The Battle Between Active and Passive Voice

One challenge with scholarly writing is to not write like we speak. It’s easy to do, and sometimes, like this blog, it is acceptable. Passive voice it is one of the most frequent issues I come across with article submissions. I, too, have experienced being corrected by my professors about my use of passive voice. Or: I, too, experienced professors correcting my use of passive voice.

A question posted to the Chicago Manual Q&A points to Purdue OWL and Language Log posts. I find this post particularly amusing. UIUC has a nice brief and clear explanation of different tenses. And UNC also has a good description. As Chicago notes, it’s not an all-or-nothing and some use is acceptable. As many point out, it’s not a grammar but a stylistic issue. That said, it makes for much tighter and clearer writing to use it only when necessary.

Once you notice it, it can be fairly easy (albeit time-consuming) to fix passive voice. Look for uses of was, were, has, have, are, is, was being, is being, has been, have been, paired with a verb. We speak using those words and phrases all the time. In conversation, that’s acceptable. In scholarly writing, it should be limited. Often, you can delete “has” or “have” without losing the meaning: “I have worked at Boise State University” to “I worked at Boise State University.” Uses of “was” or “were” can be changed to the past-tense of the verb: “I was thinking about starting a blog” to “I thought about starting a blog.” It can be hard to decide whether or not to use passive voice. My approach is to take each sentence and think whether there is a different and more concise option.

This takes practice. The more you correct it, the less you will do it later. Once you notice it, you will see it everywhere. That said, don’t let it impede your writing practices. If that’s how you write a draft and doing so helps your flow of writing, don’t stop as it can be corrected later. If possible, correct it prior to submitting for publication. Editors will be appreciative.

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