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Writing in third person active voice

More about Passive Voice


This handout will explain the difference between active and passive voice in writing. It gives examples of both, and shows how to turn a passive sentence into an active one. Also, it explains how to decide when to choose passive voice instead of active.

Contributors:April Toadvine, Allen Brizee, Elizabeth Angeli
Last Edited: 2014-06-24 10:44:22

In a sentence using passive voice, the subject is acted upon; he or she receives the action expressed by the verb. The agent performing the action may appear in a "by the..." phrase or may be omitted.

The sentence, the boy was bitten by the dog, shows the subject (the boy) is being acted upon by something or someone else (the dog). This is an example of a sentence using the passive voice.

Image Caption: The dog is acting upon the sentence subject (the boy), meaning it uses the passive voice.

The sentence subject (research) is being acted upon (presented) by another person (Pooja) in the sentence, research will be presented by Pooja at the conference. So, this sentence uses the passive voice.

Image Caption: This example sentence includes the passive voice because the subject (research) is being acted upon (presented) by another person (Pooja).

The sentence, the entrance exam was failed by over one-third of the applicants to the school, uses the passive voice because the subject (the entrance exam) is being acted upon (failed) by other people (over one-third of the applicants).

Image Caption: This is an example of the passive voice.

The sentence, I am reminded of watching a movie or TV by watching a framed, mobile world through a car's windshield, uses the passive voice since the subject (I) is acted upon by another sentence element (watching a framed, mobile world).

Image Caption: The subject of the passive voice sentence performs the action expressed in the verb in this example.

Reasons to Generally Avoid Passive Voice

Sometimes the use of passive voice can create awkward sentences, as in the last example above. Also, overuse of passive voice throughout an essay can cause your prose to seem flat and uninteresting. In scientific writing, however, passive voice is more readily accepted since using it allows one to write without using personal pronouns or the names of particular researchers as the subjects of sentences (see the third example above). This practice helps to create the appearance of an objective, fact-based discourse because writers can present research and conclusions without attributing them to particular agents. Instead, the writing appears to convey information that is not limited or biased by individual perspectives or personal interests.

Recognizing Passive Voice

You can recognize passive-voice expressions because the verb phrase will always include a form of be, such as am, is, was, were, are, or been. The presence of a be-verb, however, does not necessarily mean that the sentence is in passive voice. Another way to recognize passive-voice sentences is that they may include a "by the..." phrase after the verb; the agent performing the action, if named, is the object of the preposition in this phrase.

Helpful Hint

You can recognize passive voice because the verb phrase will include a form of be (was, am, are, been, is). Don't assume that just because there is a form of 'be' that the sentence is passive, however. Sometimes a prepositional phrase like "by the" in the sentences above indicates that the action is performed on the subject, and that the sentence is passive.

By maintaining the third-person point of view, you are simply observing information and recording findings – which is how information about your research should be presented. Both point of view and style have certain guidelines and principles.
  • APA style requires you to use predominantly third-person point of view, with first-person allowed in some situations.
  • APA style encourages using the active voice over the passive voice.
  • APA style prefers that you foreground research and not the researchers conducting the research.

Using third-person point of view in APA style

Unless you are specifically referencing research you have conducted yourself or with other researchers, you should aim to stay in the third-person point of view when writing in the APA style.

In fact, using them is necessary to show who conducted the research steps and to avoid an anthropomorphic view.

Correct: “We controlled…”
Incorrect: “The study controlled…”

On the other end of the point-of-view spectrum, second-person point of view is not acceptable under the APA style. This means avoiding the second-person pronouns of “you” and “your.”

To stay in the third-person point of view, write using pronouns such as “he/him,” “she/her” and “they/their.” When it is appropriate, use first-person pronouns to discuss research conducted by you and any co-researchers.

Using the active voice in APA style

The APA style encourages using the active voice. [URL]Active voice[/writing-resources-articles/general-writing/grammar/active-voice/] differs from [URL]passive voice[/writing-resources-articles/general-writing/grammar/passive-voice/] because it shows who is conducting an action more clearly.

• They are trying to hide responsibility (by not identifying agents).

• They are lazy (they don’t want exert themselves to discover the agents of actions).

• Their minds land on actions or objects first, and they don’t make the effort to flip their sentences around into active voice order.

Common journalistic style has also led people astray:
The president’s immorality is deplored by the entire nation.
The official story has been rejected by local citizens.
The dying woman was abandoned by the senator from Massachusetts.

But one can read the sentences more quickly and easily in the active form:
The entire nation deplores the president’s immorality.
Local citizens have rejected the official story.
The senator from Massachusetts abandoned the dying woman.

Note again: the active versions are all shorter than their passive originals.


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