The Use of Active and Passive Voice
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service instructors often tell students to write in the active voice. What does this mean? Active voice emphasizes a subject doing something
, as in the following sentence:
Captain Hawes fired the gun.
I made a mistake.
Passive voice, by the contrast, emphasizes something done to a subject
The gun was fired.
A mistake was made.
Passive voice emphasizes a different subject: in the examples above, passive voice places the focus on gun and mistake, while active voice places the focus on who fired the gun and who made the mistake.
Passive voice can also leave out important information—who did the action—contributing to vagueness and evasiveness.
Active or Passive Voice?
In general, use the active voice because it is usually more direct, provides more
information, and reduces wordiness. Passive voice often requires more words than active voice to express an idea, thus contributing to the problem of wordiness.
Active: Captain Hawes fired the gun.
Passive: The gun was fired by Captain Hawes.
Active: The President made a mistake.
Passive: A mistake was made by the President.
If you want to emphasize the receiver rather than the doer you have to use the passive voice of the action:
Passive: Students in Klein's (2003) study were paid $25 to participate.
Active: Klein (2003) paid students $25 to participate in the study.
Use passive voice to avoid awkward and vague pronouns (like the pronouns you and we , when they don't refer to identified individuals):
Active voice: You can use less words, but you will lose all important information.
Passive: Fewer words can be used, but important information will be lost.
In the last example, passive voice removes the the vague subject, you, and places the emphasis on what can be done, rather than who can do it.
Tense for Reporting Research
Research is always reported in the past tense
. (Tense is the grammatical term for time.)
Whatever was said, done, written, etc. Note the earlier examples and their past tense verbs. Here are some past tense verbs used for writing about research. These words have different meanings, so select carefully for your context:
accepted accounted for advised advocated affirmed
agreed analyzed asserted claimed commented
concurred considered contradicted countered declared
defended demonstrated denied described disavowed
disclaimed discovered disputed dissented emphasized
established examined explained explored expressed
implied indicated informed inquired investigated
maintained mentioned noted observed offered
posited presented probed promoted proposed
questioned recognized recorded recounted refuted
rejected related remarked reported repudiated
revealed stated studied suggested summarized
supported surveyed theorized urged
Although research is reported in the past tense (because the research was done in the past), sometimes present tense is needed to express general truths or facts that exist in the present. Consider the following example:
Galileo realized that the earth revolves the sun.
The realizing took place in the past, but the earth is still revolving around the sun.
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