Active voice and passive voice are grammatical constructions that communicate certain information about an action. Specifically, APA explains that voice shows relationships between the verb and the subject and/or object (see APA 7, Section 4.13). Writers need to be intentional about voice in order to ensure clarity. Using active voice often improves clarity, while passive voice can help avoid unnecessary repetition.
Active voice can help ensure clarity by making it clear to the reader who is taking action in the sentence. In addition, the active voice stresses that the actor (or grammatical subject) precedes the verb, again, putting emphasis on the subject. Passive voice construction leaves out the actor (subject) and focuses on the relationship between the verb and object.
The order of words in a sentence with active voice is subject, verb, object.
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:
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.
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 conference.
Example: Teachers conducted a pilot study addressing the validity of the TAKS exam.
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.
Example: I conducted a study of job satisfaction and turnover.
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:
Another indication of passive voice is when the verb precedes the actor in the sentence. Even if the action taker is clearly identified in a passive voice construction, the sentence is usually wordier. Making the actor the grammatical subject that comes before the verb helps to streamline the sentence.
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.
Example: Participants in the study were incentivized with a $5 coffee gift card, which I gave them upon completion of their interview.
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…
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.