The ‘Voice’ of your literary work can determine its readability. In the past, most researchers used the passive voice in their scientific writings, as if it were a norm. However, the use of active v/s passive voice in scientific writing is more a matter of choice for the researcher. Over the years, the use of active voice has become more popular, since it eliminates verbosity and enhances clarity.
Let’s probe into understanding these concepts:
The relationship between the ‘subject’, the ‘verb’ and the ‘object’ – (S-V-O) of a sentence determines its ‘Voice’. Based on this relationship, ‘Voice’ can be divided into two types: Active and Passive Voice.
- Active Voice: when the ‘subject’ performs the action conveyed by the ‘verb’ on the ‘object’, the sentence is in active voice. For example: ‘Sally loves chocolates.’ (Where, ‘Sally’ is the subject, ‘loves’ is the verb and ‘chocolates’ is the object).
- Passive Voice: when the ‘subject’ undergoes the action of the ‘verb’ directed at the ‘object’, the sentence is in passive voice. For example: ‘Chocolates are loved by Sally.’
As you can see, in the first example (‘Sally loves chocolates’), the writing style is crisp; it uses fewer words (3 vs 5), and reads much better.
Here is an example from the scientific writing point of view:
Passive Voice: ‘The experiment was conducted by the researchers.’
Where, ‘researchers’ are the subject, ‘conducted’ the verb and ‘experiment’ the object. Now let’s convert it into active voice:
Active Voice: ‘The researchers conducted the experiment.’
Here the second sentence, written in the active voice, is crisp, short and much easier to read.
- Active voice is more precise, clear and crisp compared to passive voice.
- Passive voice can sometimes look ambiguous and hide the meaning of your arguments.
However, at times using passive voice is more appropriate. For instance, in passive voice, you can leave the agent or subject performing the action unnamed. Hence, you can use this form of voice when the subject performing the action is unknown or is not to be primarily emphasized. For example: Einstein’s work was published between 1901-1955. (Here the emphasis is on Einstein rather than the publication agencies).
Thus, although active voice is crisp, choose passive voice if the message is better emphasized by doing so.
How to identify and convert passive voice into active voice?
- Identifying passive voice: such sentences usually consist of verbs like was, were, is, are, has, had, have, to be, may be and will be. In addition it has the past participle of an action verb e.g. words ending in –ed or –en, like were studied, will be considered, are being conducted, etc.
- Converting a sentence from passive voice to active voice: to convert a sentence from passive to active voice, the easiest method is to follow the S-V-O order. Thus, first identify the main subject in the sentence; second, identify the verb, third, identify the object, and finally connect the subject, verb and object in such a way that it makes your subject perform the action (verb).
Look at the following examples:
Passive Voice: The samples were tested by Andy.’
Identify the main subject who performs the action, i.e. ‘Andy’, the main verb here is ‘tested’, and the object ‘samples’. Hence convert the sentence to active voice:
Active Voice: ‘Andy tested the samples.’
Here is another example,
Passive Voice: ‘The authors of the present study observed that…’
Active Voice: ‘We observed…’
Ultimately, researchers have their own preference when it comes to choosing the voice. You may choose to change the voice in a given document at appropriate places depending on the nature of the topic being addressed. The key to a successful article is to be able to convey your message to the reader in a clear and concise manner. Long and complicated writings will only suspend your reader’s interest. Hence, choose the ‘voice’ wisely to suit your article’s requirements.