Unpacking Active and Passive Voice: Helping students to manage their presence as writers

Daniel Emery

Academic voice is a difficult concept to capture, and in most cases, is not a topic of direct instruction. In part, this difficulty stems from competing senses of what voice means: Is it personal expression of the writer, a conventional scholarly tone owned by a discipline, or both? Although experienced readers can tell when a piece of academic writing sounds ‘wrong’ (perhaps too descriptive, too informal, too stilted, or too oblique), we might be hard pressed to identify which features of the writing contribute to the sense.

Students may have acquired conventional beliefs about voice in their earlier writing instruction that they over-apply across academic genres. Students may report that passive voice constructions should be eliminated [1] (and Microsoft Word will agree). They may argue that writing for school should never include first person subjects (and the active voice verbs they imply). In most academic genres, both active and passive voice constructions appear, sometimes in the same sentence.

As faculty members and instructors, we want students to be direct and precise, but we also want to ensure that students are familiar with the expectations of academic genres and conventions. How can we help students to grasp this tricky concept and use both active and passive voice constructions to guide a reader to points of emphasis? This tip offers a handy beginner’s guide to understanding how verb forms influence the emphasis in sentences, and why active and passive voice constructions have important roles in academic writing.

Helping students to recognize active and passive constructions

Consider these examples drawn from the most recent issue of Nature, a prominent interdisciplinary science journal. Each of these sentences appears in the introduction of a research letter or papers.

“Without ‘transformative changes’ to the world’s economic, social and political systems to address this crisis, the IPBES panel projects that major biodiversity losses will continue to 2050 and beyond.”

Active voice constructions occur when the subject is a character who acts. In this sentence, the researchers are active participants who are projecting a significant outcome. Active voice sentences make it clear who has acted and to what effect.

“Since their discovery in 1960, metallic glasses based on a wide range of elements have been developed.”

Passive voice constructions can be observed when something is acted upon.  In this instance, the researchers are identifying the existence of a history of research on metallic glasses, emphasizing the glasses that have been developed, rather than the researchers who developed these products. When the verb is a form of BE + another verb that ends with ED, a passive voice construction is created.

We use a pattern-based detection and attribution method that was initially developed at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.” (18,19,20,21)

This sentence includes both active and passive voices. At the beginning, the researchers position themselves as actors using a method, but near the end of the sentence, the method’s human developers are omitted in favor of a mention of their lab.

Using articles from your own discipline, ask students to identify sentences in active and passive voice. Remind students that not all action verbs have objects, so not all sentences can shift emphasis from active to passive voice construction.

Student Writing Support offers a helpful handout that describes active and passive voice for students in their Quick Help gallery.

Further Support

The annual Teaching with Writing seminar offers a unique, retreat-like opportunity for busy instructors who would like to take a little time in advance of the next academic year to focus on the ways they approach writing in their teaching. We take a case-study approach. Each participant focuses on one course they teach, and because we define writing broadly to include words, numbers, figures, and visuals, our discussions are relevant and pragmatic to courses across the University curriculum. Registration is available now to the first 25 faculty who sign up. The seminar will convene during the afternoons of August 19-23, 2019.

Check out the Teaching with Writing pages on the Center for Writing website for teaching resources, including sample assignments and syllabi. As many of you know, our WAC program also hosts the popular Teaching with Writing event series, which will return in the fall. Each semester, this series offers free workshops and discussions. Visit us online, or to schedule a phone, email, or face-to-face teaching consultation, click here.

Finally, the Center for Writing offers an interdisciplinary program of faculty and staff writing retreats, known as Writing Hunkers. The goal of Writing Hunkers is to create a supportive and productive community of scholarly writers from a wide variety of disciplines and a range of academic ranks at the University of Minnesota. Register for the 2019 Faculty Writing Hunker, which will be held May 20-24, 2019.

[1] In this tip, passive voice constructions are indicated with italics.