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The passive

Avoiding unnecessary use of the passive

Using passive structures means that the common order of a sentence is reversed; the subject and the object of the original (active) sentence change places, or the subject disappears.

Example: For this survey, fifty subjects were recruited using email advertisements requesting full-time students from different language groups.

This is a passive sentence.

Example: For this survey, the authors recruited fifty subjects using email advertisements requesting full-time students from different language groups.

This is an active sentence (impersonal).

Example: For this survey, we recruited fifty subjects using email advertisements requesting full-time students from different language groups.

This is an active sentence (personal).

Note: Personal Forms

In much academic writing, the passive voice is preferred to the active as it depersonalises the writing. It removes 'I', 'we', 'you' and focuses the reader on the information rather than on the subject carrying out the action: emphasis is placed on the process. However, in some journals it is now acceptable to use personalised language such as ‘we’ or ‘our’. Important note: In your thesis your supervisors may tell you not to use ‘I’ or ‘my’. However, in some disciplines the use of ‘I’ appears to be acceptable in articles and the introductory sections of dissertations.

Examples

Example: In this article, we study patterns of intergenerational mobility in modern China. We use data from the Social Structure in Modern China Survey, which was conducted in 1988 among urban and rural populations of two municipalities and four provinces in mainland China.

Yuan Cheng and Jianzhong Dai, Intergenerational Mobility in Modern China, European Sociological Review (1995), 11, 17-35.

Example: In this paper, we attempt to model the effects of real wage resistance, comparative wage justice and profit-sharing principles, using unit record data from household surveys in Australia from 1989 to 2000.

Fry, T. R. L. and Webster, E., Conflict inflation: estimating the contributions to wage inflation in Australia during the 1990s, Cambridge Journal of Economics (2006), 30 (2), 227-234.

Example: I should make it clear, however, that this is neither an evaluation, nor an overview of a development project. It is not a commentary on appropriate approaches or strategies, solutions to problems, success or failure. I am not concerned here with ‘best practice’ or lessons for replication. Rather, my concern is with the relationship between policy models of all kinds and the practices they are supposed to generate.

Mosse, D., Is Good Policy Unimplementable? Reflections on the Ethnography of Aid Policy and Practice, Development and Change, (September 2004), 35 (4), 639-671.

Overlong and imprecise statements

The main problem with the passive is that it can lead to overlong and imprecise statements. If many sentences in a text are overlong and imprecise then the whole text becomes difficult to read. You should also be aware that changing from one structure to another changes the focus of the sentence.

Example: Leonardo da Vinci’s posthumous reputation is discussed by Turner (1993).

(passive, 9 words– Leonard’s posthumous reputation).

Example: Turner (1993) discusses Leonardo da Vinci’s posthumous reputation.

(active, 7 words – emphasis on Turner).

Also, changing from one structure to another can change the meaning.

Example: I do not accept X’s view that…

(A clear, active statement.)

Example: One cannot accept X’s view that…

(An active sentence, but this suggests that both the writer (and others) cannot accept the view)

Example: X’s view cannot be accepted…

(by whom?)

You should use an active form rather than a passive form if you can do so without changing the meaning or emphasis of what you want to say. However, this does not imply that you have to use 'I', 'we', or 'you'. 

Example: The Nigerian export/import data for 1996 are shown in Table 1.

Passive

Example: Table 1 shows the Nigerian export/import data for 1996.

Active

Example: None of the relevant literature is addressed in this study and most of the important topics are ignored. 

Passive.

Example: This study addresses none of the relevant literature and ignores most of the important topics.

Active.

Example: It has been argued by Descartes and Gilbert Ryle that the existence of minds other than our own is dubious. 

Passive.

Example: Descartes and Gilbert Ryle have argued that the existence of minds other than our own is dubious.

Active.