Does Passive Voice Lack Precision?

One of my biggest pet peeves while editing is dealing with authors’ rampant (and in my opinion, almost offensive) use of passive voice. I find it quite unreadable. Unfortunately, in academia (and indeed, a lot of formal text), passive constructions are often the default. In highly active work like research and reporting, I am baffled that authors choose to distance themselves from their work by employing passive words.

In some circumstances, conveying a certain objectivity in a way that only passive voice accomplishes is necessary and makes sense. It places the focus on the person or object experiencing the action rather than on the performer of said action. For instance, I wouldn’t feel compelled to change this sentence:

The N400 effect has also been seen in response to semantically incongruent objects that appear at the end of everyday action sequences (Balconi & Vitaloni, 2014; Reid & Striano, 2007).


Balconi and Vitaloni (2014) and Reid and Striano (2007) have observed the N400 effect in response to semantically incongruent objects that appear at the end of everyday action sequences.

In this example from academic writing on EEGs, clearly, the N400 component should be the focus, and not the names of researchers and the years their relevant papers were published. Obviously, in this case, passive voice is preferable. Similarly, information that isn’t relevant to the reader can easily be left out using passive constructions. For instance, in the sentence:

Semantic incongruity has been studied most frequently in language, using ERPs (see Kutas, 1978).

it is more imperative to focus on the concepts of semantic incongruity, languages, and ERPs, rather than the fact that researchers have studied these subjects, or what their names are, as in:

Researchers such as Kutas (1978) have studied semantic incongruity most frequently in language, using ERPs.

When the ideas drive the narrative, as above, passive voice is wholly acceptable. But objectivity is used, arguably, to an absolute fault in academia. In an attempt to maintain the neutral, third person that is all-too-common, why say:

The participants were interviewed by the primary investigator.

when you could just as easily—and more clearly—write

I interviewed the participants.

Without getting pedantic (okay, I lied; I will get pedantic here), you save four whole words in the active version—in this case, half the words of the passive one—and the resulting sentence is far more direct. The reader doesn’t have to wonder if the primary investigator and the author are two different people, because they usually are not. Also, the writing becomes stronger when the author opts for a single verb (interviewed) rather than negating its effect with a weak verb (were interviewed).

In the example above, passive voice helps convey a sense of objectivity, which may not be entirely warranted in all kinds of academic publications. While writing papers in the physical sciences, it might not be the worst thing for experimenters to remove themselves from the equation. By doing so, they put the ideas ahead of themselves and the notion of subjectivity doesn’t often come up. However, in the social sciences and humanities, most studies concern something fundamentally human. As such, there is usually a level of subjectivity in these fields—both on the part of the researcher and the researched—and using passive voice separates the authors from their words in an undesirable way. Rather than claiming an omniscient, god-like status with the seemingly unquestionable passive voice, writers should use active voice to reduce their distance from their work. Such a direct claim to the work might even have the effect of increasing credibility. So, I would consider the use of active voice in publications (humanities and social sciences, in particular) as rather fitting and almost a way of inviting the reader in.

As you may have noticed so far, passive constructions, in most cases, increase the word count. What’s more, wasting words on passive ‘waffling’ is needless, especially when there are strict word limits. While writing an abstract, for instance, it is crucial to fit in as much information as possible. In this endeavor, writing passively won’t get you very far. For instance,

The present study investigated how movement is learned by dancers.

can just as effectively be

The present study investigated how dancers learn movement.

Although subtle, the two-word difference could make or break an abstract. As the written version of an elevator pitch, an abstract’s precision is crucial. And when it comes to an actual elevator pitch, there’s a good chance that your speech will be almost entirely active, because you will most likely speak in the first person. Even though writing in the same style as how you speak isn’t necessarily a good rule of thumb, this might by the singular case in which the active precision of speech trumps the clumsy passivity of the formal, written word.

More than anything, active voice is a way for authors to really take ownership of their work. It seems that ‘the passive has become synonymous with what Language Log calls “vagueness about agency”’, and this is precisely the issue. Unless the writing unequivocally necessitates passive voice (as demonstrated in a few places above), there is rarely an instance in which passive sounds better than its active counterpart. It’s safe to say that we’re long past celebrating excessive jargon and long-windedness in academic text. Instead, we should focus on how the text reads. Does it get the point across with the added bonus of an economical use of words? Or does it just circle the point endlessly? With our ever-dwindling attention spans and in the current push to make academia more accessible to a wider audience (see: all the recent debates on open access), it is only logical that our writing follows a similar trend, becoming simpler, clearer, and more direct.