Tamsin Constable

Green hair: when the passive voice is OK.

There is one field when it’s OK sometimes to use the passive voice: academic writing. Students are often taught to write entirely in the passive voice, but that can make their writing long-winded, dense and confused.

But if you understand when, how and why to use the passive voice, along with the active voice, your academic writing will benefit.

For a quick re-cap on the passive, and active, see this post.

So here are three occasions when you might want to use the passive voice in academic writing.

Often, if you’re writing up an paper, it’s appropriate not to draw attention to yourself (the ‘doer’). You want your reader to focus on what you wanted to do, how you did it, what you found out, and what you think it all means (often in the format of aim, method, results, discussion). Use the passive voice to put the most important thing at the front of the sentence.

So it might be more appropriate to write, ‘Tomatoes are classified as a fruit’ rather than ‘Scientists classify tomatoes as a fruit.’ That way, you shine your torch on the tomatoes, not on the scientists.

Second, it is often bleedin’ obvious or not relevant who the ‘doer’ is. It’s you. Or your team. Or the researchers etc. Here, banging on in the active voice (‘He did x, then he did y, then he did z…) can become repetitive and clumsy. It’s fine to use the active voice in this way every so often in your paper, to lighten up all those passive sentences, but not all the time.

Third, the passive voice can help diffuse something you need to say, by allowing you leave out the ‘doer’. You can highlight an issue with pointing the finger. It also helps when there isn’t a clear-cut ‘doer’ anyway.

‘Green-haired people are treated as second-class citizens…’ rather than ‘Society / red-heads/ car-drivers / etc see green-haired people as second-class citizens’. Your reader’s attention is on the green-haired people.

Three reasons, then, when you might decide it’s appropriate to use the passive voice. But use it wisely, and understand why you’re using it. Then your reader will thank you, not curse you.


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