The use of active or passive voice is a fundamental distinction in English - and one that causes trouble for many writers, including native English speakers.
Growing up in American schools, students are often taught that they should avoid the passive voice because it is “weak.” However, the choice between active and passive is actually quite nuanced.
Depending on the ideas you are trying to express and the conventions of the discipline/journal in which you are writing, a sentence in the passive voice can be an appropriate, sophisticated, and even preferable choice over the active voice. Nevertheless, the active voice is sometimes a far better choice. You may use both in the same article depending on the context and content of your sentences and the section of the paper you are writing.
The following guidelines and examples should help choose between using active and passive voice in a sentence.
The basic difference
At the most basic level, the active voice emphasizes the person or agent who performs an action, the “actor.” In other words, the subject performs the action.
The passive voice emphasizes the recipient of the action or sometimes the action itself.
Now that we’ve clarified the basic distinction between active and passive voice, let’s look at some more realistic, complex examples from academic writing.
When to use passive voice
Emphasizing the object
- Passive: The interviews were conducted by two people who had no relationship with New York City.
- Active: Two people who had no relationship with New York City conducted the interviews [or, Two people, neither of whom had a relationship with New York City, conducted the interviews].
Both sentences are portraying the same idea. In this case, the authors want to emphasize the interviews – and how they were conducted – as an element of their research methodology. Therefore, the passive voice is an appropriate choice, although the active voice would not be incorrect.
- Passive: This research was approved by the ethics committee of the Institute of Gerontology.
- Active: The ethics committee of the Institute of Gerontology approved this research.
Again, in this case, the authors are emphasizing that their research was approved. This is an important piece of information, arguably more important than the entity that did the approving. Thus, the passive voice is justified.
Avoiding first and third person
- Passive: Atlas.ti software was used for qualitative data analysis.
- Active option 1: We used Atlas.ti software for qualitative data analysis.
- Active option 2: The researchers used Atlas.ti software for qualitative data analysis.
In this case, the active options may be problematic for different reasons.
The first option is grammatically correct, but some researchers/writers and journals prefer to avoid the use of the first person. (Learn more about which person to use when writing.) Choosing the passive voice is an easy way to avoid having to make a decision about using the sometimes-questionable word “we.”
Active option 2, which uses the third person (“the researchers”), is grammatically correct but sounds a bit awkward. Again, as in Example 1, the authors of this article are emphasizing aspects of their methodology, one of which is their software choice. Thus, the passive voice sentence is acceptable and appropriate.
Passive and auxiliary verbs
You’ll notice something about the passive examples above: Both use a form of the verb “to be” – in this case, the past form “was” (“was used,” “was approved”).
This is called a “helping” or “auxiliary” verb because it helps to complete the sentence (you can’t say “My car was stolen on Sunday night”). These verbs are not needed in active sentence constructions, which is one main reason why many people say that active sentences are stronger and more concise.
When to use active voice
Strong, short sentences
- Active: This comparison of recycling standards in the EU, Australia, and the U.S. demonstrates that a country’s recycling performance can change significantly depending on which standard is applied.
- Passive: In this comparison of recycling standards in the EU, Australia, and the U.S., it is demonstrated that a country’s recycling performance can change significantly depending on which standard is applied.
In this case, the active voice sentence is the stronger, preferable choice. It is cleaner, clearer, and more concise. It clearly states what the authors have contributed in their article. The passive sentence is unnecessarily wordy and clunky.
- Active: “The dog chased the ball.”
- Passive: “The ball was chased by the dog.”
In this very simple sentence, the active voice is the better choice. It is more concise (shorter), more direct, and stronger. The passive voice, in this case, is unnecessarily wordy and clunky.
However, there are many examples where we either cannot or do not want to emphasize the actor, particularly if there is an element of mystery involved:
- Passive: “My car was stolen on Sunday night.”
In this case, the speaker may not/does not know who stole her car, and this use of the passive is perfectly appropriate.
The active alternative would be “Someone stole my car on Sunday night.” But this is a case where the speaker probably wants to emphasize the action itself rather than the perpetrator. She wants to emphasize that something bad happened to her.
Emphasize the subject
- Active: Choudhary proposed the methods and principles by which each process in product synthesis could be analyzed.
- Passive: The methods and principles by which each process in product synthesis could be analyzed were proposed by Choudhary.
Unlike the examples we have considered so far, in this case, the active voice is the better choice. The literature review section of a paper often seeks to delineate the most important contributions in the field, which makes actors/agents/authors important. In the example above, the active sentence reads much more clearly and concisely.
Thus, your use of the active vs. passive voice may depend on which section of your article you are writing. Each section has a different goal and set of emphases, and you can adjust your use of active vs. passive voice accordingly. You might choose to use the active voice in your conclusion if you want to emphasize the contributions, results, or accomplishments of your research.
In summary, both the active and passive voices can be appropriate choices in scientific/academic writing. It is important to consider what you are trying to emphasize in a particular sentence or section of your paper.
It is easy to default to the passive voice in academic writing, and sometimes it really is the better choice. If you are undecided, try rephrasing the sentence in the active voice and asking yourself whether it changes the meaning of your sentence or simply makes your writing clearer or more concise.
If you’re unsure of which to use, or you have other concerns about grammar in your paper, submit your research to AJE for professional English editing services.