Favour the active voice

Active voice sentences are shorter and clearer than passive voice ones. When you write in the passive voice, the person who is doing the action is removed from the story you’re telling. Think of the difference between these two (fictional) headlines:

  1. Funding for Scientific Research Cut (passive voice)
  2. Trudeau Cuts Scientific Research Funding (active voice)

The second sentence tells us more about the person who has cut the funding–it tells a more complete story–using the same number of words. Here’s how you can identify passive constructions in your own writing, and how you can use the passive voice strategically:

There are a few different tricks to identify passive constructions, but the easiest way to quickly identify these sentences in your own writing is to cut and paste your work into the website hemingwayapp.com.

Hemingway App (which is not an app) will highlight the passive voice constructions in your writing in green, giving you the opportunity to see where you’ve used the passive voice, and where you might which to switch to active voice.

In scientific writing, use the active voice when it matters who should be doing a particular action. So, for example, use the active voice when:

  • clarifying on a grant application what your role in a team was or will be;
  • emphasizing who should be responsible for implementing a change your research is calling for;
  • distinguishing between different interpretations of a set of evidence in a literature review.

If you usually write scientific research, passive voice constructions like “the results were analyzed” or “the focus groups were conducted” may seem normal and natural to you. Nonetheless, I encourage you to flip these sentences into the active voice, to keep your writing short and to clarify your contributions to knowledge.

One example of an article that moves strategically between passive and active voice is Wen, Li, James C. Weaver, and George V. Lauder. “Biomimetic shark skin: design, fabrication and hydrodynamic function.” Journal of Experimental Biology 217.10 (2014): 1656-1666.

Skim the first few paragraphs of this article, and you will see passive voice constructions galore:

  • “These denticles are composed of…”
  • “The denticles are sculpted …”
  • flat plates […] were held …”
  • flexible pieces of real shark skin […] were moved …
  • flexible skin membranes […] were allowed …

In these sections of their paper, the authors are describing facts–what shark skin is like, what experiments have been conducted in the past, and so on.

However, as the writers move into a discussion of their novel contribution to knowledge, they also move into the active voice:

  • “In this paper, we describe our approach …”
  • “We present measurements …”
  • “We then dynamically moved …”
  • “We investigated how …”

By using a “we did X” active voice sentence structure instead of an “X was done” passive voice sentence structure, the authors clarify what new work they have contributed to the field of experimental biology. It’s clear what they have done (active voice) that is different from what has been done (passive voice) before.

Still not convinced that favouring the active voice is a good idea? Watch this Jackson Katz TED Talk, “Violence Against Women: It’s a Men’s Issue,” in which he demonstrates how the use of the passive voice leads “battered women” to be defined by the actions that men perform–men whose actions are grammatically elided from the conversation.

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