What's With Passive Instruction in Recipes?

Aug 202013
 

Passive voice would mean writing something like “the melon slices, quartered figs and goat cheese are added to the salad.” Why isn’t the person doing the action identified? After all, it will be you.

In every writing class or book about writing, it says: Avoid passive voice. (Passive voice is when you don’t identify the person or thing doing the action. It’s considered lazy and imprecise, everything that recipe writing is not.)

I do my best to remove it when I edit. Yet I read dozens of published recipe instructions like this in prestigious publications and award-winning cookbooks:

  • Cook until all of the broth has been added.
  • Roast until the beets are tender and can be pierced with a knife.

These are examples of passive voice because readers don’t know who is taking action. Um, wouldn’t it be them? Why not speak to them directly? If I changed these instructions to active voice, they would read like this:

  • Cook until you’ve added all the broth.
  • Roast until the beets are tender and you can pierce them with a knife.

Apparently this is wrong. Why are we not to identify the reader directly? Why would you want to use passive language to describe an activity?

I have pondered these questions about passive voice in recipe writing for years. Can you enlighten me?

 

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  72 Responses to “What's With Passive Instruction in Recipes?”

  1. No need for enlightenment — you are already correct! I agree 100% that your edited phrases are far more enticing.

    • Thank you. But what about the use of “you?” Do you think it could be overused?

      • I absolutely think the use of “you” could be overused and that’s why it isn’t used more often in recipe writing. I appreciate the passive voice, actually. I appreciate it because it’s not about ME, it’s about the ingredients.

  2. I can’t explain the passive voice in recipes but I can empathize.
    I have run into the same problem when writing recipe instructions. My spell checker indicates the grammar is incorrect when I’m writing step-by-step instructions. I correct it when I can but sometimes I leave it (incorrect).
    Sometimes I think my grammar checker doesn’t like to cook. :>)
    Cynthia Briggs

    • Hah! You leave the grammar incorrect! That sounds heretical. Are you saying your spell checker is wrong?

      • No, I’m not saying my spell checker is wrong. I’m saying that my grammar checker has a different idea than what I have when writing out clear step-by-step recipe instructions. When I’m writing anything other than recipe instructions, I rework the sentence until it gets the OK from the grammar checker.

        I agree with Didi that passive voice is an easy place to go when the author is unsure of him/her self. It’s something I have to work at every day, and probably the reason it drives me crazy when grammar check won’t agree with me on recipe instructions.

  3. I admit I have a passive voice problem. Not just in recipe writing, but writing in general. It creeps up whenever I don’t feel confident enough to just own up to a sentence, just like the cockroach that survives because I am just to scared to kill it.

    I really noticed that on days when confidence levels shoots up the roof, the passive voice just buries itself into hibernation.

    • Well, you’re not alone, Didi. Lots of writers have this problem. It doesn’t matter if you have passive voice in the first draft, as long as you get rid of it when you edit.

      Very colorful language here about cockroaches and hibernation. Who knew a post on grammar would elicit this.

  4. I always use active voice. I want my readers to feel personally involved in the process, even if they are just reading and not cooking yet.

    • Yes, we agree on that. Cooking is an activity, and therefore active, so let’s stick with active voice. Makes sense to me.

  5. When writing tech designs, I have to remember not to use a passive voice and I have to re-write. I’ll think about this the next time I write a recipe. I think I probably use passive voice too often.

    • Hmm. Interesting. I thought all tech writing was pretty passive. That’s interesting that you use active voice.

  6. Using passive voice in recipes assumes that the instructions are only there for information, not as an extension of the storytelling. I love reading works by writers like Nigel Slater who inject their recipes with personality and their own voice and style. They’re the ones I read for sheer pleasure and not just for getting ideas for what to eat. Yet I find myself guilty frequently of passive voice in recipes because it seems to be the standard and the preferred style. Thanks for bringing this topic up; I look forward to reading more of the discussion here.

    • I love reading Nigel Slater’s headnotes as well, and certainly there is room for voice and stylishness in the method. I’m all for it. But yes, I am questioning the standard. We will both learn something from the comments, Daytona!

  7. This is quite an interesting topic. I am trained as a scientist and the writing style required for academic papers is traditionally very passive and third-person. It has been quite hard for me to switch to a conversational tone in my blogging, but I work hard at it and keep rewriting posts to make them more chatty and personal. Although my blog does have a technical side to it as well so sometimes a more authoritative style is preferred. I’ve just had a quick look back on my recipe writing style now and can see that it is very passive. Although I do tend to add personal comments in the middle of the instructions when I think it is helpful. After reading your post I am sure that I will now think a bit more about the wording that I use in my recipe instructions. Thanks!

