Should you use the active or passive voice in Australian academic writing? The passive voice was the academic standard in writing for most of the 20th century. However, academic expectations are currently in a state of transition. In this post, I will explore the evolving preferences for using the active or passive voice in Australian academic writing. Also, I will provide links to Australian university web pages which offer guidance on choosing the active or passive voice.
First, let me clarify this is not a grammar blog. So, I won’t be covering the structure of the active or passive voice. Besides, if you’re an international student at an Australian university, you’re already competent in writing active and passive sentences. Instead, I will focus on which is generally preferred for Australian university assignments.
Unfortunately, there is no consistent preference or standard across all the universities and disciplines on this topic. Different universities and even different disciplines within the same university have varying preferences for either the active or passive voice. Similarly, only some universities or university faculties offer a style guide, which is helpful in addressing the issue. However, there is a definite trend overall toward the active and away from the passive.
The overarching preference for the active voice is because it’s simpler, more direct and clearer for the reader to comprehend. By contrast, the passive form is often perceived as more wordy, void of responsibility (i.e. who did it?), putting a distance between the reader, and generally flat or dull
Hence, the APA (6th edition, section 3.18) now lends preference to the active voice for improved clarity. So too does the American Medical Association’s Manual of Style (10th edition, section 3.1).
Another main reason for the current shift by universities toward the active is because of changing preferences by journals. Obviously, Australian universities want their students’ work published in those journals. Canadian biomedical editor, Barbara Every, lists some of these international journals: Behavioral Ecology, The British Medical Journal, The Journal of Neuroscience, The Journal of Trauma and Dissociation, Nature, Ophthalmology, and Science.
Kill the Passive = Kill Your Grade
The passive structure still has its place in academic writing, however. If you don’t use it at all, you are inadvertently subscribing to a lower grade for your thesis or assignment.
First, some schools, faculties or universities uniformly prefer the passive construct. It’s important you consult your university regarding the agreed preference for the thesis or other paper you plan to write. While you’re there, ask them if they have a style guide. Not all universities or faculties have style guides. Nevertheless, they are becoming more widespread as universities aim for higher standards of consistency in academic writing by their students. A well-written, university-sanctioned style guide should address when it’s appropriate to use the active or passive voice.
Second, if you only use the active form, then you’re ignoring the nuances of English, intended meanings and shifting emphases. To avoid the passive wholly is to believe that the passive has no purpose at all, which is simply nonsense! Nuances in the passive’s usage include, for example, when the actor is unknown or irrelevant, when you want to sound more objective, you want to stress what was done, you want to emphasise the person or thing being acted upon, you want to avoid using a personal pronoun (e.g. ‘I’ or ‘we’), you are writing about a general truth, or for one of the other many uses of the passive structure you no doubt learned in your English for Academic Purposes study before starting university. So, if there is a meaningful purpose for you to inject the passive construct into a sentence, then use it!
Third, a well-written assignment keeps its readers engaged, thereby attracting a better grade and increasing the potential for publication. One strategy to keep readers engaged is sentence variety, such as sentence length or sentence structure, for example. To use the active voice exclusively would be very dull to read indeed! Therefore, use the passive wherever relevant to your needs for the purpose of sentence variety and reader engagement at least.
Fourth, perhaps the greatest area of debate on this topic is in the sciences. Here, some disciplines still prefer the passive voice whereas others have largely migrated across to the active. Clinging to the passive in some sciences is largely due to the passive’s use in describing scientific processes and results. This is most commonly true in the Materials and Methods section of lab reports and scientific research studies. Nevertheless, even in the Materials and Methods section, it is still satisfactory to occasionally use the active voice for variety. Furthermore, the sciences prefer the use of the active form in the remaining sections of their various reports. One Singaporean study concluded that published scientific articles have likely plateaued at around 30% of sentences being in the passive. The study goes on to state that 29% of those passive constructs are found in the methodology section specifically. One reason for this might be a philosophical shift toward greater acknowledgement of the role of the observer in science. In fact, there’s a growing expectation for published scientific papers to transparently identify the role and funding source for contributors. The active voice better indicates this agency.
