Academic writing tips: How to use Active and Passive voice
Sometimes, the way in which something is expressed can be as important as what is being said. In academic writing, people naturally want to come across as being objective, and this often includes using the ‘passive voice’. But exactly what is the passive voice (vis-à-vis the active voice), and is it always right to use it in academic writing? This article explains what the active and passive voices are and gives some suggestions about when to use each.
Active and passive voice explained
Consider this sentence:
Exploratory interviews were completed by six of the participants.
This is an example of a passive construction: the action (‘were completed’) is performed on the subject of the sentence (‘six of the participants’).
Now have a look at this (active) version of the sentence:
Six of the participants completed exploratory interviews.
Here, the six participants are now at the beginning of the sentence, and rather than the action being performed on them, they are performing the action (‘completed’ being the verb).
This might seem like a subtle distinction, but there are two things that are worth noting about this active sentence:
- It is slightly shorter and easier to read.
- It emphasises the participants (people) rather than the interviews (objects).
Using active and passive voice
As noted, people writing in academic contexts have traditionally relied on the passive voice. Some people believe that it sounds more ‘scientific’, but more recently this view has been falling out of favour.
Also, people can be particularly reluctant to use the active voice if it means that a sentence will include first-person pronouns (‘I’ or ‘we’), and they may even have been taught (especially in certain countries/cultures) to avoid them altogether in scientific writing.
However, if you look at recent articles in high-impact-factor journals, you will see that it is now very common for researchers to use them.
Consider this sentence, which might be found in the Discussion section of a paper:
It was demonstrated that the efficiency of the reaction was notably increased by the use of the selected combination of catalysts.
This could come across as overly ‘factual’, and some would call it ‘dry’.
If it is rephrased into the active voice, it becomes shorter, and is also more engaging:
We demonstrated that our selected combination of catalysts notably increased the efficiency of the reaction.
Active voice: Showing researchers in action
Note that with the active voice, the researchers themselves are ‘put back into the action of the research’. This can be important for how the reader reads, understands and values what is being communicated in the sentence, thus making the paper – and the scientific discoveries or innovations that it presents – more ‘accessible’. (Learn more about writing your paper as a narrative in this article: Telling a story in your research paper)
Deciding whether to use passive voice
So, should the passive voice be avoided? No, the passive voice can be useful.
- For example, in the Methods section of a paper, what was done is probably more important than who did it.
- Similarly, in the Results section, describing your findings objectively may be simpler in the passive voice.
- Finally, it is always worth considering exactly what you want to emphasise. Taking the first example given in this article, are the ‘participants’ or the ‘interviews’ more important? If you want to focus on the interviews, then the passive voice is appropriate because it puts them at the beginning of the sentence.
- The subject of a passive sentence has the action performed on it; in an active sentence, the subject performs the action.
- Using the active voice changes the emphasis of a sentence, and usually makes it shorter; it also often means that it will contain ‘I’ or ‘we’.
- The passive voice can be appropriate in the Methods and Results sections. However, particularly in the Discussion section of a paper, using the active voice can improve the flow of your writing and help it to have greater engagement, which is a key aim of writing.
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