What is active voice, and is there a trend in thesis writing to use first (and/or second) person?

18 Sep 2016

What is active voice, and is there a trend in thesis writing to use first (and/or second) person?

I recently edited a PhD thesis for a Doctorate of Philosophy and the topic was related to computer science—personalised ontology frameworks used on websites, to be specific. The student had written most of the thesis in second person (“we did this”, “we do that”), which I questioned because even first person seems problematic in a thesis to me, but second person is even worse. Who is the other person encompassed by “we”?

I can see how the thesis will become more wordy if the writer can’t say “I” or “we”, so I asked my client if there is a trend in computer science theses to use “we”. His response was that “there is a current trend to use active voice. Many style guides suggest to use active voice.” So I wrote back to clarify active voice:

Technically active voice is not the same thing as first person. Active voice means you replace any passive voice writing, like: “The suitcase was unpacked,” with active voice writing, like: “Cheryl unpacked the suitcase.” The use of the name Cheryl means it is in third person. A first person version of this sentence would be, “I unpacked the suitcase.” A passive voice first person version of this sentence would be, “The suitcase was unpacked by me.”

I can see how perhaps the trend for first person AND active voice would go together for computer science theses. It is clunky if you have to write in a thesis things like, “This researcher discusses recommender systems in chapter 6.” It is unclear what “This researcher” means, especially if the writer has recently been referring to someone else’s research. In that case the writer has to construct the sentence as follows: “This thesis discusses recommender systems in chapter 6.”

I will continue to look into this matter and upgrade my knowledge on the current trends in thesis writing, so I can better serve my customers. If you would like to share your opinion on this, or submit your work for a quote, please contact me.