Active or Passive—Which Voice Is Best?

In academic writing, students are often encouraged to use an ‘objective’ voice; to focus on methodologies, arguments, evidence and results in a way that keeps the author/researcher in the background. Passive sentence structures, which place emphasis on what is being done to the sentence’s subject, are especially common in science disciplines where researchers emphasise results over personal opinions. Here is an example of a passive construction: The ball was thrown into the air by one child and caught by another. In this sentence, the direct subject (or noun) is the ‘ball’, and it is being thrown and caught (verbs) by the children (indirect subjects). Here is the same sentence rewritten as an active construction: One child threw the ball, another caught it. In this sentence, the first child is now the direct subject, who throws the ball (now an indirect subject) to the other child. Can you see that the active construction results in a shorter, more direct sentence? Using active sentence structures in your academic writing will result in a similar directness, vitality and clarity. Sometimes the passive voice is useful:

  • When the agent is unknown Neolithic clay figurines were modelled in the shape of humans and animals.
  • When the agent doesn’t matter: Millions of emails are sent every day.
  • When you want to be deliberately vague: Many were responsible for the company’s downfall.

The active voice is increasingly acceptable in many academic contexts, particularly in the humanities and social sciences, where stating your opinion (a reasoned opinion, backed by evidence, of course!) is important to your paper, journal article or thesis. Using the active voice will often require the personal pronoun ‘I’.While this is often discouraged in academic writing, it can be appropriate when you are establishing the basis and originality of your own contributions to an academic discipline. The following examples are likely to be found in an introduction or methodology section, where you outline your arguments and methodological approaches:

  • In this paper, I argue that … (instead of this paper will show that … )
  • In contrast, I contend that … (instead of in contrast, this paper will contend that … )

Although passive sentences are sometimes unavoidable, or appropriate, overuse can result in flat, repetitive and ambiguous text. Try reviewing your next paper for passive sentences, and then change them into active sentences. Look for the following types of sentences:

  • Much research has been done …
  • It has long been the case that …
  • It is believed that all cats have tails, but …

Often, passive sentences result from a lack of confidence in your own arguments or writing. Don’t be afraid to write strong and direct sentences: you have conducted extensive research, developed well-reasoned arguments, and made credible conclusions, so impress your tutors, supervisors or peers with your active writing style.

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