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Scholarly Voice: Active & Passive Voice

Active Versus Passive Voice

The APA 6th Edition, Section 3.18, indicates that writers should use the active voice for clarity (APA, 2010, p. 77). Writing in the active voice means the subject of the sentence clearly performs the action that the verb expresses. 

APA stresses using the active voice to make it clear to the reader who is taking action in the sentence. The reason is that the use of passive voice often makes it difficult for the reader to determine who is taking the action of the verb. In addition, the active voice stresses that the actor (or grammatical subject) precedes the verb, again, putting emphasis on the subject.

The order of words in a sentence with active voice is subject, verb, object.

  • Example: I conducted a study of elementary school teachers.
  • This sentence structure puts the emphasis of the sentence on the subject, clarifying who conducted the study. 
  • Example: A study was conducted of elementary school teachers.
  • In this sentence, it is not clear to the reader who conducted this study. 

Generally, in scholarly writing, with its emphasis on precision and clarity, the active voice is preferred. However, the passive voice is acceptable in some instances, for example:

  1. if the reader is aware of who the actor is;
  2. in expository writing, where the goal of the discussion is to provide background, context, or an in-depth explanation;
  3. if the writer wants to focus on the object or the implications of the actor’s action; or
  4. to vary sentence structure.  

Also, much like for anthropomorphism, different writing styles have different preferences. So, though you may see the passive voice used heavily in articles that you read for your courses and study, it does not mean that APA style advocates the same usage.

Examples of Writing in the Active Voice

Here are some examples of scholarly writing in the active voice:

Example: I will present the results of this study at the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) conference.
  • This is active voice because the subject in the sentence precedes the verb, clearly indicating who (I) will take the action (present).

Example: Teachers conducted a pilot study addressing the validity of the TAKS exam.

  • Similarly, teachers (subject) clearly took the action (conducted) in this sentence.

Recognizing the Passive Voice

According to APA, writers should select verb tenses and voice carefully. Consider these examples to help determine which form of the verb is most appropriate:

Example: A study was conducted of job satisfaction and turnover.

  • Here, it is not clear who did the conducting. In this case, the writer should revise this sentence to clarify who is doing the conducting. 

Example: I conducted a study of job satisfaction and turnover.

  • This revised sentence clearly indicates the action taker. Using “I” to identify the writer’s role in the research process is often a solution to the passive voice and is encouraged by APA (see Section 3.09).

Using the past tense of the verb “to be” and the past participle of a verb together is often an indication of the passive voice. Here are some signs to look for in your paper:

  • Example: This study was conducted.
  • Example: Findings were distributed.

Another indication of passive voice is when the verb precedes the actor in the sentence. For example, even if the action taker is clearly identified, that actor should be the grammatical subject and come before the verb.

  • Incorrect: The study on nursing and turnover was conducted by Rogers (2016).
    • Issue: Though the verb and the actor (action taker) are clearly identified here, to use the active voice, the writer should also place that actor, Rogers, before the verb. This improves clarity and word economy as well.
  • Correct: Rogers (2016) conducted a study on nursing and turnover.
  • Incorrect: The survey instrument will be administered by the school administrators.
    • Issue: Here, the actor follows the verb, which reduces emphasis and clarity.
  • Correct: The school administrators will administer the survey instrument.
    • This revised sentence is in the active voice and clearly identifies the action takers and the action being taken.

Intentional Use of the Passive Voice

Sometimes, even in scholarly writing, the passive voice may be used intentionally and strategically. A writer may intentionally include the subject later in the sentence so as to reduce the emphasis and/or importance of the subject in the sentence. See the following examples of intentional passive voice to indicate emphasis:

Example: Schools not meeting AYP for 2 consecutive years will be placed on a “needs improvement” list by the State’s Department of Education.

  • Here, all actors taking actions are identified, but this is in the passive voice as the State’s Department of Education is the actor doing the placing, but this verb precedes the actor. This may be an intentional use of the passive voice, to highlight schools not meeting AYP.
  • To write this in the active voice, it would be phrased: “The State’s Department of Education will place schools not meeting AYP for 2 consecutive years on a “needs improvement” list. This sentence places the focus on the State’s Department of Education, not the schools.

Example: Participants in the study were incentivized with a $5 coffee gift card, which I gave them upon completion of their interview.

  • As the writer and researcher, I may want to vary my sentence structure in order to avoid beginning several sentences with “I provided…” This example is written in the passive voice, but the meaning is clear.

Using Passive Voice in Scholarly Writing

As noted before, passive voice is allowed in APA style and can be quite appropriate, especially when writing about methods and data collection. However, students often overuse the passive voice in their writing, which means their emphasis in the sentence is not on the action taker. Their writing is also at risk of being repetitive. Consider the following paragraph in which the passive voice is used in each sentence:

A survey was administered.  Using a convenience sample, 68 teachers were invited to participate in the survey by emailing them an invitation. E-mail addresses of teachers who fit the requirements for participation were provided by the principal of the school. The teachers were e-mailed an information sheet and a consent form. Responses were collected from 45 teachers…
  • As you can see, the reader has no idea who is performing these actions, which makes the research process unclear.  This is at odds with the goal of the methods discussion, which is to be clear and succinct regarding the process of data collection and analysis.

However, if translated entirely to the active voice, clearly indicating the researcher’s role, “I” becomes redundant and repetitive, interrupting the flow of the paragraph:

In this study, I administered a survey.  I created a convenience sample of 68 teachers.  I invited them to participate in the survey by emailing them an invitation.  I obtained e-mail addresses from the principal of the school…
  • “I” is quite redundant here and repetitive for the reader.

The Walden Writing Center suggests that students use “I” in the first sentence of the paragraph.  Then, as long as it is clear to the reader that the student (writer) is the actor in the remaining sentences, use the active and passive voices appropriately to achieve precision and clarity (where applicable):

In this study, I administered a survey using a convenience sample. Sixty-eight teachers were invited to participate in the survey.  The principal of the school provided me with the e-mail addresses of teachers who fit the requirements for participation.  I e-mailed the teachers an information sheet and a consent form. A total of 45 teachers responded

Strategies

The use of the passive voice is complicated and requires careful attention and skill. There are no hard-and-fast rules. Using these guidelines, however, should help writers be clearer and more engaging in their writing, as well as achieving the intended purposes.

Remember, use voice strategically. APA recommends the active voice for clarity. However, the passive voice may be used, with intention, to remove the emphasis on the subject and also as a method for varying sentence structure. So, generally write in the active voice, but consider some of the above examples and some uses of the passive voice that may be useful to implement in your writing. Just be sure that the reader is always aware of who is taking the action of the verb.

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