Drawing on examples from contemporary science journals, this handout identifies some key strategies for injecting more active voice into your science reports.
Inexperienced writers often use passive voice instead of active voice in their writing,creating weak prose that is difficult to understand. Recognizing the passive voice inyour own writing and knowing how to rewrite sentences in the active voice will make yourwriting style more vigorous and easy to read.
This handout will help you understand what the passive voice is, why many professors and writing instructors frown upon it, and how you can revise your paper to achieve greater clarity. Some things here may surprise you. We hope this handout will help you to understand the passive voice and allow you to make more informed choices as you write.
But remember; this is the exception. In general, use the active voicein your writing. Your writing will have more vigor and be easier to read than if your writingis full of passive constructions.
Use of the passive voice is not a grammatical error. It’s a stylistic issue that pertains to clarity—that is, there are times when using the passive voice can prevent a reader from understanding what you mean.
The primary reason why your instructors frown on the passive voice is that they often have to guess what you mean. Sometimes, the confusion is minor. Let’s look again at that sentence from a student’s paper on Homer’s The Odyssey:
When you reread your writing to find revisions to make, look for each type of problem in a separate sweep. Read it straight through once to locate any problems with unity. Read it straight through a second time to find problems with coherence. You may follow this same practice during many stages of the writing process.
Like many passive constructions, this sentence lacks explicit reference to the actor—it doesn’t tell the reader who or what invaded Penelope’s house. The active voice clarifies things:
Note that there are ways to vary sentence structure other than alternating between the two voices. Using complex rather than simple declarative sentences can help you better spell out the logic of your experiment while retaining the concision and directness of active voice:
Learn to be a discerning reader. In particular, be on the lookout out for the confusion that can arise from the needless use of passive voice. Active voice allows you to avoid two of the most common sentence-level issues in science papers:
Need more help deciding whether a sentence is passive? Ask yourself whether there is an action going on in the sentence. If so, what is at the front of the sentence? Is it the person or thing that does the action? Or is it the person or thing that has the action done to it? In a passive sentence, the object of the action will be in the subject position at the front of the sentence. As discussed above, the sentence will also contain a form of be and a past participle. If the subject appears at all, it will usually be at the end of the sentence, often in a phrase that starts with “by.” Take a look at this example:
Thus many instructors—the readers making sense of your writing—prefer that you use the active voice. They want you to specify who or what is doing the action. Compare the following two examples from an anthropology paper on a Laotian village to see if you agree.
In the Materials and Methods section, sticking to the active voice can become monotonous. Many science writers therefore move between the two voices to introduce sentence variety:
Who does not consider Penelope a hero? It’s difficult to tell, but the rest of that paragraph suggests that the student does not consider Penelope a hero (the topic of the paper). The reader might also conceivably think that the student is referring to critics, scholars, or modern readers of The Odyssey. One might argue that the meaning comes through here—the problem is merely stylistic. Yet style affects how your reader understands your argument and content. Awkward or unclear style prevents your reader from appreciating the ideas that are so clear to you when you write. Thus knowing how your reader might react enables you to make more effective choices when you revise. So after you identify instances of the passive, you should consider whether your use of the passive inhibits clear understanding of what you mean.