Active/passive voice and nominalisation

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.

    Active voice

    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.

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    Passive voice

    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 revealedThat food affects behaviour was argued by the education observers.
    Converting sentences from passive to active voice

    If you wish to concentrate on writing in clear simple sentences by using active voice, here are some tips for converting sentences from passive voice 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’.

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    If your study subject states a preference for very formal, abstract, academic writing, the technique of nominalisation (changing verbs to nouns) can be very helpful to make your writing more academic and concise. Nominalisation allows you to discuss more abstract concepts by taking the focus off the action and making the action into a concept or idea.

    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. 

    If you wish to concentrate on writing that is more formal and abstract by using nominalisation, here are some tips for making actions into abstract nouns.

    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 2: Underline all of the verb groups that show the action of the sentence because you are going to change them into noun (nominalised) words or groups.

    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.

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    The correct style for different subjects

    Different disciplines value different styles of writing. It is really up to you to get a feel for what is required from your studies (i.e. check lecture notes, text books and articles written for that discipline). For example, law and literature studies usually call for active voice while the sciences typically ask students to use passive voice.

    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

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