You are on page 1of 3

http://www.primaryschoolscience.com/literacy/lit-active.

php

The use of the Active Voice


Literacy
and the Passive Voice
Interlocking
definitions
A brief explanation of the difference Technical taxonomies
between the active and passive voice is
appropriate here. When we speak of active Special expressions
and passive, we need to understand a few
Lexical density
things about the structure of a sentence.
Syntactic ambiguity
A sentence can be spilt into two parts a Grammatical
Subject and a Predicate. metaphor

Semantic
The subject:
discontinuity

The subject of a sentence is who or


The use of active and
what the sentence is about. The subject
passive voice
is in bold in the following sentences.
The use of pronouns
1. The tiger chased the deer. Complex sentences
2. James wrote lots of letters.
3. The tree was chopped down by the The use of
lumberjack. connectives
4. The car was driven by the chauffeur.

The subject of a sentence is usually a noun or a pronoun. (A noun is a naming


word and a pronoun is a part of speech that can replace a noun.)

The predicate:

The predicate provides information about the subject. The predicates of


each of the above sentences are shown below in bold:

1. The tiger chased the deer.


2. James wrote lots of letters.
3. The tree was chopped down by the lumberjack.
4. The car was driven by the chauffeur.

The predicate contains a verb. A verb is a word that describes an action or


state of being. Verbal groups are words operate in the same way as a verb but
contain more than one word. Examples of verbal groups are have resulted,
are associated and may be reflected. {Martin 1993, p77})

It is actually the verb in a sentence that is described as active or passive and


the sentence, subsequently, is described as being written in either the active
or passive voice. When a sentence is written in the active voice, the verb is
active when the subject of the sentence does the action. For example:

The tiger chased the deer.


James wrote lots of letters.

These sentences are written in the active voice because the subject of the
sentence is doing the action. i.e. the lion does the chasing and James does the
writing. The following sentences are written in the passive since subject of the
sentence has the action done to it.
The tree was chopped down by the lumberjack.
The car was driven by the chauffeur.

The tree (subject) was chopped down by the lumberjack and the car (subject)
was driven by the chauffer.

N.B. If you ever want to check whether a sentence is written in the active or
passive voice then type it into a standard word-processing package such as
Microsoft Word or Lotus and you will find that sentences written in the passive
voice will usually be underlined in green.

Writing in the passive voice is common in scientific writing but not exclusive to
it. Osborne and Wellington suggest the reasons why reports are written in the
passive voice:

'…reports or explanations tend to remove the agents, the scene, the motives
and any sense of temporality. It is generally argued that science seeks to
portray itself as a source of objective knowledge… it (science) seeks to
distance itself (from subjective accounts of experience) and portray the
knowledge it offers as something which is the reflection of a real world which
is independent of any observer.' (Wellington and Osborne, 2001, p 65)

It seems reasonable to suggest that this is what science is attempting to do


or, indeed, any academic discipline, particularly since in attempting to
convince us of their reasoning, Osborne and Wellington have used a device to
remove actors and agents and temporality. Namely, in the second sentence,
instead of writing we argue or the academic community argues they write
'it is argued' which suggests that the consensus is that the argument is
correct.

However, we suggest that there is another reason why science is often written
in the passive voice. Consider the sentences below:

The electricity is carried by the wire-cables.


The fruits and seeds must be carried away by the parent-plant.
The food and oxygen are carried to the cells by the blood.

In each case, the sentence is written in the passive voice or, in other words,
the verb is passive. This means that the subject of the sentence (electricity,
fruits and seeds and food and oxygen) has the action done to it. In the
active voice, the sentences would be written as:

The wire-cable carries the electricity.


The parent-plant carries away the fruit and seeds.
The blood carries the food and oxygen to the cells.

Here the verb is active; the subject of each sentence (wire-cable, parent-
plant and blood) is doing the action. So, by writing in the passive voice, the
subject of the sentence is changed. This is significant because, science is not
always concerned with the subject when the verb is active. For example, the
following sentence would be appropriate if the focus of the report was on how
electricity is transferred from place to place:

The electricity is carried by the wire-cable.

However, the sentence below would be more appropriate if the report was
concerned with conductors and insulators:

The wire-cable carries the electricity.

Similarly, the sentence below would be appropriate if the focus of the report
was about plants and how they pollinate.

The parent-plant carries away the fruit and seeds.


Whereas, the following sentence would be more appropriate if the report was
concerned with the dispersal of seeds.

The fruit and seeds are carried away by the parent-plant.

From these few examples, we hope to have shown that it is not just a tactic
used to persuade the reader of the authority of an argument or statement but
is a genuine resource used in scientific writing to communicate.

It is perhaps true to say that some 'scientific writing', or writing in general,


uses the passive voice unnecessarily. Halliday (1993) makes a point which, is
not just referring to the use of the active and passive voice but of the
"trappings of scientific language", in general. He says:

And we are all familiar with those who, not being scientists, have borrowed
the trappings of scientific language and are using it purely as a language of
prestige and power - the bureaucracies and technocracies of governments and
multinational corporations. In bureaucracies these features have no reason to
be there at all, because there is no complex conceptual structure or thread of
logical argument. But they serve to create distance between writer and
reader, to depersonalise the discourse and give it a spurious air of being
rational and objective.

Back

All site content © 2002 The Order of Things Site designed and built by JetLabs Ltd.