Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Active vs. Passive Voice: Part 2 - The Trouble With Passive

Although the previous post discussed situations where using passive voice is useful, using active voice for the majority of your writing is still recommended to maintain readers’ interest and sentence clarity.

Passives become a problem when obscuring the agent obscures your meaning. For instance, you could write:
The governess is misrepresented.
This is a clever passive sentence: first, it sounds fairly natural; second, the “by phrase” is dropped, so the sentence doesn’t immediately look passive. But when writing analysis, it’s important to keep the agent’s identity clear. That example sentence is actually the sentence: “The governess is misrepresented [by someone].” But by whom? By the author? By a critic you’ve read? The identity of the person misrepresenting is probably crucial to the strength of your argument. By using a passive sentence, your meaning becomes uncertain, and your argument unclear. The active version would be:
[The agent] misrepresents the governess.
It’s a small change, but it keeps the language active and your writing clear, which can make a big difference.

Traditionally, many of the social and natural sciences use passive voice in order to emphasize the research, not the researcher. This is because those conducting the research are supposed to be objective and the research should be the sole focus of the report. For example:
We conducted 50 interviews.
50 interviews were conducted.
However, most current science writing guides recommend using active voice whenever possible, even if it means using “I” or “we.” But be aware that some professors prefer the use of passive voice in formal reports. If you are given an example, check to see whether active or passive voice dominates. A quick way to do this is to look for “to be” verbs, such as is, was, am, or were. Although the use of one of these words does not automatically mean the sentence is passive, all sentences with passive construction use these words. You’ll notice in the above example that the passive sentence uses the word “were,” whereas the active sentence does not. Another option is to check in with your instructor or TA to ensure you’re meeting their expectations for the assignment.

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