Write Like an Academic

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Stay Active! Cut out the passive voice


If you’re like me, you get really fed up with the green squiggle underlines in MS Word when your sentence seems to be grammatically correct. When this happens, 9 times out of 10 the grammar problem Word is identifying is your use of the passive voice.

The passive voice is not just discouraged by your word processor — it is discouraged in academic writing too! Academics almost always write in the active voice, because it eliminates ambiguity and makes sentences easier to understand. You also sound much more sure of yourself when you write in the active voice!

To use the active voice, check your sentences to make sure that the person or thing doing the action comes first, and the person or thing affected by the action comes second.

Here is a simple example:

Active voice: President Obama loves debates. (Correct!)

Passive voice: Debates are loved by President Obama. (Incorrect!)

In the passive sentence, the debate is the focus of our attention, but it isn’t actively doing anything. There is no reason to make the debates the focus of this sentence. President Obama should come first, because he’s responsible for the action in this sentence.

Let’s try a more complex example:

Passive voice: The letter to the editor was written by a concerned citizen. (Incorrect!)

Active voice: A concerned citizen wrote the letter to the editor. (Correct!)

The concerned citizen is responsible for the action, so the sentence should be written with the concerned citizen appearing first.

Quick ways to identify and fix the passive voice in your writing

Check for words like be, is, was, were, and by in your writing - these are signals that you might be using the passive voice. 

For example, “The pictures were painted by the children.”

When you find a sentence like this, identify the person or thing that is doing the action (the children) and move it to the beginning of the sentence.

"The children painted the pictures."

Do you have a sentence you’re unsure about? Still having trouble with this concept? Feel free to ask me about it anytime by commenting on this blog post or asking me on Twitter or Facebook!

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