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Active Voice

A sentence in the active voice provides a clear picture of who did what to whom. In contrast, in a sentence written in the passive voice, the subject is usually displaced to the end of a sentence, giving the impression that a verb just performed itself. It is often said that scholarly writing should be in the active voice. However, this sometimes contradicts the other rule that scholarly writing is not supposed to be written from the first-person perspective.

Identifying the subject

If you want to know more about the active voice, you have arrived at the right place. The purpose of this glossary entry is to help you understand more about this crucial way of using the English language in your academic writing. 

We said above that you have arrived at the right place. We could just as well have said: "The right place has been arrived at." But then, we wouldn't know who did it. 

This is the real difference between the active voice and its counterpart, the passive voice. In the active voice, the subject is clearly identified; then you are told what the subject did; and finally, you are given details about how/what he did. The passive sentences are usually structured, making identification unclear.

Learning to use active voice correctly

This is an example of a sentence in which the active voice is used correctly

"The man arrived at the bus stop right on time to catch the last ride back to his apartment."

In this sentence, the active voice lets you know that the subject ("man") did something ("arrive") in relation to an object ("at the bus stop"). 

Now, here is an example of the incorrect use of the active voice.

"The child borned in the Midwestern hospital exactly seven years ago." 

This is an incorrect use of the active voice due to the fact that the verb "born" can only be used passively (i.e. "was born"). 

In case you are still a little confused about the active voice, here are a couple rules you can follow in order to make sure you are using it correctly. 

  1. The active voice is how most scientific and technical writing. If a sentence says someone performed an action on something, then the active voice is always being used. 
  2. On the other hand, the active voice is not being used if the sentence says: something had an action done on it by someone. The real point to focus on, then, is sentence structure.  

Active voice in academic writing

When you are learning academic writing, professors will generally tell you to use the active voice over the passive voice. This is because the active voice is generally both more clear and more forceful than the passive voice. For example, if you were to say, "All alternatives were considered by the students," this would be grammatically correct. But the active voice construction, "The students considered all the alternatives," is both more straightforward and more forceful. It is easier to both get more lost and evade responsibility for one's statements in the passive voice than it is in the active voice. So, if you want to make sure that you get an idea across in as clear and direct a way as possible, then the active voice would be your default go-to when constructing English sentences. 

Interestingly, though, it becomes more difficult to use the active voice in more scientific and technical academic writing. This is because, often, scientists want to avoid the use of first-person pronouns (such as "I" and "we"); and this makes it difficult to use the active voice, because you are forbidden from actually referring to the subject of the sentences you are writing. This problem can be avoided by constructing the subject in the third person. For example, you can say in the active voice that "the present student" or "the present essay" will talk about the relevant points.

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