Academic writing has a “voice”. The voice of a piece of writing determines the tone, style and level of formality. Voice determines whether the verb in a sentence is active or passive (see Sentence Structure for an explanation of verbs.) You will be asked to write using ‘active’ or ‘passive’ voice, depending on your field of study and the personal preference of your lecturer.
In general terms, the passive voice is encouraged and the active voice is downplayed, but there are limitations to this. It helps to be familiar with both active and passive voices as they are both important to clear, persuasive writing.
In the active voice, the focus is on the thing that acts in a sentence. In the passive voice, the focus is that which is being acted upon. More formally, the active voice is when the sentence stresses the subject of a sentence that acts according to the verb. The passive voice is when the sentence stresses the object being acted on in the sentence. More simply: If the subject is having action done to it, it is passive; if the subject is doing the action it is active. For example:
- A quarter of all applicants failed the Law admission exam (active)
- The law admission exam was failed by a quarter of all applicants (passive)
The active and passive create a difference in terms of the formality of a sentence. The passive sounds a lot more formal. It is therefore used a lot in academic writing. In using it, you tend to hide or downplay the identity of the actor in the sentence, and focus on the action or issue being discussed. This is clear in the following types of passive sentences:
- The appropriations bill was passed by Congress.
- The appropriations bill was passed.
In the second the actor (Congress) is irrelevant and not even mentioned. This can cause lack of clarity and even lead to disasters:
- The O-rings should be checked for compliant elasticity.
Here the O-rings might not be checked because it is assumed someone else needs to do them! Compare this with:
- The engineer should check the O-rings for compliant elasticity.
Here it is perfectly clear who should do the job.
While important, the use of passive sentences can make for stilted, abstract-sounding, and monotonous writing too. Common sense should therefore be used in terms of whether to use active or passive voice. Which sentence below is best in terms of clearly outlining a report author’s position?
- The preferences given by investors to current portfolio acquisitions over older stocks were reported to be even across the sector.
- Our research reports that investors prefer current portfolio acquisitions over older stocks, and this is even across the sector.
Clearly the second is preferable. But that’s the active voice, not the passive. The thing is to be sensible in following the ‘use the passive’ rule. In some cases the use of the passive is absurd:
- It was found that he wanted to be an engineer.
Clearly the active voice is better:
- Brian wanted to be an engineer.
Nonetheless, there are reasons to use the passive, and some discipline areas require it.
Prepare yourself for disagreement about which voice to use. In scientific writing, for example, there is a general expectation to use passive voice. It implies objectivity by shifting the focus off the researcher and onto the issue they are dealing with, and their interpretation or solution. Therefore, in scientific writing, there is a lot of passive language such as the following:
- In this study, a design of an electric hot water tank is presented.
- A series of environmental problems, including photochemical smog, broken ozonosphere, and environmental pollution, can be induced by volatile organic compounds (VOCs) emitted from industries and vehicle exhausts.
- An efficient methodology to examine a space–time continuous dataset for urban irrigation water use is developed in this study.
- The patterns and mechanisms behind disease clusters at small spatial scales, especially in wild host–pathogen systems, have been focused on by only a small number of empirical studies
In other disciplines, such as creative writing, using the passive voice is considered a bad idea and quite inactive. In fact, if you’ve used Microsoft Word, you might recall seeing the dreaded green line quietly appear under your sentence, only to right-click on it and have the computer tell you that the problem is ‘passive voice’. Before you start writing, it would be handy to know what voice your lecturer prefers.
First, a reminder: a complete sentence requires a subject and verb—someone or something performs an action. For us to make a distinction between active and passive voice, there also needs to be an object in the sentence. That means not only is someone doing something, but they are doing it to something. So the format becomes subject + verb + object.
Active voice is when the subject is the focus of the sentence. This means that whoever is performing the action is the most important element. The verb is in bold:
- Leading researcher, Ernie Coli, examined the growth of bacteria on George’s pancakes.
Passive voice occurs when the roles flip, and the object becomes the focus of the sentence. This means that the sentence now focuses on the object having something done to it, rather than who/what is actually doing it. In fact, the doer might not even matter, e.g.:
- The growth of bacteria on the pancakes was examined.
In that second example, the focus is more on the issue: The growth of bacteria on the pancakes rather than the researcher, or George. Often, the person doing the action—the researcher in this case—is left out altogether.
What are the advantages of the active voice?
- It is more concise: The cat sat on the mat (6 words) compared to The mat was sat on by the cat (8 words)
- It is stronger: Judges must explain the reasons behind their decisions compared to The reasons behind their decisions must be explained by judges.
- It is clearer and less ambiguous: Compare:
- Active: The complainant should send a letter to the Clerk of the Administration Office for entry and filing, and the Clerk should distribute a memorandum briefly describing the Action Letter to each Commissioner within three days.
- Passive: A copy of every Action Letter shall be sent to the Clerk of the Administrative Office for entry and filing, and a memorandum briefly describing the Action Letter shall be distributed to each Commissioner within three days thereafter. (Who is supposed to send the copy to the Clerk? Who writes and who is supposed to distribute the memorandum?)
What are the advantages of the passive voice?
- It avoids mentioning the actor: Several disagreements were voiced at the meeting. Maybe you don’t want to embarrass or highlight the actor; maybe they are a client or your boss!
- The action is important, not the actor: The growth of bacteria on the pancakes was examined. Science is about facts and evidence, not who did what.
- You might not know or what the actor is: A series of environmental problems, including photochemical smog, broken ozonosphere, and environmental pollution, can be induced by volatile organic compounds (VOCs) emitted from industries and vehicle exhausts. Maybe how this happens is a complete mystery which is precisely what you want to investigate.
- You need to connect sentences together smoothly: Many lecturers believe that too many students put inadequate care into their writing (active). These inadequacies were not improved by later editing (passive).
(Source: Adapted from: https://www.law.cuny.edu/legal-writing/students/grammar/active-passive-voice/)
So what should you do? Here are some considerations:
- Is it important who the actor is? (if ‘Yes’ then write an active sentence)
- Do you want to be concise? (if ‘Yes’, use the active sentence)
- Do you need to mention the actor? (If ‘No’ use the passive)
- Do you know who the actor is? (If ‘No’ use the passive)
Make sure you are aware of the disciplinary conventions in terms of the use of the active and passive (read a few journal articles in your area to get a feel for how they use ‘voice’). And note some of the considerations mentioned here. It is not always important ‘who’ is doing ‘what’ in your sentences. Sometimes only the action matters. Other times, the actor matters. It is partly a function of the thing you want to stress in a sentence, as well as the degree of clarity, concision and formality that is required.
Convert the following sentences from the active to the passive voice.
- Medical practitioners have used various treatments over the years to fight severe chocolate addiction, but with little success.
- Government officials have prohibited the use of genetically engineered wheat in the production of commercial pancake mixtures.
- Time Magazine (2014) conducted a survey that showed politically conservative people preferred dogs as pets.
- Various treatments have been used over the years to fight severe chocolate addiction, but with little success.
- The use of genetically engineered wheat in the production of commercial pancake mixtures has been prohibited.
- A survey conducted in 2014 showed that politically conservative people preferred dogs as pets.
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