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April 12, 2011 / melody68

Passive voice VS Active Voice

By Melody TANG

Image from:

http://www.masternewmedia.org/news/2008/05/29/social_media_vs_email_which.htmPeople

often come across a problem when they are writing scientific articles. The problem is the choice between passive voice and active voice. As I know, a lot of writers prefer active voice than passive voice. In fact, active voice is not better than passive voice in every situation. We should have some knowledge about using the suitable voice.

What are Active Voice and Passive Voice?

Voice in the sentence refers to the relationship between subject, object and transitive verb which express movement. When the subject in sentence is performer of movement expressed by transitive verbs, the verb’s form is active voice. When the subject in sentence is undertaker of movement expressed by transitive verbs, the verb’s form is passive voice.
For example:


What is the clue of Passive voice?

There is a very easy and obvious clue of passive voice. The obvious clue is, in passive sentence, the subject is always not performing movements. Many people consider that if the sentence includes the form of verb “to be”, the sentence can be determined as passive voice. This idea is wrong and unreliable.

Is active voice always better than passive voice?

In many writers’ view, passive is worse than active voice. Because most of them think it is more difficult to use passive voice to express their opinions. Actually, in some area, using passive is fantastic. If the performer of predicate verb is unclear or there is no need to point out it, using passive voice. Another advantage of passive voice is it can help you make a riddle atmosphere of article. But just like two edges of sword, passive voice is not helpful when you want to express something clearly and briefly.
Considering technical paper should be written as fining as possible, sometimes active voice is indeed better than passive voice. Because more predicate word is used when constructing passive voice, sometimes it will make the sentence a big head and a small tail.
In conclusion, if the emphasized key point of the sentence is performer of predicate verb, using active voice; on the other hand, if the emphasized key point of sentence is undertaker of predicate verb using passive voice is more suitable.

Why passive voice is especially suitable for science and technical writing?

In science writing, we need to write form object angle to explain science to others. Passive voice is helpful in constructing objective atmosphere of articles. As a result, in some condition of science writing passive voice is undoubted much better than active voice.

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5 Comments

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  1. habasabah / Apr 12 2011 10:55 am

    Hi Melody,

    It does get slightly confusing when deciding on whether it is more suitable to use active or passive voice, and we are often told to avoid using passive voice (but not for science writing!). Though it’s hard when you’re not exactly sure how to tell the difference! I like the way you’ve given a clear example on how to determine the difference between them – “Melody writes the article” vs. “The article is written by Melody”. I guess another example could be: “Sabah read Melody’s blog” vs. “Melody’s blog was read by Sabah” – you’ve taught me well! 🙂

    Just one thing I’d like to check up on, is where you’ve used past tense, if you are saying “Melody writes the article” – this is present tense, it is happening now – so should the passive voice be: “The article is BEING written by Melody”? This way it’s still passive, but also still present tense. Not sure on that.(These verbs are rather confusing aren’t they!!)

    Another point I’d like to make is that passive voice can sometimes leave out the object doing the action. For example again in your example, in passive voice you could also say; “The article is being written” and then leave out “by Melody”.

    But you’ve made it easier now to tell the difference in active and passive voice, in that in active, the subject is doing the action, and in passive the target of the action gets promoted to the subject position. So just as a reminder for me and everyone else…I’ll just say that writing is passive when the “subject” isn’t doing any action.

    So well done in taking this tough topic Melody!

    Sabah

    • melody68 / May 27 2011 1:37 pm

      Hi Sabah,

      Thanks for your encouragement ! I am really appreciate what your commented for me.

      I just have been to Australia for about 10 months. Before this, I study with Chinese. Even daily English is a challenge to me. In order to complete this blog which topic is about academic English, I read a lot of correlative material about passive voice and active voice. To write an article like this and even write this reply message to you, I paid much more effort than other classmates who have use English in Study for many years.

      So when I see you said, ‘well done in taking this tough topic Melody!’, I am really happy and moving.

      Thanks for your suggestion about this topic. I agree with you. But to tell the truth, to construct a sentence like “The article is BEING written by Melody” is a little difficult to me. “Melody writes the article” is my style at the moment. I am trying to improve my English ability all the time. Hope next time you can see a Melody with better English.

      As another point you said, passive voice can leave out the object doing the action, that’s the truth. I didn’t expect this point.

      Anyway, thanks for giving me such comment. Good luck with you!

      Kind regards,
      Melody

  2. Yvette Leong / Apr 16 2011 4:39 am

    Hi Melody,

    I agree with Sabah that you’ve done a fantastic job in breaking down this fairly difficult topic into chunks that are easier to read and digest. I especially liked your visual example of Melody and the article too, and the image you used at the start was effective in demonstrating the dilemma in science writing – should we be using passive or active voice? Is one better than the other? When would we use each one (in this case, one voice would “win” the tug-of-war in different situations)…

    I grew up being taught to write in both active and passive voice, but I generally found that it was easier to write in active voice because it helped me express what I did, felt, and thought. However, I remember that in my first year of undergrad science at university, we were told repeatedly that we had to write with a passive voice in our scientific lab reports – no “I”s or “we”s. Then, in the science communication units I am now taking after 3 years of hard-core science and passive writing styles, we have been encouraged to use the active voice in our news articles etc. to communicate the same science as we did in those lab reports.

    Needless to say, this required just a little bit of re-training on my part, to get back to writing in the active voice. I guess with a scientific journal article aimed at scientists within your own field, passive voice usage has the effect of distancing the scientist from the science. This may create an impression of objectivity and unbiased reporting of observations, and hence increases your credibility within your field of expertise.

    In contrast, communicating science to the public or to scientists involved in other fields might warrant using active voice instead. This would increase engagement and excitement, as well as facilitate understanding of an unfamiliar topic because your audience would be able to personally imagine or identify with what you did, what you found and what you thought about it.

    I’m wondering now – should we continue using passive voice for scientific reports or should we change to a more active voice style? Or perhaps, what about allowing scientists the freedom to even mix passive and active voice within a report to better bring across different parts of the report?

    Cheers,
    Yvette

  3. clayte01 / Apr 18 2011 6:46 am

    Hi guys.
    I’m in a similar position to Yvette (see, it’s funny because we also share the same name). I remember being taught in high school to put all our experimental write-ups in past tense, passive voice. I found it to be fairly formulaic, taking out the “I” and “we”, and making sure that the object underwent an action, without the description involving me making it happen. Then I got to undergrad, and this is where my story diverges from Yvette’s.

    My first year chemistry lecturer was a proponent of many conventions that we are taught are “good form”, in scicom. Bob Bucat (who I have mentioned in other comments) told us that it was illogical to write that the “acid was added to the flask” when the truth in the matter was that I put that acid there. He requested that lab write ups be in the active voice, and as descriptive as possible.

    This definitely involved retraining, but it did seem to make more sense than the rest of my units, which maintained that “science uses a passive voice.”

    In second year I started taking scicom units, and have found that, where a lot of science units will tell you to follow conventions because they are conventions—yay(!) tautology—science communications, on the other hand, uses logic, “let’s do it this way, because it makes more sense!”

    Overall, I think that is the best approach for deciding on active or passive voice, do it the way that makes more sense. Sometimes active voice complicates things, and adds an extra layer of detail that just gets in the way, but often it allows for a better flow, that enables better understanding. Because, what is the point in following convention if it gets in the way of understanding?

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