    • My pleasure. Some people argue that recipe writing is technical writing and therefore passive, but since recipe writing appears in consumer publications, it can’t be passive. It should therefore be active and conversational.

  8. Looking back at my recipes, I seem to avoid passive but they are not really personal. The tend to be instructions like ‘Now do this, then do that’.

    I’m personal in the head notes or tips, though.

    I will have to think about it.

    • Good. I love this kind of comment. There is a way to write beautiful instructions. Page through Julia Child and Deborah Madison’s books, for example. As for being personal in the method, that is much harder.

      • It’s all I can do not to tease you with “set aside” ;)
        I don’t use you that much… I am fairly personal with method especially if there’s something tricky. Thanks once again for an awesome post. best VA

  9. I may be the odd man out. I try and make my recipes (on my blog) passive. I think it is much more elegant, smoother, more concise and less repetetive (you, you, you) and only insert the You… when it is grammatically necessary. I find that it is evident to whom one is speaking, that all instructions are for the person making the recipe, so why keep saying “you”? My post tells the story and unless I am making a story out of the recipe itself (which is a different thing altogether, in my opinion), I prefer it read passively. I prefer “Roast until the beets are tender and can be pierced with a knife.” to “Roast until the beets are tender and you can pierce them with a knife.” which just seems de trop…

    • De trop! I had to go look that up. (It means “unwelcome” if anyone else reading this comment is as clueless as I am.) I admit that sentence about the beets reads just fine and “you” can be omitted. I am not campaigning for the use of “you” in every sentence. Just more active writing.

      • Ha I couldn’t figure out how to put something in parenthese and sometimes I automatically use French phrases when they are easier and more spot on. Actually not “unwelcome” as much as “too much”. I wonder if I am even capable of writing more active recipes. I’ll have to go back and try and rewrite a couple of mine to see what happens!

  10. Another scientist trained in passive writing here… I’m all for using active voice whenever possible and that’s certainly something that requires concerted effort on my part, but I am not really a fan of “you” – it seems too informal – I think that’s probably fine for a blog format, but I wouldn’t like to read it in a cookbook. Usually if I feel the need to add “you” and I can’t reword/restructure the sentence in some way, I’d rather just see the passive voice. As with everything, I’m sure it all depends on the exact situation of the particular usage…

    • This is a measured opinion, Jenn, and I have to agree. It is not my goal to use “you” repetitively. Here is an example from Julia Child that is full of action verbs, yet does not use “you.” I should have put this in the post as an example!

      “Salt the lamb, add the wine and enough stock or bouillon to come 2/3 of the way up the lamb. Bury herb packet in the liquid, and bring casserole to simmer on top of stove. Lay paper or foil over meat, cover casserole, and set in middle level of oven…”

  11. My English teacher would streak “PV” all over our assignments in bold red marker. It was very effective! But I still sometimes use passive voice in recipe writing, depending on the audience. Years and years of reading PV recipes in cookbooks and magazines will do that.
    I also think there’s a bit of reluctance to always write recipes from such a casual second person viewpoint, saying “you do this, then you do that.” So many yous may make it too much like a Choose Your Own Adventure paperback. Of course, those yous are what appeal to readers of food blogs, where personal voices are essential.

    • You’s can be too casual, I agree. I think I shot myself in the foot by using two examples where I added “You.” See my response to Jenn re Julia Child.

  12. I am with Jamie. I write my recipes in a passive tone. I think its because most of my recipe writing has been for consumer products/packaging. In those situations, there isn’t much room for personality/style.

  13. Companies I develop recipes for have a specific writing style taking into consideration the recipe’s intended use (package/product information, recipe card, POP or a brand cookbook or brochure.) In some cases formate and space dictate no extra space for “extra” words. I agree with Jamie. It’s understood there is a “you” implied in recipe directions. I agree- a good placement for personalization or using an active voice belongs in a headnote, a story-like lead or chapter introduction. Recipe style in a straight forward cookbook or textbook is a lot different then one included in a memoir, blog, feature story or other casual works.

    • Many publishers and companies have style guides, but I haven’t come across one yet that advocates passive voice. I would like to explore this idea further that recipes are different in memoir, blog, and feature story, other that there might be space constraints. A well-written, active recipe is appropriate for all.

  14. Interesting realization…when I read recipes written in the active voice, I simply do not take them as seriously as those written in the passive voice. The former I perceive as “folksy” and “amateur”, while the latter I perceive as “informed” and “legitimate.” I’m not saying that this is right, far from it! Yet those perceptions do shape my own recipe writing: head notes and footnotes are personalized, but the instructions themselves are always in the passive voice.

