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Fiendish Tips for Writers and Editors

Academic style guides such as APA’s Publication manual often recommend active voice in scholarly writing, but when is passive voice the better choice?

This blog post shows examples of both active and passive voices and suggests when passive voice might be the better choice. It includes a note on the use of personal pronouns I and we, offers tips for spotting passive voice in your manuscript and concludes with references and further reading.

Active vs passive voice
When might you use active voice?
When is passive voice the better choice?
A note on using the personal pronouns I and we
Fiendish tips to spot passive voice in your writing
References and further reading

Active vs passive voice

‘Voice’ expresses whether the subject in a sentence acts (active voice) or is acted on (passive voice). Active voice is more direct and can give your writing authority and purpose. Passive voice, if overused, can make your writing appear impersonal, wordy and lacking authority. As I will show, however, both have their place in scholarly writing.

Example of active voice

Consider the following sentence written in active voice:

The researcher performed a detailed analysis.

In this sentence, the grammatical subject — that is, the performer of the action (or the actor) — comes first (‘The researcher’), followed by the verb (‘performed’) and then the object (‘detailed analysis’). That is, the subject in this sentence is doing the acting.

Example of passive voice

Now the same sentence written in passive voice:

A detailed analysis was performed by the researcher.

Here, the object appears first (‘A detailed analysis’) followed by the verb (‘was performed’), and the subject or actor (‘the researcher’) comes last. In passive voice, the focus becomes the object experiencing the action rather than the person performing the action.

Simply put, in passive voice, the object becomes the most important part of the sentence.

When we know who the actor is

Here are more examples of passive voice where we know who the performer of the action is. In each, if we wanted to rewrite the sentences in active voice, it’s easy to do so because we know who the actor is:

Reading was noted as an activity by the participant.
The participant noted reading as an activity.

After obtaining permission, participants were approached by the researcher.
After obtaining permission, the researcher approached the participants.

The role was interpreted by some participants as inadequate.
Some participants interpreted the role as inadequate.

When the actor is unknown

In the next example of passive voice, however, I’ve omitted the actor:

A detailed analysis was performed.

In scholarly writing, not knowing who the actor is can cause confusion for the reader — in the above example, we are left wondering who performed the detailed analysis; was it the writer, or is the writer referring to another scholar’s research?

In the following passive examples, I’ve again omitted the performer of the action, followed by suggestions of how the sentences might be written in active voice — if we knew who the actor was.

A survey of the participants was conducted.
[X] conducted a survey of participants.

Two participants were studied for a period of six months.
[X] studied two participants for a period of six months.

The survey data were collected.
[X] collected the survey data.

Writing in active voice often necessitates using the personal pronouns I and we if you are the performer of the action (see the boxed note below right). Sometimes, however, we don’t need to know who the actor is — it’s not important — and this is discussed below.

When might you use active voice?

Use active voice when you need to emphasise the performer’s actions and to create clear, dynamic and authoritative sentences.

For this reason, many style guides —such as APA — recommend active over passive voice. While APA Style permits both active and passive voices, it recommends active voice as much as possible ‘to create direct, clear, and concise sentences . . . and to describe the actions of participants and others involved in your study’ (see Section 4.13; APA, p. 118).

When is passive voice the better choice?

Although many style guides recommend active over passive voice, this should not be at the expensive of good scholarly writing. Passive voice has its place and, in fact, it’s often the better choice. When might that be?

The object is more important than the subject

In a thesis or journal paper, this might be in the Methods section where you want to focus on the object experiencing the action rather than the person performing the action. That is, the object is the most important part of the sentence.

APA notes that passive voice is ‘acceptable in expository writing when focusing on the object or recipient of the action rather than on the actor’ (p. 118). It gives an example where you may be describing in the Methods section how an experiment has been set up:

The speakers were attached to either side of the chair. (APA, p. 118)

This construction emphasises where the speakers are placed rather than who did the placing.

