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The Value of the Passive Voice

When should an author choose the passive voice over the active voice? What is the difference
between them?

The passive voice emphasizes the person or object receiving the action (e.g., Samples were
analyzed). The active voice, in contrast, emphasizes the person or object performing the action
(e.g., We analyzed samples).

Because active-voice sentences are clearer, livelier, and often more concise than passive-voice
sentences, most style guides advise scientific authors to prefer the active voice in their writing.

Notice though, that the recommendation is not to write entirely in the active voice. An all-out active
writing style would be just as difficult to read as an all-out passive style: balancing the two
perspectives is key.

Other than to add variety, when is the passive voice the better choice? Here are three good
reasons to use it.

1. The performer is unknown, irrelevant, or obvious

The passive voice is preferable if the performer cannot easily be named or if the performer is
irrelevant to the discussion, as in the following examples:

Up to 90% of the energy in light bulbs is wasted in the form of heat.

The first edition of Freud's earliest writings on dreams was published in 1899.

Drosophila melanogaster has been one of the most extensively studied species in genetics

In the first sentence, the author's attempts to name the performer would be awkward; in the second
sentence, the author assumes the reader will not be interested in the name of the publisher; and in
the third sentence, the performer (researchers) is obvious.

When naming the performer would prove difficult or unnecessary, the passive voice works well.

2. The performer is less important than the action

When discussing an experimental procedure in the Methods section, a researcher might write:

The honey bees were kept in a humidified chamber at room temperature overnight.

The solution was heated to 90°C for approximately 30 minutes and then allowed to cool.

the passive voice redirects attention to the action (or the recipient). although the reader may be justified in assuming that the authors are also the performers. the subject (person. Whether in the Methods or elsewhere in a manuscript. the sentence is better written in the passive voice: Carbohydrates are produced by green plants in the presence of light and chlorophyll. The active voice has changed the focus. For instance. The active voice is not automatically more concise than the passive. The recipient is the main topic Choosing a passive writing style is sometimes necessary to position important information at the beginning or end of a sentence.2 The following active-voice sentence begins a new section in which the topic is "green plants" (the performer): Green plants produce carbohydrates in the presence of light and chlorophyll. the second sentence is one word longer than it is in the original version. or idea) that the author wishes to discuss in a sentence should occur near the beginning in the topic position where the reader expects to find it ("first things first"). On the other hand. most sentences will begin with we.The sentences could be converted to active voice by writing the following: We kept the honey bees in a humidified chamber at room temperature overnight. on the other hand. (In fact. If. . The topic of a sentence is not an isolated island.1 In that case. an emphasis the author may not desire in the Methods section. "carbohydrates" (the receiver of the action) is the opening topic. 3. We heated the solution to 90°C for approximately 30 minutes and then allowed it to cool. passive style sentences vary the structure and rhythm while keeping the emphasis on the work. which is distracting when overdone. if an author does emphasize the active voice over the passive in the Methods (or any section). from the research to the researchers. where the general topic is the research materials and procedures. thing. however—it has context in relation to the surrounding sentences and paragraphs. however.) Does the active voice add clarity? Perhaps. Does the active voice shorten the sentences? No.

N. producing a passage that flows naturally and is comprehensible and enjoyable for the reader. The recipient is the main topic. The performer is less important than the action. Choose the passive voice if you have a good reason to do so. but it must prepare the reader "for upcoming material by connecting it backward to the previous discussion.. or obvious.. the original passive style creates parallel structure by repeating the topic of the second sentence ("This structure has. The topic in the third sentence connects backward and prepares the reader for the upcoming information. This structure has novel features which are of considerable biological interest. This revision shortens the sentence and identifies the performers. irrelevant. The performer is unknown. Choose the active voice whenever possible. but the passive in the third. too. Summary Just as varying the sentence length in your scientific manuscript creates more variety and interest for your readers. 2."2 For example. so. If the third sentence is changed to active voice. . 3. A structure for nucleic acid has already been proposed by Pauling and Corey. These three sentences are more cohesive as a result. does using both active and passive voice.A.The topic must not only identify the subject for the reader.") in the third sentence ("A structure for.. By focusing on the topic. it becomes: Pauling and Corey have already proposed a structure for nucleic acid.3 Notice that the authors used the active voice in the first and second sentences.). look at the first three sentences of a classic article written by Watson and Crick in 1953: We wish to suggest a structure for the salt of deoxyribose nucleic acid (D."). However.. Consider passive voice when: 1. the authors have incorporated the passive voice to advantage.