CharlieVer
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    CharlieVer New Member Contributor

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    If I'm understanding the OP, Richard's issue isn't with the word that, but with the word was instead of is.

    Correct me if I'm wrong, but from the rest of your post, I think what you really meant was

    ... and your issue is with "was" verses "is."

    Both sentences are grammatically correct, I believe. They just use two different tenses. It appears to me that "was said" was constructed to agree with the tense in the rest of the sentence, "It was said that Hemingway was a master: when he was writing a story..."

    Such verb tense agreement would not be necessary, because the "saying" is happening after the fact, while Hemingway's writing was in the past. Thus, "is said" would likely be more accurate, as the paragraph appears to be talking about something currently being said.

    While you've not given us any more context, it's possible that the outside context would dictate a past-tense use of the verb. Suppose, hypothetically, the preceding paragraph gave a time for "It was said":

    We've been discussing the 1965 book, The Writing of Hemingway, in which author I. Madeitup, discussed Hemingway's writings, and said that he was a master of fast writing. Of course, it takes a lot of practice to be able to write fast. It was said that Hemingway was a master: when he was writing a story,he liked to write on a bar counter as high as his chest instead of sitting at a desk--he would write as long as he could stand.

    Not very well written, but it would create a requirement for the past tense "was said," by setting the date it was said and providing the name of the person who said it.

    The problem I have with the sentence outside its context is not with the verb tense, but with the vague, ambiguous reference.

    Whether using "it is said," or "it was said"... who said it?

    Without noting who actually said it, the vague reference, whether in past or present tense, is not useful, and should be avoided as a made-up fact. Better to say,

    "Of course, it takes a lot of practice to be able to write fast. In his 1975 book, Man and Writing, John Jones said that Hemingway was a master: when he was writing a story,he liked to write on a bar counter as high as his chest instead of sitting at a desk--he would write as long as he could stand...."

    (Naturally, I made up that fact. A real person who actually said that Hemingway was a master should be used in its place.)

    Or omit the phrase entirely and declare Hemingway a master yourself.

    Of course, it takes a lot of practice to be able to write fast. Hemingway was a master: when he was writing a story,he liked to write on a bar counter as high as his chest instead of sitting at a desk--he would write as long as he could stand.


    By eliminating the "It was said that" the statement is more powerful and the author has more authority. This isn't some vague, unidentified person telling us that Hemingway was the master. Hemingway was a master! We know this because the author we are currently reading is telling us so as a fact. Better the author tell us that he was a master than that the author tell us that some vague, unnamed people said that he was a master.

    There is no need for "It was said that" or "It is said that" unless telling us who said it.

    Besides, "It is said that..." and "It was said that..." are also passive voice, which may have a place in writing, but many writers believe passive voice should be avoided.

    (Notice regarding my previous sentence, although my own sentence did not site a specific source, I at least used a term "writers" to construct my sentence, instead of the passive, "It is said that passive voice should be avoided..")

    So another alternative, if one insists on vague references, at least to avoid the passive voice:

    Of course, it takes a lot of practice to be able to write fast. Some people say that Hemingway was a master: when he was writing a story,he liked to write on a bar counter as high as his chest instead of sitting at a desk--he would write as long as he could stand.

    alternate

    Of course, it takes a lot of practice to be able to write fast. A great man once said that Hemingway was a master: when he was writing a story,he liked to write on a bar counter as high as his chest instead of sitting at a desk--he would write as long as he could stand.

    I prefer omitting the phrase though. Then at least we know who is saying that Hemingway is a master.

    Charlie
     
  5. Halcyon
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    Halcyon Contributing Member Contributor

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    It definitely needs to be was a master in Hemingway's case, given his sad passing almost 50 years ago!

    As to "it was said" or "it is said", I'd opt for it is said, because to use was would imply that there has been some more recent revision of the viewpoint (that Hemingway was a master)

    So, for me, "it is said that Hemingway was a master."

    But doubtlessly someone will be along to disagree!
     
  6. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    Yikes! You are quite correct. My bad. Sorry for the unintentional derail. :redface:
     
  7. madhoca
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    madhoca Contributing Member Contributor

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    Nice catch, Charlie. I think it was the bit above from the OP that put us off and made us think the 'that' was a problem, but I should have read it more carefully! Richard explains perfectly clearly after this, sorry.

    However, in my examples you'll see I use perfect/perfect passive tense, and since the context doesn't make this clear I can't say whether present is better than past here. Even if Hemingway is dead, people can still talk about him now, so you can write, 'It is said (you mean, these days) that ...' BUT they talked about him before his death, and we know this (from newspaper reports, memoirs etc), so you may want to say, 'It was said (referring back to those days when they said that) that ...'
     
  8. CharlieVer
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    CharlieVer New Member Contributor

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    Exactly my point (which I went on at length about.)