When we don’t know who the actor is, or it’s not important

Often, we don’t know who the performer of an action is, and/or it doesn’t matter to the discussion. Using the example above, we don’t know who attached the speakers — and nor do we need to know.

Elegant sentence structure

Sometimes, passive voice is needed for variation in sentence structure; too much active voice (‘I did this’ and ‘I then did that’) can becoming boring, and the last thing you want is for your reader to disengage with your writing. Active and passive voices should complement each other.

It’s too hard, or the result is inelegant and clumsy

If you’re finding it hard to make a passive sentence active, or the result is clumsy and inelegant, it’s probably best left as it is — in passive voice.

If you’re unsure whether passive voice is acceptable (or even preferred), check with an authority such as the academic style guide you’re following (e.g.  APA’s Publication Manual or the Chicago Manual of Style) or publisher’s requirements. If you’re writing a research thesis, ask your academic supervisor or faculty’s research office for advice.

 

APAA note on using the personal pronouns and we

Writing in active voice often necessitates using the personal pronouns I and we. For example, if you want to emphasise the subject in this example — ‘A survey of participants was conducted’ (passive voice) — you might write, ‘We/I conducted a survey of participants’ (active voice). However, academic writers often shy away from using personal pronouns. Why is this?

In her book Stylish Academic Writing, Helen Sword (2012) discusses how social scientists often explain that they have been trained not to use personal pronouns I and we. When asked for the reason, they stated, ‘It’s because we’re supposed to sound objective, like scientists’ (p. 39).

Interestingly, Sword surveyed 50 articles and found that in every one, the scientists (in this case, evolutionary biologists) in her data sample used personal pronouns such as I and we, ‘while the higher education researchers, who write mostly about human beings, use[d] I or we only about half the time (54%)’. They argued that they were trying to take an ‘objective authorial stance’ (p. 39). In the humanities, 40% of historians used I/we in contrast to philosophers (92%) and literary scholars (98%).

In fact, APA actually recommends it. Section 4.16 on ‘First- Versus Third-Person Pronouns’, it states, ‘If you are writing a paper by yourself, use the personal pronoun “I” to refer to yourself … If you are writing a paper with coauthors, use the pronoun “we” to refer to yourself and your coauthors together’ (APA, p. 120).

APA advises against referring to yourself in third person (‘The researcher explored …’) or using the editorial ‘we’ (‘We often wonder about what other people think of us’; Section 4.17).

Fiendish tips to spot passive voice in your writing

Spot passive voice using Word

A quick way to spot passive voice is to turn on your grammar checker in Word.

To do this, go to File > Options > Proofing, then tick the Mark Grammar Errors as You Type box. In the Writing Style drop-down menu, choose Grammar and Style, click on Settings, and tick the Passive Sentences box (see figure below).

Grammar & style settings in Word

Please do note, however, that Word’s grammar checker (and spell checker) can sometimes be wildly inaccurate, so please don’t rely on it too heavily. While helpful, no computer software can replace a professionally trained copyeditor!

Spot passive voice using zombies

A fun way to spot passive voice is to follow the verb with ‘by zombies’. If you do this, and it makes sense, you’re probably writing in passive voice. So when we add ‘by zombies’ to this example, we can easily spot the passive voice:

A detailed analysis was performed [by zombies].

Summary

Active voice is more direct and gives your writing authority and purpose. However, passive voice is often necessary and the better choice — that is, when the object is more important than the subject, when we don’t know (or it’s not important) who the actor is, and for elegant sentence structure and balance.

References and further reading

American Psychological Association. (APA). (2019). Publication manual (7th ed.). Author.

Einsohn, A., & Schwartz, M. (2019). The copyeditor’s handbook: A guide for book publishing and corporate communications (4th ed.). University of California Press.

Grammar Girl. (2011). Quick and dirty tips: Passive voice

Purdue Online Writing Lab. (n.d.). Active versus passive voice

Sword, H. (2012). Stylish academic writing. Harvard University Press.

The Chicago Manual of Style. (n.d.). Home. Chicago University Press.

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