Should You Be Passive?

Should You Be Passive?

Should You Be Passive?

I am not getting into a philosophical debate here.  I am talking about the passive voice when writing – particularly academic writing.

Many style books and courses – including my own, recommend using the active voice.  Some go beyond recommendation, almost dictating the active voice, especially for academic writing.

As with almost all English writing rules and conventions, there are lots of exceptions. 

The passive voice has its uses. You do not need to avoid all passive sentence usage. There are times when the passive voice is preferable to the active voice.

First of all, what do I mean by active and passive voice?

The active voice means that the subject of the sentence is “acting” or doing something.

The store manager hired new workers.

The passive voice means that the subject is the receiver of the action.

New workers were hired by the store manager.

A lot of student writers like to use the passive voice (although they might not be aware of it) because passive sentences are usually longer, and this helps them reach the required word count more quickly.  Having the required word count should not be the primary goal!

Active sentences are generally stronger and more effective.  Also, being concise can help make your sentences “pack a punch.”

Using the passive voice is fine if the actor is unknown or irrelevant.

The graffiti was made within the last two weeks. (Actor unknown)

A series of windmills will be built along the shore.  (Actor irrelevant)

You can also use the passive voice to express a generally held fact or to stress a different part of your sentence.  

MomHappiness is often one’s goal. (“Happiness” is stressed.)

The primary goal of your writing is clarity.  If you have read my blog posts or watched my videos, you will have heard this several times, but it is true.  If your audience (reader) does not understand the message, the writing has failed no matter how elegantly you think you have written.

When you are editing your work, check for passive sentences and turn them into active sentences.  Read them aloud.  Read the paragraphs aloud, too, because context can make a difference.

Ask yourself, “Is the meaning clearer as an active sentence?” If not, you might be in the rare occasion in which a passive sentence is best, and you can change it back.

However, most of the time, you will find that active sentences are clearer, shorter, and stronger. 

Haven’t reached your word count? Try to include more substance.  Look for another good quotation or fact. Expand upon one of your points by looking at a counter-argument and defeating it. Provide useful content.  Check to see if you have clearly explained the connections between your facts, thoughts, quotations, and examples. 

There are many ways to add volume and strengthen your academic writing without using padded language, tricks, or passive sentences unnecessarily.

To learn more about various sentences and paragraphs check out my asynchronous online courses for Basic English Writing, Paragraph Writing, Essay Writing, and more: Online Courses.

Alternatively, e-mail for more personalized lessons.

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