Science

Use Active Voice

Active voice is preferred by me.

But what if I wrote, “I prefer active voice”? That is a stronger, more straightforward way of expressing the same thought.

In active voice, the subject does the acting. In the sentence “I prefer active voice”, “I” am the subject.

In passive voice, the subject is acted upon. In the sentence “Active voice is preferred by me”, the subject (“I”) is buried and must assume object form.

The history of passive voice

In scientific journals, passive voice becomes so prevalent that many writers have come to believe that this is the way they should write. But why is this the case? The truth is that early in the 20th century, use of active voice was the rule, not the exception. Then, over the course of time, scientists began using passive voice with more frequency, and suddenly it became a convention.

But no rule says you must use passive voice when you write your article. In fact, there are some excellent reasons why you shouldn’t.

An experiment

Let’s do a test: which sentence sounds better?

  1. Three hundred and fifty patients with subacute sclerosing panencephalitis were recruited.

  2. We recruited 350 patients with subacute sclerosing panencephalitis.

The first sentence is written in passive voice, the second in the active voice.

Using active voice here solves a few problems. First, it relieved me of the responsibility of spelling out the number 350 (by convention, English sentences almost never begin with numerals). Second, it requires fewer words and is, therefore, easier to read. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the active voice says to the reader that “we, the investigators, recruited these patients to participate in this study.” Use of passive voice implies that we investigators sat back in the shadows and the 350 patients appeared as if by magic.

I appreciate that convention is not the only reason investigators do not like to use active voice. Many feel uncomfortable using the pronoun “we,” even when it is entirely appropriate to do so. If “we” is problematic, how much more so is the pronoun “I” when an article is authored by one investigator? Perhaps the reason for the hesitancy is modesty. But why be modest? If you recruited the patients if you cultured the cells if you ran the assays, what is wrong with telling the reader what you did? As long as you faithfully report what you did, and your data support your conclusions, there is no reason why you must hide behind the passive voice in a scientific article!

Avoiding confusion

There are other reasons to prefer active over passive voice. Frequently, authors find themselves writing confusing, even ambiguous sentences only because they insist on using passive voice.

For example:

“The mechanisms of squeaking were not yet fully understood; prosthesis factors have been regarded as an important contributor.” (understood by whom? an important contributor to what?)”

This passage, by the way, is a sentence in a real article. Here is the link.

Let’s re-write these sentences.

“Researchers do not fully understand the mechanisms of squeaking. Prosthesis factors may contribute importantly to the mechanism”.

I did a couple of things here. First, by using the active voice, I made it clear that the scientific community as a whole does not understand the mechanisms of squeaking. Second, by turning the phrase “have been… an important contributor” into the active verb “contribute,” I made the sentence more muscular by making “prosthesis factors” the actor that does the work of contributing, rather than sitting around as a passive effect that is acted upon by some anonymous entity.

Try it; you’ll like it

The next time you sit down to write in English, try using active voice. Ask yourself: does this sound better? Does it seem stronger, more direct, more earnest? It should. More important, are the sentences more natural to understand? Although I am not an expert in the neurobiology of language, I strongly suspect that we are ‘wired’ to interpret sentences in active voice, even when we read sentences written in passive voice. If the sentence is already active, with the subject doing the action, our brains do not have to do any addition interpretive work. It’s all there, in black and white.

I highly recommend using active voice. Who knows? If more of us do it, perhaps it will catch on.

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If you are having trouble writing your next article, I can help.

 

 

 

 

 

2 thoughts on “Use Active Voice

  1. Very helpful. Peer reviewers should also know about this. Recently one of them corrected me when I use “we did” in a sentence

    1. In my opinion, you were right and the reviewer was wrong. Keep writing good English and your readers will appreciate it!

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