Active and Passive Voice in Academic Writing

In academic writing, there is a clear distinction between active and passive voice. In active voice, the subject of the sentence is the doer of the action. For example, “The student wrote the paper.” In passive voice, the subject of the sentence is acted upon by the verb. For example, “The paper was written by the student.”

While passive voice might seem like a great way to avoid taking responsibility for an action (after all, “mistakes were made” sounds a lot better than “I made mistakes”), active voice is generally preferred in academic writing.

Here are a few reasons why active voice is preferred:

  1. Active voice makes your writing more concise: By using active voice, you can often eliminate unnecessary words and get straight to the point.

  2. Active voice makes your writing more engaging: When you use active voice, you put the emphasis on the subject and what they’re doing, which makes your writing more interesting to read.

  3. Active voice makes your writing clearer: Passive voice can be confusing, especially when it’s not clear who or what is performing the action.

Recognizing Passive Voice

When you’re editing your writing, it’s important to be able to identify passive voice. In a sentence written in passive voice, the subject is acted upon by the verb. For example: “The lamp was knocked over by a gust of wind.” In this sentence, the subject (lamp) is being acted on by the verb (knocked over), so it’s in passive voice.

When you’re unsure whether a sentence is written in passive or active voice, try searching for a version of the verb “to be” (is, are, was, were, been). If you can find one, the sentence is probably written in passive voice. The prepositional phrase “by the” also indicates that the sentence is written in passive voice.

Here are some examples of sentences that are written in active and passive voice:

  • Active: The professor graded the exams.

  • Passive: The exams were graded by the professor.

  • Active: We completed the project on time.

  • Passive: The project was completed on time by the students.

How to Change Passive Voice to Active Voice

Passive voice should be used sparingly, and only when it is necessary to use it to avoid making value judgments or to focus on someone other than the doer of an action. However, passive voice is used more frequently in scientific writing because the use of personal pronouns is generally unacceptable.

To change a passive voice sentence to an active voice sentence:

  1. Identify the actor. If you can’t identify an actor, you may need to rewrite the sentence so that it’s clearer who is doing what.

  2. Move the actor to before the verb.

Here are some additional tips:

  • Use strong verbs instead of weak verbs. For example, “He gave a speech” is stronger than “He made a speech.”

  • Be aware of unnecessary phrases that add nothing to your meaning. For example, “There are many people who believe…”

If you’re struggling to write in active voice, allow yourself to write as usual. When you’ve completed a draft, take time to read your paper aloud to help you identify passive voice and begin editing.

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