Can Social Change Start At the Sentence Level? -->

Where instructors and editors talk writing.

Can Social Change Start At the Sentence Level?

As a Walden student, the main focus of your academic work is likely creating positive social change. Your scholarly research may be on finding therapies for treating PTSD or addressing a lack of housing assistance in your community. These goals may seem distant while you pour over research and critically analyze texts. However, as you are taking notes, developing your thesis, and synthesizing your sources, change can occur on a smaller, local level. One by one, the sentences you write can in fact be a source for good. By using active, rather than passive voice in your research writing, you can create positive social change one simple sentence at a time.

Can Social Change Start At the Sentence Level?

When active voice is used, the subject becomes the focus of the sentence. This emphasis on the subject clarifies who is performing the action, and therefore, agency is given to the subject. Using the active voice can create clarity and concision in your writing, but it can also be a tool for giving your subject power.

For example, let’s take a look at a sentence in passive voice: “The connections between BMI and heart disease were analyzed.” Here, the attention is on what comes first in the sentence, “the connections,” rather than who analyzed the connections. In passive voice, the researchers themselves would not be important. Instead, what the researchers analyzed would be emphasized.

Now, look closely at a similar sentence that has been revised for active voice: “The researchers analyzed the connections between BMI and heart disease.” Because the researchers come first, and they are performing the action, the focus of the sentence is on the researchers and their work. The reader’s attention is drawn to the researchers, rather than the connections they analyzed.

While active voice can be used to clarify, it can also be used to give a subject power and control. By using active voice in the following sentence, I demonstrate patients’ agency over their own healthcare: “Every day, the patients share their mental health concerns with their social worker.” In this sentence, the patients are in control of their health, as they share their concerns. The patients are not standing by while doctors and social workers engage around them.

In the following example, passive voice takes away the agency of the patient: “Every day, the patient’s mental health concerns are shared with their social worker.” In this sentence, it is unclear who is sharing the patient’s health concerns with the social worker. Perhaps a doctor or staff member is providing this information on behalf of the patient, but the patient is no longer in control. These may be small differences between sentences, but with active voice, it is clearly communicated to the reader that the patient has agency in the situation.

Let’s look at another example. In the following sentence, passive voice emphasizes the object, trauma: “By using cognitive behavioral and psychodynamic therapies, the trauma was worked through by the patient.

Alternatively, you could use the active voice to emphasize the patient’s ability to overcome their trauma: “By using cognitive behavioral and psychodynamic therapies, the patient worked through their trauma.” Here, the power or control the patient has over their trauma is the focus. By using active voice, the patient’s agency is celebrated, rather than trauma itself becoming the focus.

While active voice creates clarity and concision in your writing, more importantly, it is a way of holding the microphone for those who have been silenced. It can be the means through which you share the stories of others and give them control over their own experiences.  Perhaps the steps towards social change really do start at the sentence level. Through the structure of a simple sentence, you can begin to write the steps for change.

Tasha Sookochoff author image

Tasha Sookochoff is a writing instructor in the Walden University Writing Center. Along with earning degrees from the University of Wisconsin, Stout and Depaul University, Tasha has written documentation for the U.S. House of Representatives that increases government transparency, blogged for DePaul University, copy-edited the Journal of Second Language Writing, tutored immigrants and refugees at literacy centers, and taught academic writing to college students.

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  1. I appreciate the information regarding writing in the active voice rather than a passive voice the us what. I look forward to more practice sessions

    1. We are glad you enjoy this content. Have you seen our blog posts on avoiding passive voice? If you want to have another practice session, check out this helpful, fun, and SCARY blog post on how you can identify and revise passive voice. Keep up the hard work of improving your writing!