Knowing How, When, and Where to Use Active and Passive Voice in Science Writing
Proper use of active and passive voice in science writing
Active vs Passive Voice
Writing is an essential part of scientific and technical communication, and it plays a crucial role in conveying complex information to a wide range of audiences. The choice of voice in technical writing, whether active or passive, can significantly impact the clarity and effectiveness of the message being conveyed.
Continue reading to discover:
- How to identify active and passive voice in your writing
- How to change passive to active voice
- When and where to use passive voice
- See examples of active and passive voice
Writing is an essential part of scientific and technical communication, and it plays a crucial role in conveying complex information to a wide range of audiences. The choice of voice in technical writing, whether active or passive, can significantly impact the clarity and effectiveness of the message being conveyed. The use of the active voice in science writing is generally preferred over the passive voice, as it conveys information in a more direct and engaging manner. In the active voice, the subject of the sentence performs the action, making it clear who is doing what. This clarity is especially important in science writing, where precise and unambiguous communication is crucial. In contrast, the passive voice can make science writing less clear and precise, as it often obscures the subject of the sentence and makes the message less engaging. In this way, the choice of voice in science writing can have a significant impact on the success of the communication, making it important for science writers to understand the value of using an active voice versus a passive voice.
Identifying Passive Voice
In scientific writing, passive sentences are often identified by the absence of an active subject performing the action in the sentence. Instead, the focus is on the object that is being acted upon, and the action itself. Some common indicators of passive voice in science writing include the use of the past participle form of a verb (e.g., "was measured," "was analyzed"), the inclusion of the word "by" followed by the doer of the action (e.g., "was measured by the researchers"), or the lack of a clear subject or doer of the action altogether. To identify a passive sentence in science writing, it is important to look for these indicators and consider whether the sentence could be rephrased to emphasize the subject and the action being performed.
Steps for changing a Passive Sentence to an Active Sentence
- Identify the subject and the object of the sentence. In scientific writing, the subject is often the organism or the process being studied, and the object is the action being performed on it.
Example: "The effect of temperature on enzyme activity was measured."
- Determine who or what is performing the action on the object.
Example: "Temperature" is performing the action on "enzyme activity."
- Restructure the sentence so that the subject becomes the doer of the action, and the object becomes the recipient of the action.
Example: "We measured the effect of temperature on enzyme activity."
- Make sure to use active verbs that accurately describe the action being performed.
Example: "Measured" is an active verb that accurately describes the action being performed by the researcher.
- Revise the sentence as necessary to ensure that it is clear and concise.
Example: "We measured the effect of temperature on enzyme activity" is a clear and concise sentence that uses active voice to convey the researcher's actions and findings.
By following these steps, scientific writers can effectively communicate their research findings in a clear and engaging manner, enhancing the impact and effectiveness of their writing.
When is Passive Voice Preferred to Active Voice?
In scientific writing, the use of passive voice is generally less preferred than active voice as it can make the writing less clear and precise. In some cases, however, the use of passive voice is preferred, such as in certain sections of a scientific paper.
One such instance is when the emphasis of the sentence is on the object or the recipient of the action, rather than the subject. For example, in a research paper, a sentence like "The sample was analyzed using X-ray diffraction" may be preferred over "We analyzed the sample using X-ray diffraction" if the focus is on the sample itself rather than the researcher who performed the analysis.
Another instance where the passive voice may be preferred in scientific writing is when the subject of the sentence is unknown or irrelevant. For example, in a sentence like "The results were obtained from a study of 100 patients," the focus is on the results rather than who obtained them, so the passive voice is appropriate.
In the Materials and Methods section, the emphasis is on describing the procedures and techniques used in the research. In this section, the passive voice can be used to focus on the experimental setup and methodology rather than the researcher performing the experiments. For example, "The solution was heated to 50°C for 30 minutes" is a clear and concise way to describe the experimental procedure in this section.
In the Results section, the focus is on presenting the findings of the research. In this section, the passive voice can be used to emphasize the data and observations rather than the researcher who obtained them. For example, "The temperature was observed to increase steadily over time" is a clear and objective way to describe the results of an experiment.
Overall, the use of passive voice in scientific writing should be limited and used only in situations where it enhances clarity and precision. In most cases, the active voice is the preferred choice as it creates clear and engaging communication, making the scientific findings more accessible to a wide range of audiences.
Examples of Active vs Passive Voice
Active voice: "The researcher conducted the experiment."
Passive voice: "The experiment was conducted by the researcher."
Active voice: "The virus infected the cells."
Passive voice: "The cells were infected by the virus."
Active voice: "The plant absorbed water through its roots."
Passive voice: "Water was absorbed by the plant through its roots."
Active voice: "Hydroxyurea reduces the frequency of painful episodes."
Passive voice: "The frequency of painful episodes is reduced by taking hydroxyurea."
Active voice: "The bacteria produce the enzyme."
Passive voice: "The enzyme is produced by the bacteria."
10 Tips for Writing in an Active Voice rather than a Passive Voice
- Look for sentences that use a form of the verb "to be" (such as "is," "was," "were," "are") and try to rewrite them using an active verb instead.
- Start your sentences with the subject that's performing the action. For example, "A physician administered the infusions" instead of "The infusions were administered by a physician."
- Use strong, active verbs that convey the action taking place, such as "designed," "created," "constructed," or "produced," rather than passive verbs like "was made" or "was done".
- Use active language to attribute statements or findings to a specific source or person, as this will make your scientific writing more credible and authoritative.
- Use the active voice to emphasize the main point or idea of your sentence, as it can make your writing more direct and engaging as well as more credible and authoritative.
- Focus on the person or thing doing the action rather than the action itself. For example, "The scientist discovered a new species" instead of "A new species was discovered by the scientist."
- Be aware of the difference between transitive and intransitive verbs. Transitive verbs have an object that receives the action, so they work well in active voice. For example, "The dog caught the ball" is active, while "The ball was caught by the dog" is passive.
- Use personal pronouns, such as "I," "you," or "we," to make your writing more immediate and engaging. For example, "I completed the project" is more active than "The project was completed by me."
- Use the active voice to create a sense of urgency or action in your writing, which can help to keep your readers engaged and interested.
- Read your writing aloud to see if it sounds passive. If it does, try to rewrite the sentence in an active voice.
In conclusion, the choice between using active and passive voice in scientific writing is an important consideration that can significantly impact the clarity and effectiveness of the communication. While the active voice is generally preferred in scientific writing, there are some instances where the passive voice may be more appropriate, such as when the focus is on the object of the sentence or when the subject is unknown or irrelevant. However, in most cases, the active voice provides clear and engaging communication and should be the default choice in scientific writing. By using an active voice, scientific writers can ensure that their messages are direct, engaging, and precise, and effectively communicate their research findings to a wide range of audiences.