    • Interesting. I can see your point. I think of musty books by French chefs and community cookbooks when you say “informed” and “legitimate.” I perceive passive instructions as boring and old school, when there’s too much of that kind of voice. Here is another Julia Child example, which you would perceive as folksy and amateur then:

      “Arrange the zucchini halves skin side down in the baking dish and fill with the stuffing, heaping it into a dome on each side. Sprinkle each with the cheese and bread crumbs, and dribble on the melted butter.”

      Just beautiful. Full of action verbs.

  15. I’m in the camp with Jamie, Jen, Selena, Francine, Donna. Once in a while a ‘you’ can be used when there may be some ambiguity or decision the cook has to decide during the process, but mostly I prefer the brevity of passive voice while following instructions. Personalizing can go in the head note.

    • Personalizing has nothing to do with passive voice. Brevity is a beautiful thing, I agree completely. See my examples of Julia Child’s writing in the comments. She can be extremely brief but she is all action!

  16. The passive voice seems to lend an air of objectivity and certainty to the cooking process. It seems to remove the process from the realm of subjectivity, as if to say, “This is what will happen when the steps are followed as written. It doesn’t matter who’s following it.”

    • I’m all for authority on the part of the recipe writer. But why tell the reader that she or he doesn’t matter? I was trained as a journalist to speak directly to the reader. Maybe that is my problem!

  17. Dianne, Cooking sure is an activity requiring an active voice! But, in your examples, the construction is active voice. The active verb is “roast.” The subject is “you.” (You) roast (them) until beets (are tender) and (can be pierced). Those are adjectival phrases modifying the beets. If you wanted to eliminate the phrase, rather than sticking in a “you,” you could write a second sentence, “Test them by piercing with a knife.” It’s still “you” who is the doer of the action. In Spanish recipes, the passive voice is frequently used– “the beets are roasted.” Drives me nuts.

    • The reduction where to buy zithromax online in intraocular pressure reduces.

      Oh gosh, someone who knows much more about grammar than I do. Thank you, Janet. I love the elegance of “test them by piercing with a knife.” It eliminates “you.”

      I wanted to write about action verbs but I thought it would make the post too long. But that is what it’s all about, isn’t it, Janet? If you read the comments, you will see some beautiful examples from Julia Child. I typed them in to show her mastery of action.

      • Dianne, Like you, I started as a journalist. Action verbs!!! Absolutely. My grammar is a little shaky, but a few things are almost instinctive since Basic Writing 101. By the way, I think Cenk’s following Comment states the beet-roasting problem even more elegantly, with fewer words.

    • YES! Janet Mendel !!

  18. How about “Roast until the beets are tender enough to pierce with a knife.”?

  19. Excellent post, as always, Dianne. I see this tip quite frequently but until you see it pointed out, in perfect examples as you did above, it doesn’t “stick.” This will be easy for me to remember, I hope. Thanks!

    • Thanks Eric. I put more examples in the comments from our beloved Julia, so be sure to read those too. I think I’ll have to do a post on action verbs next.

  20. As a seasoned, professional recipe writer, I agree with Jamie and Selena. Passive voice may be nice on blogs and perhaps some types of cookbooks, but not on package directions, food company websites, food magazines et al. First, it takes up too much room on a label and on a magazine page or website. Second, it’s just not how recipes are written for a mass audience — which requires clarity and simplicity. The “you” is understood. Who else would the recipe be directed toward? I prefer to use valuable space to explain heat levels, timing, pot and pan types etc.

    • Wait. So you’re for active voice? Clarity and simplicity are two of my favorite things.

      Re “you” being understood, the thing is that it is not direct. It creates distance between you and the reader. I’m not suggesting putting “you” in every sentence, though. Even saying “Roast the meat” is much better than “the meat is roasted.”

  21. Hrmm. It is indeed lazy, but widely accepted. I don’t even want to go back over my recipes and see where I’ve languished into passive voice!

  22. I think I write in active voice now, but I seem to remember saying “you” was improper at some point in school. Am I the only one that remembers this?
    I do go to passive when I’m unsure of my writing…which is something I’m working on. :)

    • Yes other people have mentioned this, about how they write in passive voice when they are unsure about their writing. I find that so interesting that feeling less confident makes people less direct with your readers. I suppose it makes sense.

      Maybe when we were younger, “you” was considered too direct.

  23. I’ve never even considered whether I write recipes in a passive or active voice; all I care about is that they make sense! Food for thought I guess but I don’t think it matters much to me either when I read one; I’m not looking for the actual recipe to say much to me except just the facts ma’am!

    • It is easier to make sense of a recipe when it is written in active voice. You don’t have to wonder what is going on. Ex. The potatoes are fried vs. fry the potatoes. It’s a subtle distinction but apparently people with less education have much more trouble following passive instructions. That means they are less clear.

