Using Active and Passive Voice in Academic Writing

Last Updated: 07 February 2022

active versus passive voice
You must understand what voice to use in academic writing because choosing either active or passive voice significantly impacts your writing. Although neither voice, active or passive, is wrong to some extent, each serves its purpose in academic writing when utilized appropriately.

This means that using active or passive voice might be a preference in some form of writing while a taboo in others as we are yet to see.

Understanding Sentence Structure (Subject, Verb, Object)

In terms of sentence structuring, sentences must contain a subject and a verb at a minimum. The subject refers to who or what a sentence is about. The verb refers to what the subject is doing.

For example, when you write a sentence: “Mary yelled.” Mary is the subject, while yelled is the verb that the subject is doing.

If the action or verb is being done to something, something becomes the object. In other words, the object is the receiver of an action.

Example: “Ronaldo threw the ball.” Ronaldo is the subject, threw is the verb, and the ball becomes the object.

You can have more than one word, thing, or person as subject, verbs, and object. However, to maintain a clear structure, ensure that you follow the subject, verb, object arrangement even in such situations.

Example: “My childhood friend and my roommate performed a song and a play at the event.”

In this example, play and song are the objects, performed becomes the verb, and childhood friend and roommate are the subjects.

Active vs. Passive Voice

In active voice, the subject of the sentence comes first and performs an action that the sentence is describing. Thus, active voice emphasizes the person or agent who performs an action – the subject or actor.

For example:

On the other hand, passive voice refers to when the object or sometimes the action of a sentence comes first. In this case, in passive voice, it is the subject of the sentence is the object being acted on.


When to use active voice

Using an active voice is preferred in academic writing since it is strong, concise, and clear. On the other hand, passive voice is discouraged, in some cases and allowed in some, because it does not portray a confident tone.

Research suggests that writing in active voice ensures that you provide cogent, solid, precise, and clear arguments.

The active voice should be used when writing the introduction and discussion sections of a research paper, proposal, term paper, thesis, or dissertation. This is because you discuss previous research and introduce your own research.

Developing short and strong sentences

Active voice is preferred when you want to develop strong yet short sentences. It allows you to create a clear, direct, and more concise sentence, which can be helpful in avoiding clunky and wordy passive sentences.

Passive: In this comparison of tourism experience in UAE, Australia, and the US, it is evident that a country’s enabling environment promotes tour companies’ success.

Active: A comparison of tourism experience in the UAE, Australia, and the US reveals that an enabling environment in a country promotes the success of tour companies.

Emphasize on the subject

You can also use active voice when you want to emphasize the subject. For example:

Active: X and Y proposed a new model that incorporates the principles of success, which inherently addressed the weaknesses of other models:

Passive: A new model incorporating principles of success and inherently addressing the weaknesses of other models was proposed by X and Y.

In this case, active voice sounds like the best choice. The passive voice is clunky and awkward. You can use active voice in your literature review section

When to use Passive Voice

Although active voice is preferred when writing essays for its ability to ensure clarity and create direct sentences, sometimes using passive voice is inevitable.

There comes a time when using an indirect expression is rhetorically effective, which leaves you with only one option, to use passive voice.

In scientific writing, passive voice is conventionally used. It is preferred when the agent that performs an action is obvious, unknown, or unimportant. It can also be used when a writer does not want to mention the actor until the last part of the sentence or wants to avoid mentioning the agent.

The passive voice highlights the action/verb and the object but the subject in this case.

Active: The team of surgeons carefully performed the 5G remote brain surgery yesternight

Passive: The 5G remote brain surgery was successfully performed yesternight (by the team of surgeons).

To avoid first and third-person

Passive voice can also be used to avoid the first and third person. For example:

Passive: SPSS software was used for quantitative data analysis.

Active voice (option 1): We used SPSS for quantitative data analysis.

Active voice (option 2): The researchers used SPSS for qualitative data analysis.

In this case, although option 1 and 2 active voices are grammatically correct, they sound awkward, which makes it necessary to use active voice.

When emphasizing on the object

Passive voice is also used when emphasizing on the object. For instance,

Passive voice can be helpful in the methodology section, where you describe the steps taken. However, in every situation, your guiding principle should be the clarity of your sentences.

Evoke curiosity

Passive voice can be used to evoke curiosity, which is especially important in media reporting. In addition, doing so helps in writing tactfully so that the actor is not named or blamed.

Creating objective tone

Passive voice emphasizes more on the action rather than the actor. In this sense, it can be used to create an objective tone, especially in scientific writing. Passive voice expressions such as “were performed, were observed, were analyzed, were achieved, etc.” tend to remove the subject or actor from the action, which leads to an objective tone.

The writer, in this case, uses the passive voice to distance themselves and what they are writing about in their paper.

Avoiding repetitions

You can use passive voice when writing to avowing sounding too repetitive.

Consider a situation where you report the findings and repeat the word “The researchers found, concluded, insist, etc.” it sounds repetitive rather than when passive voice is used.

How to make Passive Voice Active

There are instances when you want to turn a passive voice into an active one for clarity and preciseness, especially when editing and proofreading. To convert a passive voice to an active voice, you must rewrite the same sentence to maintain the Subject, Verb, Object (SVO) order.

In other words, find the agent or actor in a “by the…” phrase or consider who or what is performing an action as expressed in the verb, then make the agent the subject of the sentence and change the verb as appropriate.

If you intend to change active voice to passive voice, consider the subject as expressed in the verb and make it the object of a “by the…” phrase. In other words, make the object the subject and change the verb to a form of being and past participle.

Passive: The book is being read by most of the students

Active: Most of the students are reading the book

Passive: The research findings will be published in an issue journal

Active: The researchers will publish their research findings in an issue journal

Passive: A new policy on greenwashing has been recommended by the committee

Active: The committee recommends a new policy on greenwashing

Passive: The research was conducted by the new doctors.

Active: The new doctors performed the research.

If the subject is unknown, you can directly refer to the subject by indicating that it is unknown.

For example:

The famous art painting was stolen from the museum (Passive)

It can become: “Someone or an unknown thief stole the famous art painting from the museum.”

Final Remarks

Both active and passive voice can be used appropriately in scientific or academic writing. However, it is crucial to consider your end goal and your emphasis in a sentence or section of your paper.

Most students involuntarily default to passive voice when writing essays, research papers, term papers, and dissertations, which sometimes is a better choice.

If you feel undecided, rephrase the sentence in active voice and assess whether the change brings a new meaning or whether it makes your writing clearer and concise.