Many working professionals return to school to earn a doctorate degree after spending a few years in the workforce. If this describes your situation, you may find that it takes time to adjust to the academic writing style used in a doctoral dissertation. One of the writing style requirements you will need to understand is avoiding passive voice.
Why should you learn to avoid passive voice in your writing? Keep reading to learn the answer and some tips for improving your academic writing style.
What Is Passive Voice?
To learn how to avoid passive voice, it is first necessary to understand exactly what passive voice is. In a sentence with passive voice, the subject is acted upon by the agent of the verb. In contrast, a sentence with an active voice involves the subject doing an action as defined by the verb.
Here are a few examples:
Passive voice: “A good time was had by all.”
Active voice: “Everyone had a good time.”
Passive voice: “Cotton-based road paving material was invented in Tuskegee by George Washington Carver.”
Active voice: “George Washington Carver invented cotton-based road paving material in Tuskegee.”
Passive voice: “Mistakes were made when designing the failed bridge.”
Active voice: “The bridge collapsed because the engineer made critical design mistakes.”
Now that you know how to spot it, you can more easily learn how to avoid passive voice.
Why Should You Avoid Passive Voice During Your Doctorate Degree?
There are two reasons to avoid passive voice in your writing. First, the use of active voice typically improves the clarity of a sentence when compared to a passive voice construction. In a passive voice construction, the reader may have to guess who is performing the action.
Consider the following:
Passive voice: “The skull of poor Yorick was held aloft.”
Active voice: “Hamlet held aloft the skull of poor Yorick.”
In the active voice construction, it is clear who is performing which action to which object.
The second reason to choose active voice when writing your doctoral dissertation is that the use of passive voice implies a lack of definite knowledge.
Consider the following:
Passive voice: “Socioeconomic factors are widely considered to be leading causes of recidivism.”
Active voice: “In her study, Dr. Jones argues that her findings support the theory that socioeconomic factors are a leading cause of recidivism.”
The active voice construction is more precise because it explains exactly who regards socioeconomic factors as being a leading cause of recidivism. Since precision and accuracy are crucial for the success of a doctoral dissertation, you will want to pay close attention to your use of active and passive voice.
Is It Ever Acceptable To Use Passive Voice?
Would it surprise you to know that passive voice is acceptable and desirable in certain situations? As long as your chair and committee members have not expressly forbidden the use of passive voice in all circumstances, there are certain situations that do call for it.
If the person performing an action is unknown, then passive voice is acceptable. For example, “The cave paintings in South Sulawesi were painted over 45,000 years ago” is an acceptable sentence because it is impossible to know exactly which person(s) painted them.1
Sometimes, the actor may be irrelevant. Consider this sentence: “The dormitory was built in 1940.” In this example, it is not necessary to specify who the builder was. A similar circumstance is less likely to arise when writing a dissertation, however, as precision and accuracy are defining characteristics of such work.
In some cases, the use of passive voice is acceptable because the identity of the actor is obvious or widely known. Here is an example: “Kelly received a physical exam and was told she was in excellent health.” In this sentence, it is clear that a healthcare provider performed the physical exam.
Occasionally, the use of passive voice is acceptable when the writer wishes to emphasize the subject rather than the actor. Consider this sentence: “Smallpox was declared fully eradicated worldwide in 1980.” In this situation, stating the fact that smallpox has been eradicated is far more important than informing the reader that the World Health Assembly was responsible for issuing the declaration.
Although there are situations that call for passive voice, you should always double-check the preferences of your chair and other committee members. If they prefer that you avoid the use of passive voice at all costs, then you will need to stick to the active voice throughout your writing for your doctorate degree.
How To Avoid Passive Voice in Writing
To avoid passive voice, you will need to carefully edit and proofread your work. It is always best to read your work with fresh eyes so that you are more likely to spot instances of passive voice. Set your work aside for a few days before proofreading and ask others to read over your work as well.
Each time you spot a passive voice construction, consider whether its usage is acceptable based on the criteria listed above (provided your committee has not prohibited the use of passive voice). If the instance of passive voice construction does not meet the criteria for acceptable usage, then you will need to rewrite it so that it follows an active voice construction.
Consider the following example of a rewrite:
Passive voice: “The collected data were then analyzed.”
Active voice: “I then analyzed the data I had collected.”
This may seem straightforward, but academic researchers often run into a dilemma when rewriting a passive sentence with an active construction. Since you are the person who has performed original research for your dissertation, you may need to use first-person pronouns in your writing, as demonstrated in the example above. Some dissertation committee members, however, may prefer that you avoid both passive voice and first-person pronouns.
If you cannot use either first-person pronouns or passive voice in your thesis or dissertation, then you may need to use either anthropomorphism or third-person pronouns. Researchers who must adhere to the Chicago style of writing can use anthropomorphism.
Consider the following examples of anthropomorphism:
“The survey collected data pertaining to each participant’s work style preferences.”
“The study explored the impact of ergonomic workstations.”
“The paper discusses how ergonomic workstations affect productivity.”
In these examples, the survey, study and paper are anthropomorphized in order to avoid both passive voice and first-person pronouns. However, this method will not work if you are using the APA style guidelines. Instead, you will need to discuss your actions from a third-person viewpoint, as in the following example:
“The researcher collected data on work style preferences.”
“The researcher explored the impact of ergonomic workstations.”
It may seem awkward to refer to yourself in the third person. However, doing so will introduce objectivity to your work while abiding by style requirements.
Remember that it is best to ensure that you fully understand all style requirements before starting to write your dissertation. Be sure to ask questions about writing style when you meet with your committee.
The College of Doctoral Studies at Grand Canyon University offers a wealth of student resources designed to optimize your GCU experience. In addition to having a variety of doctorate degree programs to choose from, once you enroll in a program you will have a suite of learning resources at your fingertips, from the Doctoral Community (DC) Network to our on-campus doctoral residency programs. Click on Request Info at the top of your screen to learn more.
As an example of the exemplary support provided by our doctoral faculty, Dr. Jo Markette and Dr. Nicholas Markette have produced a short video explaining five different ways to fix passive voice.
1Retrieved from The Guardian, World’s oldest known cave painting found in Indonesia in February 2022
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.