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Students in a science lesson
Should we use an objective or subjective tone to talk and write about things like science projects?

A question from Calla Tang from Hong Kong:

What is 'objective tone'? Could you give me some examples?

Objective tone


Ask about English

Alex Gooch answers:

When we're discussing English, or any language, we can talk about subjective tone and objective tone.

If a text is written in a subjective tone, it will tell us something about the writer, and particularly about how he or she feels.

On the other hand, objective tone refers to an impersonal style of writing, which gives us information about something but doesn't include information about the writer.

So, a sentence like this:

"The film lasted for one hour and forty-five minutes." objective, because it just tells us a fact.

However, a sentence like:

"I enjoyed the film very much." subjective, because it tells us about the writer and about his or her feelings.

Objective tone is particularly important in academic writing, especially for scientific subjects.

If you were writing a scientific report, a sentence such as:

"I performed an experiment."

...would be too subjective, because it includes 'I'.

In order to avoid personal words like 'I', objective writing often uses the passive voice.
If we put this example into the passive, it would say:

"The experiment was performed."

This makes a much more objective sentence and therefore a much more scientific or in some ways, academic sentence, because it doesn't tell us about the writer - it just tells us about the experiment.

However, it's important to remember that in certain subjects, at least at British universities, personal opinions are acceptable. If you go to a British university, the most important advice I can give you is: look at the style guides. Your academic department will produce a style guide which tells you about this and the other ways in which your writing must be laid out. This is a very important thing to know about.

I'll finish with saying a few words about vocabulary. We have to be very careful here. Think about a sentence like this:

"The film was terrible."

This sentence doesn't use 'I', or 'me' or any similar words, so it might look objective. In fact it's subjective, because it tells us about the writer's feelings. It isn't a fact that the film was terrible, it's a feeling or an emotional reaction, and so a sentence like this would not be acceptable in objective writing.

If you want to write in the objective tone, you must avoid words like 'I', 'me' and 'my', but you must also avoid evaluative words - words which express your personal feelings or emotions, like 'terrible', 'wonderful', etc.

The examples that I've given are all adjectives - but there are also some nouns that we have to be careful with. A good example here is the word 'terrorist'. If we use the word 'terrorist' to describe someone, this includes a personal subjective judgement about this person's actions - and therefore this is clearly a subjective word.

Alex Gooch has been an English teacher for ten years. He has taught in Poland and Switzerland, and more recently he's been teaching in various universities in the UK.


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