    The question is, who said it, when? That will determine the tense.

    And, frankly, if there's no context to the statement, if it's just a vague, "Oh, people said it, people say it..." best to omit the entire phrase.

    Charlie
     
  9. digitig
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    digitig Contributing Member Contributor

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    My feeling is that if you say "It was said that..." then you are suggesting that it isn't said now. If you say "It is said that..." then people are saying it nowadays. "In the early days of computers it was said that only governments and major organisations would need one. Now, they are not only ubiquitous but it is said that an internet connection is an essential utility, like electricity and water."
     
  10. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    richard...

    'it has been said' or 'it's been said' would work best in that instance, imo...

    'it was said' implies that such a thing was said only once, by a single person... 'is' or 'has been' makes it more likely it was said by more than one person at more than one time in the past...
     
  11. ohmyrichard
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    ohmyrichard Active Member

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    I am sorry for my carelessness which led Wreybies and some others to focus on the use of "that". I now have edited the content of the OP and got it right but I do not know how to correct the title of the OP by deleting that "that". Sorry for my carelessness.
    Over here in China, in the English grammar books, the compilers tend to equate "People say that..." with "It is said that..." and claim that they can be used interchangeably. As the material I used in my teaching is a chapter on how to go about timed writing, the paragraphs prior to this paragraph under discussion do not provide any clue to help decide whether to use "It was said" or "It is said". I mean, after my careful perusal I found that this paragraph is not relevant to the topic discussed in this chapter. I also talked about my irrelevance judgement in class. Hemingway is not a good example, in my opinion, for Hemingway, although he would write as long as he could stand, was not writing against the clock. I imagine that he could have pauses and stop to comtemplate and then continue his writing. I may also have digressed from the problem that I intended you to help me with.

    I got the following three sentences online:
    It is said that Hemingway at first didn’t want to stay there because it was so far from the city, preferring to spend time in Havana or on his boat, Pilar in the company of his friend, Gregorio Fuentes.
    It is said that Hemingway's bluster and ego got in the way of truth in his non-fiction, and if you wanted the truth of the man, you should turn to his fiction.

    It was said at the time that if Hemingway ever realised his ambition of buying a boat of his own, Fuentes was just the kind of man he would have liked to employ to run it.

    In my opinion, if people still talk about it, "it is said that" has to be used although no one is in a position to produce any first hand evidence.

    Your posts have helped me to gain a better understanding of these two structures. Thank you all very much.
    Richard
     
  12. Fallen
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    Fallen Member

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    Hi, Ohmy, can I talk about which to use in a moment? I just want to take a look at this that you wrote:

    It may take someone better to to help point this out but...

    when you use 'People say that...'. it is in active voice. 'people' is the subject, 'say' the verb and 'that' introduces the 'that' phrase.

    but (imo) both 'it was said' and 'it is said' are short passives. (You can tell by adding its by-phrase: it is said by some people that...)

    Interchangeable...hmmm... it depends on the context.

    Can you see that 'it' up there doesn't refer to people, but it is acting as 'dummy'-it' for the words themselves? Change 'It was said by some people...' to active: 'Some said that...', you can see that you loose your 'dummy-it'.

    Using passives allows you to focus on some other part of the clause (in this case the information in the 'that-phrase') and it is a technique more for academic writing. If you wanted to higlight the source of the information, you'd use active and insert (the people, historians etc), 'dummy-it' would be dropped.

    Interchangeable, yes, but both have different effects on the outcome (one highlights 'what was said' the other highlights more the 'people who said it').

    And back to your op:

    'It was said' as opposed to 'it is said...'. Basically you need you need advice on when/when not to use present and past tense in academic writing, and that will depend on your type of argument.

    I'm sure the site mod's would have covered this somewhere...

    Help...?
     
  13. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    It occurs to me that saying, "It was said..." could be a lovely little passive-aggressive jab by someone who feels that Hemingway is no longer relevant and that he was mostly studied in the past. I doubt that that was the intent of the line that you quote, though.

    ChickenFreak
     
  14. digitig
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    digitig Contributing Member Contributor

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    As Fallen has pointed out, at the surface level of meaning they are interchangeable, but there are subtle differences between active and passive forms.
    If it matters whether they still say it, have stopped saying it, only started saying it recently, and so on, you can use more precise constructions:
    - It was said during his life that Hemmingway was a master, but...
    - It has been said ever since early in his career that Hemmingway was a master.
    - Nowadays it is said that Hemmingway was a master, but during his own lifetime...

    "It is said" doesn't specify much detail, which is usually fine, either because the detail doesn't matter or because it's obvious.
     
  15. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    they can!... they mean the same thing and both are perfectly good grammar...

    as for using past tense, my example 'has been said' or 'it's been said' still are the best ways to do what you'd originally asked about...
     
