Put the Action Back into Sentences

“Readers are likely to feel that they are reading prose that is clear and direct when (1) the subjects of the sentences name the cast of characters, and (2) the verbs that go with those subjects name the crucial actions that those characters are part of.”

- Williams 1990, p. 21

Passive writing obscures who is doing something or what is being done. Most sentences include some person, place, or thing (i.e., actor) performing an action, but it is possible for writers to hide these actors and actions through passive writing. For example, the sentence “An exclusion manipulation was administered” identifies neither who administered the manipulation nor who the manipulation was administered to. Moreover, the words “exclusion” and “manipulation” obscure actions by disguising verbs, “to exclude” and “to manipulate,” as nouns. Active writing, conversely, clearly identifies the actors in a sentence and the actions they perform: “The experimenter manipulated whether participants felt excluded or included.”

Our research shows that scholars are less likely to understand and cite articles that use passive voice than articles that use active sentences. But passive voice is but one of the tricks that writers use to hide the actors and action in their sentences. As the opening quote by Williams illustrates, other forms of passive writing similarly risk confusing readers.

Passive voice. Let’s begin by discussing why and when you should use passive voice. Passive voice helps direct readers’ attention away from the actor towards the recipient of the action (e.g., from “the editor rejected my article” [active] to “my article was rejected” [passive]). This redirection is useful when you want readers to focus on the same subject throughout a sentence or paragraph (Anisfeld and Klenbort 1973; Johnson-laird and Oatley 1989; Pinker 2014a). The sentence “My article is about writing, and it was rejected” is easier on readers than “My article is about writing, and the editor rejected it.” The former sentence keeps readers focused on “my article” rather than switching their attention from the article to the editor and then back to the article again. Tellis and colleagues (2019, 2) similarly use passive voice to effectively focus readers on the concepts of virality and content in the following sentence (emphasis added to highlight the passive parts): “We define virality as achieving a large number of views in a short time period due to sharing. Virality is maximized to the extent that content viewed by one consumer is shared with others.”

Unfortunately, scholars often use passive voice haphazardly, especially when describing methods and procedures. Consider this hypothetical description of an experiment: “Confederates and participants were told to sit in the waiting room together. A brief introduction was made, after which the key treatment was administered.” The use of passive voice in these sentences raises several questions. Who or what made the “brief introduction”? Who administered the key treatment? Was it the confederate? The experimenter? A computer? Beyoncé?

Unless there is a strategic reason to direct readers’ attention away from the actor in a sentence, we recommend that you remove passive phrases like “the treatment was administered” and put the actor back into your writing: “Beyoncé administered the treatment.” Don’t be afraid to use pronouns like I and we if you are describing something that you think or did (see Bernoff 2016). The sentence “I hypothesize that reading The Economist makes people smarter” makes it clear that this is your hypothesis. If instead you were to write, “It is hypothesized that reading The Economist makes people smarter,” readers would not know whether this was your idea or puffery on The Economist’s website.

Pronouns. Another way authors write passively is by using third-person pronouns: it instead of The Economist’s website, they instead of the participants, he instead of the consumer, she instead of Beyoncé. The potential problem is that pronouns can refer to multiple actors, and it may not be clear which actor they reference: “Many parents create college savings accounts for their children. As they mature, they start to consider the many options that such accounts make available to them.” Does “they” refer to the parents, savings accounts, or children? In fact, there are two “theys" and one “them”, and we have no way of knowing if all three of these pronouns refer to the same actor. Be especially weary of using ambiguous pronouns when describing your methods. If you were to conduct a study with experimenters, participants, and confederates, and write, “they read the instructions,” readers won’t know whether the experimenter, participants, or confederates read the instructions.

Zombie nouns. A third way that writers make an actor—and action—disappear is by transforming a lively verb (e.g., assess, affirm, avoid) into a lifeless noun, usually by adding a suffix like –ment (assessment), –ation (affirmation), or –ance (avoidance; Pinker 2014) . The technical term for these are nominalizations, but Sword (2012) renamed them zombie nouns, a term that we prefer because it is stickier. Zombie nouns, Sword explains, “cannibalize active verbs, suck the lifeblood from adjectives and substitute abstract entities for human beings.”

Zombie nouns are useful because they prevent writers from needlessly repeating themselves when referring to an action they described in a previous sentence. In order to build theory, writers need to abstract (active verb) from specific events to more general categories. Zombie nouns make this abstraction (zombie noun) possible by helping writers group related actions into a single category. The zombie noun “consumption,” for example, lets marketing researchers chunk all of the instances in which someone hears about, talks about, buys, uses, and disposes of a product or service into a single category (Holbrook 1987).

The problem is that replacing a verb or adjective with a zombie noun risks confusing readers for all three reasons that we’ve discussed: it makes writing more passive, it makes sentences more abstract, and it makes language more technical. You can make your writing less abstract, technical, and passive by transforming zombie nouns back into verbs.

Additional Reading

Style: Toward Clarity and Grace (Williams 1990): Ch. 2, “Clarity”

Writing Science (Schimel 2017): Ch. 14, “Energizing Writing”

Writing Tools (Clark 2008)

----Tool 3, “Activate Your Verbs”

----Tool 4, “Be Passive Aggressive”

Writing Without Bullshit (Bernoff 2016)

----Chapter 6, “Purge Passive Voice”

----Chapter 9, “Be Direct”

Elements of Style (Strunk, Jr. and White 2000): Ch. 14, “Use the Active Voice”

“Scientists: Can they read what they write?” (Bostian and Thering 1987)

“Zombie Nouns” (Sword 2012)