Using the Active Voice

In scholarly writing, the scholar often disappears behind the words. What this means is that the person acting (doing an assay, reviewing books, or interviewing subjects) isn’t the focus of the sentence—instead the emphasis is on the objects being assayed or the subjects being interviewed. For example, in the following three sentences, the person doing the action can be omitted, which is a clue that the passive voice is used:

  1. The assay was completed (by the lab manager).
  2. Six hundred fifty-six books were reviewed (by five scholars).
  3. Fifty people were interviewed (by two graduate researchers).

Sentences using the passive voice also often use a form of the verb to be (is, was, were). However, just because a sentence includes a form of to be doesn't mean it’s passive!

While the person completing an action often doesn’t matter (and passive voice is preferred), other times scholarly writers use the passive voice too much in an attempt to sound scholarly or to avoid making a bold assertion. In the following examples, using an active voice is best:

PassiveActive
Classes were canceled by the chancellor. The chancellor canceled classes.
The tree branch was cut down by the arborist. The arborist cut down the tree branch.
The work was completed by the graduate student. The graduate student completed the work.

The active sentences are stronger than the passive sentences. They use fewer words and strong verbs (cancel, cut, complete) rather than to be. Active sentences are also easier to read.

The next time you write, ask yourself if a sentence would work better in the active voice, or if the agent should be omitted and the sentence should be in the passive voice. Additionally, pay close attention to both how and when the active or passive voice are used in your disciplinary journal articles.

Sources:

Chicago Manual of Style. 16th edition. Section 5.115.
Fogarty, Mignion (November 12, 2013). Avoid this common passive voice mistake! Grammar Girl.