  16. ohmyrichard
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    Thank you all for giving me more information about the two structures of "it is said" and "it was said" and the relationship of "People say that" to "it is said that".
    Please let's get back to my original question: Would it read better if I change the underlined part of "It was said" in my original post to "It is said"?
    In order to enable you to assess the issue globally, I will type out the whole introduction to the unit on writing against the clock in the English writing book, compiled by a Chinese university professor, below:

    As college students, you are "seasoned" in various kinds of exams. There is one kind of exam, however, which many of you may still find difficult, and that is answering essay questions in English. Both Band-4 and Band-8 (TEM-4 and TEM-8) require that you produce an essay within a limited period of time. In final exams for courses like American literature or Western civilization, you may also have to write essay-like answers. Many students do not feel comfortable when writing against a clock that is ticking on the wall-- the time limit makes us nervous and, as a result, may make our mind blank.

    We may not like such timed writing, i.e., having to finish a piece of writing within a limited period of time, but it is important that we learn to do it because it is very common in the workplace. It is a basic skill, required when you prepare a business memorandum, a fax message or a straight news report.

    Timed writing, in fact, may not be as difficult as you think. With a few tips and a little practice, you should be able to survive those exams without much trouble. This unit will introduce some strategies experienced test-takes employ even though they may not have been explicitly taught to do so. These are the same strategies we apply when we take exams in Chinese. The only difficulty is that, for some of us, these strategies are no longer availabe when we take exams in English, because we may have to struggle with the language.

    Of course, it takes a lot of practice to be able to write really fast. It was said that Hemingway was a master: when he was writing a story, he liked to write on a bar counter as high as his chest instead of sitting at a desk-- he would write as long as he could stand.(This is the paragraph I quoted in the original post.)

    The tasks in this unit will help you learn about the steps taken by "seasoned" test-takers during the test.
    (The paragraphs taken from the English writing book end here.)

    Please, taking the whole context into consideration, please help me to decide whether the right choice is "It is said", rather than "It was said". In other words, supposing that you are required to choose between "It is said" and "It was said", then what will be your choice in this situation based on your feel for the English language? Let's focus on this making a choice issue.

    I infer that the Chinese compiler here does not intend to tell that people in the past talked about Hemingway's being a master of this skill. He intends to say that Hemingway's being a master in this respect is something modern people still talk about. Unfortunately, the compiler himself is also struggling with the English language and he makes a mistake because of his carelessness. I meant that when a non-native speaker of English writes in English, there is so much to cope with; therefore, he is more likely to make unintentional mistakes than native speakers.

    I do not know whether I have clearly explained my question or not. Please help me with the CHOICE.
    Thanks.

    PS: TEM-4 and TEM-8 are two national English proficiency tests for English majors over here in mainland China, taken by them in their second year and fourth year of college respectively.
     
  17. madhoca
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    madhoca Contributing Member Contributor

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    Given the context, I am sure that something in present tense is the most appropriate here, Richard:

    It is said / It has been said
    OR
    People say

    IMO all of these are possible, neither one is more correct than the other. I expect you mark down for using contractions in academic writing, as we do? So,

    It's been said...

    may not be a good idea. You could also just write:

    Apparently, Hemingway was a master...

    The choice is really a matter now of style, not meaning.
     
  18. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    I vote for "is said".
     
    1 person likes this.
  19. ohmyrichard
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    ohmyrichard Active Member

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    Thank you, madhoca and ChickenFreak.
     
  20. digitig
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    digitig Contributing Member Contributor

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    I wouldn't object to "It is said", but I would prefer "It was said" because the relevant people saying it would be Hemmingway's contemporaries; anybody saying it now only knows because they said it then. I don't like "people" in this context, but I'd be hard-pressed to work out why not.
     
  21. Fallen
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    I think I understand your problem, OM.

    Non-native English speakers are taught one tense for academic writing (usually present perfect, if I'm right).

    But Native English speakers are taught that tense can be interchangeable in an essay.

    If it seems you're getting crossed answers, it's because we've been taught different things.

    My instinct goes with, dig, because I was taught present tense goes in the intro, past is then used to highlight views other than your own, and present is then used to highlight my views. But there are different essays and some demand present, some a mixture of both. It just depends on the essay itself. But that's what I was taught.

    Have you been taught that tense can change it essay writing?
     
  22. CharlieVer
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    CharlieVer New Member Contributor

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    Whether to use "was" or "is" simply depends on what tense you want.

    "Was" is past tense, "is" is present tense. Is that which is being said in the past or in the present?

    But I still maintain that both "it is said" and "it was said" should be avoided because they are (1) passive voice, and more importantly, (2) vague, ambiguous references to unidentified sources.

    I found some back-up for my viewpoint.

