Sentences can be written in a number of different ways to create language that ranges in style from informal to very formal. What you choose to do with the ‘doers’ and ‘receivers’ of the verb in your sentence can create different effects. You need to know how to use:
- Active voice (formal, subject of the sentence does the action)
- Passive voice (formal, subject of the sentence receives the action)
- Nominalisation (very formal, verbs changed to noun forms)
- The correct style (different subjects, different styles)
Grammar checkers can assist you with active and passive voice because they signal (by using green underlining) passive verbs. You, the writer, has to decide whether you want your sentences to be in active or passive voice. If passive verbs are signalled and you are wishing to write in active voice, then you can rewrite your sentence.
Most writing guides recommend that you use active voice constructions because sentences in this voice tend to be clear, precise and direct. However, different subjects have different preferences. In active voice, the subject of the sentence does the action.Researchers collected data on the behaviour of children. The study on the children reveals that food affects behaviour. The education observers argue that food affects behaviour.
If your subject area states a preference for passive voice (e.g. sciences), then the receiver of the action comes first in the sentence, and you may choose to omit the doer of the action.Data on behaviour of children was collected by researchers. The effects of food on children’s behaviour were revealed. That food affects behaviour was argued by the education observers.
Converting sentences from passive to active voice
- Look for sentences that have ‘by’ (e.g. by researchers) and rewrite so the ‘actor’ is at the beginning of the sentence.
- Ask yourself who the subject is. If the subject is not clear, consider words like ‘researchers’, ‘studies’, ‘experts in this field’.
ACTIVE VOICE: We analysed the data from the experiment, and it revealed that children react when they have too much sugar.
Note that the sentence can become shorter
NOMINALISED VERB: The analysis of the experimental data revealed children’s reaction to excessive sugar intake.
Step 1: Read your writing and highlight any personal pronouns (e.g. I, you, we, they) because you are going to get rid of all personal references.
Step 3: Check your vocabulary. Change any words that may sound simple into words that are more technical (e.g. from the above example ‘too much sugar’ becomes ‘excessive sugar’) because you are going to make your writing very formal.
The following table gives you a set of sample sentences in the three styles. Use these to help you to see the difference between active and passive voice, and nominalised writing so that you can make informed decisions about the writing style required for your discipline.[/glossary_exclude]
Active voice Passive voice Nominalisation Academic skills lecturers teach the students how to write essays during Orientation Week. Students are taught how to write essays by academic skills lecturers during Orientation Week. During orientation week, the teaching of academic writing skills for students … Students learn about referencing and plagiarism. Referencing and plagiarism is learnt by the students. Student learning about referencing and plagiarism … Lecturers and students at the university use TurnItIn to identify plagiarism in assignments. TurnItIn is used by lecturers and students at the university to identify plagiarism in assignments. The use of TurnItIn for plagiarism identification by university lecturers and students …Download a print friendly version of this content.