The active voice brings readability

Will felt that the reader was in serious trouble most of the time, floundering in a swamp, and that it was the duty of anyone attempting to write English to drain this swamp quickly and get the reader up on dry ground or at least to throw a rope.
E.B. White

William Strunk’s metaphor of the floundering reader could inspire sympathetic writers to lend a hand to their readers by writing more clearly and concisely. And if they were so inclined, what firmer ground for a floundering reader than the most basic sentence structure: a subject and active verb — I breathe, I write, and so on. Just two words — a subject and a verb — can form a complete English sentence, albeit a simple one.

The agent of action preceding the verb is clear and direct

When the actor, or agent of action, precedes an active verb, the sentence is emminently readable, because the agent of action and the action itself are in close proximity. The agent of action, coming before the action, is natural, logical, and understood intuitively. Therefore, active verbs communicate meaning directly, and direct communication is invaluable for communicating complex ideas. Never should language hinder comprehension.

Obscuring the agent of action

But when the passive voice is used — or, to use the active form, when a writer uses the passive voice — the would-be agent of the action is obscured, arriving trailing the action it brings about. The object of the action jumps to first place as the grammatical subject of the sentence, although it remains the passive recipient of the action, acted upon by the trailing agent of action— hence the term passive voice. For example, in lieu of “The Emperor installed a puppet government”; in the passive construction, one would say, “A puppet government was installed by the Emperor.” Sentences constructed with the passive voice, with the agent of action trailing behind the action, buried in a prepositional phrase, take longer to process. If writers use the passive voice sentence construction excessively, they use more words, which are sometimes at a premium; make the text more difficult to read; and produce a text that can sound stilted and lifeless. Because native English speakers may have been taught not to use the passive voice, they can find a text that relies on passive voice construction difficult to understand.

A more serious unintended consequence of over-use of the passive voice may arise in the discussion or results section, where not providing a pronoun (we or I, or a name, obscures the human subject of the action (the doer) or the person whose opinions the paper presents. This lack of clarity can be both confusing and misleading. For these sections of the paper, giving credit where credit is due is of utmost importance in the interest of utter transparency and academic honesty.

The passive voice is sometimes necessary

Restricting all use of the passive voice is certainly not necessary. As the linguist Geoffrey K. Pullum points out, in his essay “50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice,” because of Strunk and White’s message in Elements of Style, some writing teachers and editors over-react to the passive voice, with Microsoft Word’s grammar checker underlining “every passive in wavy green to signal that you should try to get rid of it.” However, as Pullum points out, Strunk and White do offer moderating advice: “The authors explicitly say they do not mean ‘that the writer should entirely discard the passive voice,’ which is ‘frequently convenient and sometimes necessary.’ They also provide examples to show that the “choice between active and passive may depend on the topic under discussion.”

The University of Wisconsin at Madison’s Writing Center in “The Writer’s Handbook” provides a concise list of when the passive voice is actually preferable.

In academic papers, some sections of the paper benefit from deemphasizing the agent of action, for example, when describing the methodology or an experiment where highlighting who did what is both unnecessary and could awkwardly interfere with the procedural steps, or to vary sentence type for stylistic reasons. In most cases, however, for the readability, it is far clearer to use the more direct construction of the active voice. Therefore, making the active voice your “default setting” is a good idea.

Journal editors prefer the active voice because readers do

Many writers and editors reject the passive voice as inferior: Style guides recommend using the active verb form in keeping with the widely accepted principle that it is more understandable; editors flag the passive voice; and academic journal editors instruct authors in their submission instructions to use the active voice in the manuscripts they submit; and sophisticated writers with a sense of style, wanting their readers to comprehend their ideas rapidly, avoid the passive voice.

Among the many journals that advise using the active voice in their author guidelines, is the journal Nature, which says, “Nature journals prefer authors to write in the active voice (“we performed the experiment . . .”) as experience has shown that readers find concepts and results to be conveyed more clearly if written directly.”

To recognize the passive voice, you can consult many online grammar resources, such as  “Active Voice Versus Passive Voice,” “The Passive Voice,” or “Passive Voice (Why It is Evil and How to Recognize It.).” On the stylistic advantages of the active over the passive voice, consult the many books on writing style that cover this writing issue, such as Helen Sword’s Stylish Academic Writing or Joseph Williams and Gregory Colomb’s Style, The Basics of Clarity and Grace. You can also consult Purdue University’s The OWL, a helpful online academic writing resource. See also Allen Downey’s essay, “The Passive Voice is a Hoax.”

In short, the general rule for all writers — including academic authors — is that writing sentences with active verbs will improve your writing, with the result that readers can grasp your ideas rapidly instead of floundering in a swamp of verbiage. In these busy times, readers value being able to read and comprehend quickly.

© Susan Hatch Morgan and Oxford Editing, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Susan Hatch Morgan and Oxford Editing with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.