The Passive Voice Was Being Used

This round of blogs is a series aimed at students who engage in academic writing. In all, the series will constitute a kind of primer on academic writing for students. Each post will tackle a problem I’ve seen in papers from my classmates, my students, and myself.

This week I am discussing passive voice. (If you caught that and the one in the title, you probably don’t need to read this post. Bonus points to anyone who finds irony in other parts of this post!)

The active voice is the normal form of a verb, where the subject performs the action of the verb. This is most easily seen in the proper English word order of Subject ̶ Verb ̶ Object. For example, “Sam hits the ball.” So, “Sam” is the Subject, “hits” is the Verb, and “ball” is the Object. The verb “hits” uses the active voice in order to communicate that it is Sam who performs this action on the ball.

If we took that same sentence and put the verb into the passive voice, it would read, “The ball is hit by Sam.” This is the best use of the passive voice; however, that does not mean it is the right choice for academic writing.

Many students weaken and mar their papers with a poor use of the passive voice. I have seen papers use it from start to finish, thereby spoiling what might have been an interesting, strong voice on their subjects. The passive voice often obscures the meaning of the subject, object, or both.

Many times, when you add “to be” to a verb that does not require it (most especially if you change the main verb into a gerund, which adds “-ing” to the end, also called a participle), you cast the sentence in the passive voice.

In academic writing, this use of the passive should be avoided or edited, and the active voice should always be preferred. Sentences such as the following dilute your message.

“Paul is commanding the Galatians to…”

“The Philippians were told…”

“Joshua is portrayed as a new Moses.”

“Hosea had been saying…”

Instead, these sentences become stronger when cast in the active voice. Consider the following revisions of the four examples.

“Paul commands the Galatians to…”

“The letter to the Philippians says…”

“The author of the Book of Joshua portrays this Joshua as a new Moses.”

“Hosea preached about this previously when…”

These sentences are much stronger and would serve well in an academic or professional paper.


Next week is a Tips from a Tutor Two-fer! See you then.


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