  24. Dear Dianne, all,
    Like Jenn, I’m a scientists and and teacher, and part of my job is to write instructions for students, staff, scientific events and calls for journal papers.
    I can not agree more with you (regarding the confusion people have with passive voice).
    Over the years, I found a coping strategy, a work around that seems to bring results: I start at the level of my audience; so, for first year students and young professionals, I write in active voice, using a lot of ‘you’ (this was more conversational and my audience felt it as a good way on my side to connect with them). For graduating master students and senior professionals – who have a lot of tacit knowledge and can get the clear meaning behind my implicitly stated ideas, I write by using passive voice.
    I’d say, both are instrumental to achieving a good quality instructional text, but what we can call ‘the right’ balance between the two is up to the goal and the audience: -)
    What would you think?

    All the best!

    • I suppose that is reasonable but to be honest I am not a fan of passive voice under most circumstances. If it works for you and your audience, then who am I to say!

  25. As a former English teacher, I agree that the passive voice is usually a weak grammatical choice and should be changed to active voice; however, sometimes, the passive voice is a more natural way to communicate the action described. I used to tell my students to say the sentence out loud. If it sounds right (assuming you speak proper English), then that is the way the sentence should be written. It is more natural to speak using active voice. (Even if “you” might seem to be overused.) Maybe that can be criteria for the recipe writer.

    • Definitely, people should read their writing out loud, Carol. It’s a good way to see where readers will get stuck. But I would need an example to understand when passive voice is a natural way to communicate. I’ve read that students understand their work better when it’s written in active voice.

  26. Here’s my two cents and I apologize if it’s already been mentioned in one of the many comments above: First of all, stating “mix the ingredients” is an imperative sentence that is giving a command. The subject “you” is implied and does come first in sentence, thus making it in the active voice. So writing the sentence as “You should mix the ingredients” is just wordy, not passive. If the sentence was written, “The ingredients should be mixed by you” then it would be considered to be in the passive voice since the subject “you” comes last and is not emphasized.

  27. Brevity brevity brevity! Passive voice takes too long! The phrase that runs right up my spine the worst is, “In a large mixing bowl/saute pan/saucepan/whatever place X, Y and Z.”
    I change them when possible to “Put X, Y and Z into a large saucepan.”
    The logic I always was told is that you have the piece of equipment needed front and center. But frankly, if you know the title of the recipe, you should have at least a vague idea about the equipment. You know if it says “Soup” you won’t be getting out the griddle.
    I HATE cluttered recipes!

    • Yes me too. I have to edit them all the time! What I like about your example is that you start the sentence with an action verb. And it sounds the way you talk. No one says, “In a bowl, combine…”

  28. Short and to the point, exactly how a recipe is meant to be.
    Ingredients listed:
    amount, item, preparation
    Instructions listed;
    each “movement” its own “number”
    few articles
    lots of semi-colons
    language distilled to its essence
    The recipe is as delicious to read as the food is to eat….
    :0
    V

    • Well, I am not a fan of semi-colons, but otherwise, yes, language is distilled to its essence. Exactly.

      • Don’t you think that the perfect place for the semi-colon is the recipe? Really a serious question.
        :)
        V

        • No! I dislike them immensely. I usually take them out and replace with a period.

          • Interesting, Diane.
            I won’t take up more of your time – though I wish we could chat about why. As an English literature teacher for years, the comma slice drove me batty. :) I did not teach my students to use a semi-colon in sentence structure. I always focused on the period. However, when writing recipes, it seems like the perfect punctuation solution inside of numbered instructions… so, I am just going to let this incubate, as I do value your opinion. Thank you for answering, and so definitively!
            :)
            Valerie

  29. […] week I aroused passions about passive voice in recipes, not only here in the comments but on Facebook and […]

  30. I might be doing it all wrong but I tend not to bother with rules or what’s ‘proper’ when writing, I have never had any lessons in English so I tend to stick with my gut feeling when I write. My proof reader always tells me she can tell I learned most of my English from reading Jane Austen Novels… which I think is quite funny and I embrace it too.
    As for recipes, I write them like I would explain it to someone, try not to over fuss it and explain to the full. I do however enjoy these posts of yours and learn from them every time!

    • Thanks Regula. Nothing wrong with learning from Jane Austen novels. I too hope I’ve learned something from being a voracious reader.

      Recipes are explanations, so that part makes sense. As long as you are speaking directly to readers, you’re probably okay.

  31. When I write my directions for a recipe I write simple fragments of a sentence and avoid the period, therefor my spellchecker is not bothered.

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