    According to the Bedford Handbook for Writers by Diana Hacker:

    I also found sources that refer to the term "weasel word."

    "Weasel word" refers to vague, ambiguous references generally used in informal speech and writing that are made to sound meaningful, but are intended to avoid stating an authority.

    "It is/was said" is the use of passive voice to avoid stating an authority. (Google "weasel word" for more information.)

    Better to either provide a source, or leave off "it is/was said" and you be the source.

    You may find yourself in the embarrassing situation of having someone challenge your claim by saying, "Oh yeah? Who said it, exactly?" And then have to scramble to find someone who actually said it.

    Charlie
     
  23. digitig
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    digitig Contributing Member Contributor

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    But exactly the same is true of "People say". That's a weasel phrase too. There's are places for weasel phrases, though far fewer than the places they're phrased in. If it's formal academic writing then you need to say something like "Skroob and Nadgeflatt (1957) suggest that Hemmingway was a master...", but that sort of writing will put off most readers, and the less formal "It was said that Hemmingway was a master..." gets the point across more effectively. Really, in that context is anybody really going to challenge for citations?

    The Wide Sargasso Sea begins "They say when trouble comes close ranks, and so the white people did." Jean Rhys didn't use "They say" because she hadn't read the style guide you have, because she didn't know any better or because she was a poor stylist (the book is taught as an exemplar of good style), and I'm not aware of any critics faulting her and challenging her over whether anybody really did say that, and, if so, who. And would the paragraph I'm writing really be any better had I replaced "is taught" with an academic reference (which I could have done)?
     
  24. madhoca
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    madhoca Contributing Member Contributor

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    Yes, but the OP teaches at a university in China, so I disagree a bit with you on this, Charlie.

    In China, as in the country where I work, passive voice is definitely preferred for academic writing (I have several friends who have worked there).

    a) it is impersonal--and sometimes you WANT to speak generally
    b) it comes across as more formal
    c) it focusses on the subject, not the writer (see a)
    d) it gains more grammar points in a writing exam (being cynical here, but that's how it works).

    BTW, perfect tenses are really hard for speakers of many Turkic or Eastern languages, and a bit risky in an exam situation except maybe at highly advanced level--but I speak from my own experience here, I wouldn't like to assume Richard's experience is necessarily the same.

    But I still say that not using passive is much more a maxim for creative writing.
     
  25. CharlieVer
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    CharlieVer New Member Contributor

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    Okay, but I stand by my statement.

    I'm not sure what "China" has to do with it, unless they are writing Chinese, which is obviously not the case. If they want to learn to write English, they want to learn to write English.

    And, honestly, if "Chinese English" is different from "English English" or "American English" then this is not the right place to ask the question, because most here, including me, don't speak Chinese English.

    At least in the version of English most common in English speaking countries, there are sources that advice against such a construction. I agree with those sources.

    Your focus seems to be on the "passive voice" consideration. I actually consider that a minor point, compared to the ambiguity of the "It" reference.

    Frankly, I'll add a third reason to avoid it. It's not concise. Since there's no person being named as a source, omitting the phrase completely would reduce word count without any loss of information.

    Whether you say "It is said Hemingway is a master,"
    Or you say, "Hemingway is a master,"

    The first construction doesn't provide any additional information, and the latter construction is stronger and more concise. I'd use the latter.

    Unless being concise is also bad in "Chinese English," whatever that is, to which I can only throw up my hands and shrug my shoulders. For all I know, Chinese English might require you to use contractions and end every sentence with a preposition. Since I never heard of there being a different English in China, I know nothing about it and doubt many on this site do.

    Charlie

    Edit:

    I did some quick research on passive voice in academic writing. I googled "passive voice in academic writing" read through a few different links. One link was titled "Academic writing: Passive voice. Why use it?" and gave specific examples. Several links advised against using passive voice in most cases, although it does certainly have a place in writing.

    I don't see that there's a general rule that passive voice is the preferred voice in all academic writing as you are suggesting, as if we must avoid active tense whenever possible in academic writing. There are some wonderful examples of very good academic writing that use active voice.

    Rather, there are specific cases when it should be used, and reasons to use it.

    One main reason to use passive voice is to focus attention on the object of the action, instead of the action itself.

    In this case, there is a better passive-voice way to accomplish that, and not use the vague "it" reference.

    The reworded sentence:

    Hemingway is said to be an expert...

    (alt: Hemingway is said to have been an expert...
    Hemingway was said to be an expert...
    Hemingway was said to have been an expert...)

    I think that this is a better passive-voice construction than "It is said that Hemingway was..."

    It uses the passive voice, it does a much better job of focusing attention on the object of the action by bringing it right to the head of the sentence, it's a little bit more concise and it avoids the clunky and vague "it."

    Charlie
     

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