Knowing How, When, and Where to Use Active and Passive Voice in Science Writing

Scientific and technical communication relies heavily on effective writing to convey complex information to diverse audiences. The choice between active and passive voice in technical writing can significantly impact message clarity and effectiveness. Discover how to identify, use, and switch between active and passive voice in your writing to enhance your scientific communication.

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Writing Tips: Examples of Passive vs Active Voice

Identifying Passive and Active Voice

Active Voice: In active voice, the subject performs the action, making the message direct and engaging. For example, “The researcher conducted the experiment.”

Passive Voice: Passive voice shifts the focus to the object or recipient of the action, often obscuring the subject. For instance, “The experiment was conducted by the researcher.”

How to change passive voice to active voice in science writing

Switching from a Passive to Active Voice

  1. Identify the subject and object in the sentence. For instance, in “The effect of temperature on enzyme activity was measured,” “temperature” is the subject, and “enzyme activity” is the object.
  2. Determine who or what is performing the action. Here, “temperature” performs the action on “enzyme activity.”
  3. Restructure the sentence to emphasize the subject as the action doer and the object as the action receiver. “We measured the effect of temperature on enzyme activity.”
  4. Utilize active verbs that precisely describe the action. In our example, “measured” accurately conveys the researcher’s action.
  5. Revise the sentence as needed to ensure clarity and conciseness. “We measured the effect of temperature on enzyme activity” delivers a clear and concise message.

When to use a Passive Voice

While active voice generally prevails in scientific writing for clarity and precision, specific situations warrant the use of passive voice:

  1. Emphasizing the object or recipient of an action, e.g., “The sample was analyzed using X-ray diffraction.”
  2. When the subject is unknown or irrelevant, e.g., “The results were obtained from a study of 100 patients.”
  3. In the Materials and Methods section, where the focus is on describing procedures and methodology.
  4. In the Results section, where the emphasis is on presenting findings rather than the researcher.
Examples of Active vs Passive Voice

Examples of Active vs. Passive Voice

Active: “The researcher conducted the experiment.”
Passive: “The experiment was conducted by the researcher.”

Active: “The virus infected the cells.”
Passive: “The cells were infected by the virus.”

Active: “The plant absorbed water through its roots.”
Passive: “Water was absorbed by the plant through its roots.”

Active: “Hydroxyurea reduces the frequency of painful episodes.”
Passive: “The frequency of painful episodes is reduced by taking hydroxyurea.”

Active: “The bacteria produce the enzyme.”
Passive: “The enzyme is produced by the bacteria.”

Helpful Writing Tips for Science

Tips for Writing in an Active Voice

  1. Replace “to be” verbs with active verbs.
  2. Start sentences with the subject performing the action.
  3. Use strong, active verbs like “designed,” “created,” or “produced.”
  4. Attribute statements or findings to specific sources or individuals.
  5. Emphasize the main point of your sentence using the active voice.
  6. Focus on who or what is performing the action.
  7. Differentiate between transitive and intransitive verbs; active voice works well with transitive verbs.
  8. Incorporate personal pronouns (e.g., “I,” “you,” “we”) for immediacy.
  9. Create a sense of urgency or action to engage readers.
  10. Read your writing aloud to spot passive constructions and convert them to active voice.

Conclusion

In scientific writing, the choice between active and passive voice holds significant weight in communication effectiveness. While passive voice has its place, active voice is the default choice for clear and engaging scientific writing. It ensures direct and precise communication, making complex research accessible to diverse audiences. By mastering active voice, scientists can effectively convey their findings and contribute to the broader scientific discourse.

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