Writing - Written by on Friday, August 13, 2010 5:48 - 0 Comments

Passive Sentences in Scholarly Writing

As a student, you likely learned to avoid passive voice verbs at all costs to make your writing more vivid and direct for the reader. The axiom of avoiding passive sentences is so pervasive in writing courses that few question its purpose or viability as a rule. Strunk and White (2009) have this to say about the passive voice:

The [rule of avoiding passive voice verbs] does not, of course, mean that the writer should entirely discard the passive voice, which is frequently convenient and sometimes necessary. (p18)

As a professional copy editor, one of my jobs is to evaluate and alter the structure of scholarly writing to make it clearer and more accessible for the intended audience. Generally, passive voice verbs make up about 30% of the total number of verbs in a scholarly manuscript such as a dissertation, thesis, journal article, or conference paper.

What are Passive Sentences?

A passive sentence is simply a sentence that contains one or more passive voice rather than active voice verbs. Moving from an active to a passive sentence often switches the direct object of the sentence to the subject. For example, take these two sentences:

We used a structural equation to test the model.

A structural equation was used to test the model.

In the first sentence (active), the subject is “we” and “structural equation” is the direct object. Conversely, the second sentence (passive) makes “structural equation” the subject, eliminates the doer of the action (we), and makes it ambiguous who used the structural equation to test the model. The reader must assume that since the authors are presenting empirical research, they are the ones who used the structural equation.

In line with what Strunk and White (2009) say about passive voice verbs, the passive voice is convenient in scholarly writing for at least two reasons. In fact, there are times when the passive voice is more appropriate than the active voice to help preserve the goals of research.

Passive Sentences in Scholarly Manuscripts

According to the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (2001):

The passive voice is acceptable in expository writing and when you want to focus on the object or recipient of the action rather than on the actor. (p42)

Although APA guidelines espouse the use of active rather than passive voice verbs, there are times when using the passive voice to avoid first person references is appropriate. Notice that in the two sentences offered as examples above, using the passive voice in the second sentence allows the authors to avoid referring to themselves in the first person (we).

Most modern empirical research either embraces or is influenced by the post-positivist paradigm of scientific inquiry. Unlike other scientific methodologies, the post-positivist paradigm defines the researcher as a “disinterested scientist” who is detached from any vested interest in the outcome of research (Guba & Lincoln, 1994). Use of the passive voice allows authors to detach themselves from the research so the focus is on the results and not on the scientists.

In contrast to post-positivism, a constructivism methodological paradigm defines the scientist as an active participant in the research process relying on interpretation to construct knowledge. As you can see, the passive voice in scholarly manuscripts helps detach the researcher from that which is studied to uphold the paradigm under which the research was undertaken.

As a copy editor of scholarly manuscript, my policy is to transform all passive sentences to active whenever possible; passive sentences are retained whenever the focus of the object is more important than the doer of the action and to avoid use of first person nouns and pronouns. This paradigm tends to satisfy both the need for vivid and direct writing and the need for a scientist to maintain detachment from the research.


Guba, E. G., & Lincoln, Y. S. (1994). Competing paradigms in qualitative research. In N. K. Denzin & Y. S. Lincoln (Eds.), Handbook of Qualitative Research (pp. 105-117). Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.

Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (5th ed.). (2001). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Strunk, W., Jr., & White, E. B. (2009). The Elements of Style (Fiftieth Anniversary Edition). New York: Pearson Longman.

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John GargerJohn Garger is a copy editor, proofreader, dissertation coach, researcher, writer, and entrepreneur living in upstate New York, USA.

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