Active vs. Passive Voice
Professor Brian Zikmund-Fisher discusses the communication differences between using passive and active voice as part of the Foundational Skills for Communicating About Health MOOC.
So now, we're going to talk about ways to make your writing or you're speaking clearer, sentence by sentence. Now, one key idea is voice. Specifically using the active voice, instead of passive voice when you're writing. So, what do I mean by that? So, active voice sentences are sentences that have the subject of the sentence i.e. the actor and the sentence be the same thing. So for example, the county health department measured blood levels. Who's measuring blood levels? The county health department is. You can convey the same information in a less clear way if you happen to use passive voice, and passive voice sentences reverse that, it flips it around, so that the subject of the sentence, the first part of the sentence that we see or hear is in fact not the actor but the object of the action. So in this case with might be, blood levels were measured by the county health department. Now, notice that the passive voice is flipped around from the natural order. You have the object coming first and you have to wait to figure out who the subject is, who's doing the action. That makes it much more difficult to read and to process especially if you're hearing it. Because you have to do this mental work to figure out who is the person, or the organization, or the government agency who is doing the action. Now, in the past, some academics have felt that use of passive voice was appropriate in scholarly writing, because it made it seem scholarly and it took the emphasis off of the scientist and put it more on the action or on the finding of the science. Personally I think that's completely wrong. This tendency to use the passive voice in academic writing and speaking is part of the reason why academic writing is rarely read by non-academics. It prevents other audiences from being able to understand and use the science that we do, the health information that we have that is of relevance to our target audiences. The truth is, science can be written almost entirely in active voice, by being clear about who measured, who answered, who analyzed, who tested, et cetera. When you're clear about those things, it makes for clearer science and clearer science communication. So here's a couple more examples. All right, so a passive voice framing of data analysis might be, the data were analyzed using linear regression models. But who is doing that analysis? It's not clear, right. Whereas you can be pretty clear if you just flip this around into the natural structure of an active voice sentence. We, we meaning the study team, we meaning the authors of this paper or this report. We analyzed the data using linear regression models. Here's another example, participants were recruited using, wait, who's doing the recruitment there? It's not clear because this actor, the person or organization doing the recruitment is not actually in the start of the sentence. Whereas if we reorganize this we could say, clinic staff recruited participants by et cetera. And it's now very clear who's doing the recruitment, the clinic staff is doing the recruitment. Our goal as communicators is never to impress people by using fancy language. Our goal is to be understood, to have our information be heard and used, and using direct active voice is one of the best steps that we can do to ensure comprehension. Therefore I really encourage you to always write in the active voice. You may find some resistance especially from academics or other scientists who were trained originally to use passive voice by their mentors. But I can say as a journal editor myself, that we always prefer to see clearer writing, than to see the flowery language or the reversed flipped structure of passive voice. Now, it takes practice though to recognize when you're writing in passive voice, and to think about who is the actor and to make those changes. To do this right you have to go through literally sentence by sentence, to check whether the subject of the sentence is the actor. This tends to be a particularly an issue in methods sections, where you're describing the actions that were taken by a study team, or by the organization. So, there's a tendency to sort of, oh we don't want it to be all about us, so we need to write in passive voice. No, I disagree. If you or your organization or your employees are the people doing those actions, you should use active voice and be clear about who is doing each action. It's also sometimes an issue in discussion of scientific reports or articles. People want to sort of back away from owning the positions that they're taking. So, you see language like, it is therefore believed that, wait, who's believing? It's not clear. It's always more appropriate to be clear. We therefore believe, or maybe the data suggests that et cetera. Those kinds of active voice framing, make the information that you're trying to communicate more clear. So, as a general rule, just say it clearly, directly and actively every time.