Passive voice. Put simply, the active voice is when the actor, the person doing the action, is named. The writer does not name the actor when using passive voice.
Ironically, the first sentence above does not name the actor – it is as if action of writing in the active voice just magically happens. However, in the second sentence, the writer is responsible for naming who is acting – the writer.
So that’s what happens when you use passive voice. The active agent disappears, and the focus is on the recipient of the action. Let me illustrate again.
Academic writing is typically weighted more to the passive voice than the writing found in newspapers, magazines and fiction. (That first sentence, and this one as well, are both written in the passive voice.) We academic writers are so accustomed to reading passive voice that we really only notice when there is too much of it, or not enough.
Too many sentences in the passive voice puts even the experienced academic reader to sleep. But too many sentences in the active voice may give the reader the sense that they are not reading a scholarly work.
We might ask ourselves – why is passive voice such a strong academic writing convention? Perhaps it’s because the passive voice creates an illusion of objectivity. The text appears to deal only with facts. Research results appear untouched by researchers, events, places or times. Conclusions appear logical and unassailable because writer-researchers and their decisions are removed from consideration. Researcher’s interpretations, interests, cultural positioning and their beliefs are excised – it is as if the human has no possible bearing on what is reported and argued.
But academic writing doesn’t have to be like this. If the omniscient, but absent. researcher is not your preferred (epistemological) position then you might want to check your use of passives. Check knowing that writing in passive voice is a choice, not a matter of blindly following convention -nor is it simply about opting for a particular readable style (although that is very important).
It’s good to have some strategies that you can use to help you make decisions about how and when to write in the active and/or passive voice. Here’s one approach. It is a strategy for revising.
Read through your text underlining the sentences are that in the passive voice. You can often find passive voice by looking for sentences that use the verbs am, is, was, were, are, been, has, had.
Once you have located the sentences using the passive, you can then visually assess the balance. If the weighting seems rather skewed one way or another, you can then do some targeted rewriting, adjusting the passive/active ratio. But before reaching for the mouse and keyboard, it’s very helpful to check where the meaning becomes clearer through the switch.
Of course I’m not suggesting you need to write entirely in the active voice. There are actually some circumstances where you may decide to keep the passive voice. But in order to decide what these are, it is helpful to assess your underlined sentences and then decide what to do.
When you find a sentence written in the passive voice ask yourself:
- Is the use of passive voice typically used in my discipline for this purpose?
e.g. Interviews were chosen as the primary method of data generation. Do I need to follow the convention? Or do I have a choice? I chose interviews as the major data generation method.
- Do I want to emphasise the thing, material or object rather than the actor?
e.g. The vaccine was trialled and approved in record time.
- Do I want to leave the agent un-named?
e.g. Risks were taken during the research.
- Am I unsure about exactly who the actor was/is?
e.g. The postbox had been yarn-bombed several times. ( Can I find out? Should I find out?)
- Is the active agent too complex for me to explain here? Will the explanation act as a distraction and a major side-alley I don’t want to go down?
e.g. Thousands of koalas were killed in the 2019 bushfires
- Do I want to make a generalised claim?.
e.g. Clear writing is preferred by readers. (Can I say that readers prefer clear writing? Do I then need to back this statement up?)
- If my use of the passive voice obscures the actor, is this really what I want to do?
e.g. Care home residents were left vulnerable during the pandemic.
- Does my use of the passive voice hide important information that the reader needs to know, information that I need to insert?
e.g. Research has indicated that mask wearing is important. – who are these researchers? Where are their studies? Can the reader check them?
- Finally, ask, is the recipient of the action more important than who dunnit? Does my naming of the actor distract from the most important point of the sentence?
e.g. Student failure was attributed to covert forms of discrimination. Covert forms of discrimination were held responsible for student failure. These two variations put either student failure or covert discrimination as the most important aspect of the sentence, not who was reporting.
So there you are, nine questions to use to check the passive voice. And if, as a result of your diagnostic reading, you want to switch sentence to the active voice, the easiest first step is to identify the actor. Then start your new sentence with them. After that, you can finesse the syntax.
Photo by Crazy Cake on Unsplash
This has been one of the changes I have had to make to my writing and this guide points out helpfully why it matters. I am being constantly pulled up for passive writing. I now realise it is because I read a lot of journalism, had to write reports alongside a literature PhD and part of my work was proofreading academic work which was largely social science with lots of passive writing. I had never realised I may have ‘picked’ up the habit from my exposure to it. To make writing active does actually animate and energise it more.