Sentence after sentence in passive voice is wordy, invites errors such as dangling modifiers, and grates on readers’ nerves. Use of active voice improves even science writing.

In active voice, a clearly stated subject performs the action of the sentence. In passive voice, the subject receives the action of the sentence (generally with a form of “to be” as a helper verb).

Active voice: We collected samples.

Passive voice: Samples were collected.

Passive voice hides the person or entity performing the action. You could add “by [whom]” to the end of the sentence, but it’s clunky and adds words: Samples were collected by the technician.

Passive voice also makes the sin of dangling modifiers easy to commit, as in this example:

Using makeitupium to induce the Soundscool Process, the DNA was found to have unusual properties.

Who was using makeitupium? The introductory clause implies a researcher is the subject of this sentence. But as the sentence continues we learn “DNA” is in fact the subject. The modifier (“using makeitupium”) modifies a subject not present in the sentence. Rewriting the sentence in active voice corrects this:

Using makeitupium to induce the Soundscool Process, we found the DNA had unusual properties.

The opening modifier now applies to the intended subject, “we.” As a bonus, you no longer need to use the infinitive “to have,” shortening the sentence.

Passive voice and its suppression of the sentence’s subject is not always evil. In a methods section, your sentences probably all have the same subject, i.e., you or your team; moreover, you likely wish to highlight the action performed rather than the subject, you, the researcher. However, your reader gets fatigued when reading several sentences with the same structure. Help him or her by interspersing sentences in active voice:

We enrolled 200 subjects and collected demographic information. Blood samples were taken from each subject and analyzed for Compound X. All analyses were done with Machine Y. We then used Statistical Test A to examine the relationship between race, gender, and the presence of Compound X in the blood.

Keep your writing clear and effective with regular tuneups. Small adjustments make a big difference.

Read More

UNC Writing Center Passive Voice Handout

Towson Online Writing Support: Active/Passive Voice

Biomedical Editor: The Value of Passive Voice

Duke Gradate School Scientific Writing Resource: Passive Voice in Scientific Writing

American Chemical Society: Active vs. Passive Voice in Scientific Writing

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