Tip: Check with Your University or Faculty
Unfortunately, the Australian National University doesn’t offer any information via their website on using the active or passive voice. However, I was able to find information on the topic on a number of other leading Australian university websites. The advice offered by Australian universities is not consistent between them, thereby reinforcing your need to consult your particular university.
University of Melbourne
Academic writing traditionally uses the passive voice so that the use of pronouns is minimised… There is, however, no hard-and-fast rule that says you can never use the active voice in academic writing. Instead, your choice of active or passive voice should be determined by the focus of your sentence, and by the conventions of your discipline. If in doubt, take your cue from your research readings or ask your tutor or lecturer what the conventions are for your discipline.– University of Melbourne (link to pdf, p.20)
University of Sydney
The University of Sydney doesn’t discuss active or passive voice directly. Instead, the University refers to personal and impersonal styles in writing. We can loosely correlate these styles to the active and passive voice respectively.
Discipline areas in universities vary in the extent to which they insist on an impersonal style. But while a ‘personal’ style is occasionally acceptable, an impersonal style is always acceptable (and it is often obligatory).– University of Sydney (link to pdf, p.2)
University of Queensland
There are many different types of assignments set at university and each type has its own structure and features… It is always important to check with your lecturer or tutor as to what exactly they require you to do.– University to Queensland (link)
The University of Queensland provides further clarification in various locations around its website for various assignment types or schools:
|Assignment Type/School||Active or Passive Voice||Source|
|Research essays||Active voice||Link|
|Lab/Prac reports||Passive voice||Link|
|Article reviews||Active voice||Link|
|Law||Active voice||pdf, p.4|
|Communication arts||Predominantly active voice||pdf, p.9|
|Business School||Active voice||pdf, p.17|
|Political science and|
|Active voice||pdf, p.9|
Avoid the passive voice. It sounds dull, can introduce ambiguity, and prevents the reader from understanding who is doing what to whom. Using the active voice makes writing clear, direct and dynamic. It can also help reduce sentence length.– Monash University (link)
University of New South Wales
Unfortunately, this issue appears to be discussed on the University’s website with regard to Engineering and Science only.
Good technical writing aims to inform with clarity and precision… Using active voice in your writing creates a direct and concise message, which also makes your writing easier to read. While we encourage you to use the active voice, this does not mean that you cannot use the passive voice, as it can be convenient and necessary. Most writing will have a mixture of active and passive clauses depending on what word is chosen for the subject of a sentence. Look at course related texts that you consider well written to notice how and when writers use active and passive voice.– University of New South Wales, Engineering and Science (link)
University of Western Australia
Both active and passive voice– University of Western Australia (link, ‘GE04 Active and Passive Voice’)
areused in academic writing. There is a trend away from using the passive at present but in some science disciplines its use is still encouraged… It is common to use the passive in technical and scientific writing, particularly in the Methods and Results sections.
University of Adelaide
Some people say that the passive should be avoided as much as possible because it makes a person’s writing less clear and less interesting. However, there are many situations (as in the passive should be avoided) where the passive is useful. In academic writing, scientists use the passive voice more than writers in the humanities, arts or social sciences.
It is good to use the passive in scientific writing in the case of:
• Scientific experiments
• Abstract subjects (e.g. temperature)– University of Adelaide (link)
University of Technology Sydney
Generally, at university, there is a greater emphasis in writing in the passive voice (3rd person) as this makes writing sound more authoritative and formal. Please do follow the guidelines your lecturer/tutor has asked for, however.– University of Technology Sydney (link)
Conclusion: Active or Passive Voice
In summary, it is easy to naturally default to the more traditional passive voice in academic writing. However, check with your university or faculty first. If the active is preferred, as is the growing trend academically, then switch to making the active voice your default.
Furthermore, if your university or faculty has a clear preference for either the active or passive voice, that does not mean you should use the active or passive voice exclusively. Sentence variety is important for reader engagement. The less preferred voice of the two still has a place in your writing, albeit, less frequent. So, don’t be afraid to use the less preferred form on occasion when the need arises.
Task: Active or Passive Voice in Your Context
Now, go and ask your professor whether you should predominantly use the active or passive voice in your next assignment. While you’re there, ask him or her if there’s a university or faculty style guide you should be using.
This article was proofread with Grammarly.