Impersonal style and passive verb construction

An impersonal style is often preferred for academic writing. This is because the reader will normally be more interested in the ideas themselves rather than the person writing, and use of an impersonal style allows these to be highlighted.

In order to achieve an impersonal style in your formal writing, you can use the passive voice.

In formal writing the passive form is useful for expressing general beliefs. In the introduction to a report or essay, you may want to express general beliefs about a topic, for example:

  • Total world population is estimated to be about 6 billion.
  • AIDS is believed to have started in Africa.
  • It is assumed that politicians will represent the people.
  • Drought is recognised as being a major problem for many developing countries.

The passive also helps focus on the result of an action rather than the agent carrying it out. For example, in any study or formal investigation, something is researched and an explanation will usually be provided of how the information was gathered or the investigation conducted.

The use of the passive also serves to focus the reader’s attention on the first part of the sentence. It provides the writer with the opportunity to express the main idea at the beginning of the sentence.

The use of the passive voice can also help the writer sound more objective. In academic writing for example, it is important to separate facts from opinions.

Using alternatives to the passive voice

Although the passive is useful in various kinds of formal writing, it is important NOT to overuse this structure. Sometimes it may be better to use an active construction to express your ideas.

An alternative to using the passive is to use abstract nouns or nouns instead of verb forms. This process is called nominalisation. This means forming a noun from another word part, often a verb or an adjective. Example: ‘communication’ from the word ‘communicate’, in the sentence: communication has been established.

SOURCE: Open University 2011