The Active Voice in Writing: An APA Style Blog


[OPENING SENTENCE #1] One challenging grammatical maneuver in contemporary writing is the proper use of the active voice.

Oops.

Because this essay is about the active voice, it might be a better idea to use a more active voice for the opening sentence. What do you think of the following alternative?

[OPENING SENTENCE #2] Proper use of an active voice is a challenging grammatical maneuver in contemporary writing.

Can you see or feel the difference in these two opening sentences?

Although the use of the word maneuver is a questionable choice in both sentences, an active voice is better illustrated in the second opening sentence. That’s because “active voice” is the subject and “challenging grammatical maneuver” is the object or outcome that an active voice acts on.

I think.

Editors, publishers, and even the 6th edition of the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association advise neophyte writers to eschew the passive voice. They also suggest eschewing words like eschew and neophyte, but that’s another topic altogether. For now, we are admonished to use the active voice. The Publication Manual also encourages prospective APA authors to use first-person language to promote clarity. I like that.

But what exactly is the active voice?

The active voice involves a subject acting on an object. For example, “She is depressed,” includes a subject “She,” a verb, “is,” and an object or outcome “depressed.” An active voice involves arranging the sentence in a way so that the subject acts on the object. Another example, “Depression crept into him” illustrates how, in some cases, it’s possible to anthropomorphize or animate an entity so that it becomes the actor and what you might usually consider the subject becomes the object that is acted upon. This is a good example of flexibility and creativity in writing, but a less good example of an active voice.

Here’s another (and clearer) example that you might find in a research paper:

“The researchers reported insignificant results.”

In this case, “The researchers” are the subject and they’re taking the action of reporting insignificant results.

Many writers find it difficult to use or maintain an active voice. The passive voice may feel easier or more natural and therefore be used when the active voice would be more clear and succinct. Here’s the passive voice version of the preceding example:

“Insignificant results were reported by the researchers.”

Note that although the passive voice is factually correct, it’s less parsimonious and less direct and therefore less desirable.

Grammar Girl is a good source for more active and passive writing examples [you can listen to her grammatically correct and calming voice at: http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/active-voice-versus-passive-voice?page=all#sthash.Ys1GOZN9.dpuf]. Here’s what she has to say:

A straightforward example is the sentence “Steve loves Amy.” Steve is the subject, and he is doing the action: he loves Amy, the object of the sentence.”

Another example is the title of the Marvin Gaye song “I Heard It through the Grapevine.” “I” is the subject, the one who is doing the action. “I” is hearing “it,” the object of the sentence.

In passive voice, the target of the action gets promoted to the subject position. Instead of saying, “Steve loves Amy,” I would say, “Amy is loved by Steve.” The subject of the sentence becomes Amy, but she isn’t doing anything. Rather, she is just the recipient of Steve’s love. The focus of the sentence has changed from Steve to Amy.

If you wanted to make the title of the Marvin Gaye song passive, you would say “It was heard by me through the grapevine,” not such a catchy title anymore.

Grammar Girl also noted on her podcast that sometimes writers (or speakers) intentionally use a passive voice, or at least a neutral voice. This resulted in the following examples in our University of Montana class today.

This wall is painted (neutral voice).

The painters painted this wall (active voice).

This wall was painted by painters (passive voice).

As you can see from these examples, identifying an actor (or subject) in a sentence may or may not be important or relevant. Grammar Girl also used the example of President Ronald Reagan’s famous “Mistakes were made” line. She noted that, for obvious reasons, sometimes politicians (or others) want to be vague about assigning linguistic responsibility to a specific actor. The more active voice alternative might have been: “I made mistakes.”

Finding your active voice and avoiding a passive voice requires awareness, practice, persistence, and motivation. To help with this process, I have a few tips you might want to try out.

  1. Watch out for the word “by.”

Both of the passive voice sentences in Grammar Girl’s examples included the word “by.” This is often the case. You might remind yourself of this tip by using the following self-statement [Can you reword this sentence to make it more active?]: “I’m going to say bye to by.” Or—even better—you might use the preceding self-statement to remind yourself of this tip (notice I managed to give you this tip again while getting rid of my new nemesis: the word “by.”

2.  Be aware of your use of the word “of.”

Typically, it’s a good idea to try not to use “of” more than once in a sentence. This can be hard and many good writers ignore this tip. In fact, really good writers will violate most basic writing rules. For example, the APA Publication Manual authors even ignored it. Consider the two following statements and think about which one you prefer.

From section 2.04 of the Publication Manual:

“An abstract is a brief, comprehensive summary of the contents of the article.”

An alternative:

“An abstract is a brief, comprehensive summary of the article’s contents.”

Many readers (and writers) may prefer the original APA Manual sentence. However, in my professional writing I often find myself annoyed with how many times I use the word “of” in an initial draft. And so my point is to watch out for sentences that include “of” too often. Even if it’s not technically the passive voice, using “of” too often may begin feeling passive.

3.  Don’t let your tendency to write in a passive voice stop you from writing.

No writers ever write a perfect first draft. My best advice on this is for you to start looking forward to the opportunity of transforming your passive voice into a more active voice when you edit your work.

Perhaps what’s most interesting about writing and speaking about grammar is that it—writing and speaking about grammar—can cause the writer and speaker substantial self-consciousness. And, if you’ve followed psychological research in this area, you know that self-consciousness can cause or increase anxiety. That’s why I need to confess that substantial anxiety (not to mention self-doubt) accompanied the writing of this essay. Or should I say: The writing of this essay was accompanied by substantial anxiety (no, I should not because this second example is that dratted passive voice again). That’s also why I want to end with strong encouragement for throwing off your anxieties and writing right through whatever personal writing quirks you may be facing. Write now! You can fix the quirks later.

Learning Activity

  1. Which of the following sentences from your homework reading is the best example of an active voice?

a.  “Each paragraph should be able to be read and understood in isolation from the rest of the manuscript.” (Knight & Ingersoll, 1996, p. 209)
b.  “A multitude of small details must be taken into account to produce a publishable work, and editors truly appreciate writers who are cognizant of addressing these details.” (Brewer et al., 2004, p. 21)

c.  “Ethical principles must guide every aspect of professional writing.” (Brewer et al., p. 21)

2.  Write a sentence with an active voice.

3.  Write a sentence with a passive voice.

4.  Other than spacing and citations, name one way in which the preceding blog post violates APA style.

5. (Discussion question for class) Why do you think that it’s sometimes acceptable to include a passive voice instead of an active voice?

More information on using an active voice is available generally online and specifically at Purdue’s OWL website: http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/539/02/

Finally . . . this is NOT an official APA style blog. If you want to check out the real thing, go to: http://blog.apastyle.org/

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