The Passive Engineer
Question:Why do engineers
write in the passive voice? How can we avoid
Answer: You're right: Engineers use the passive voice a lot. But so do scientists, business people, and nearly all academics. Why? It is certainly not because these professionals are a placid, submissive lot. Engineers and others rely on the passive voice for three reasons:
All three appeal to professional motives; but two of these reasons are based on bad logic.
First Bad Reason: "The Passive Sounds Objective"
Engineers and scientists value objectivity. They do not want their consideration of the data contaminated by personal whims and prejudices. The passive sounds so distant and authoritative. Writers think they are simply stating an emotionless truth and not just expressing their opinion. How much more professional it sounds (we think) to say: "It may be noted that under certain conditions alternative paradigms might be considered" rather than, "We could look at this data another way."
Why the First Reason Is Unsound:
Objectivity to the extent we can apply the term to any human quality lies in our thinking and in our choice of actions. If you used a rational (objective) method to collect and analyze your data and worked honestly and carefully, your work is objective. If you "cooked the books" or worked sloppily, your work is not objective. Writers do not compromise their professional objectivity by speaking and writing clearly. Writers cannot rectify slanted or inadequate work by using the passive construction.
Second Bad Reason: "Using 'I' or 'We' Sounds Unprofessional"
Many scientists and engineers have told me their professors castigated them for using "I" or "we." First person accounts were just not deemed professional, and using the passive voice seemed the only way to avoid the forbidden pronouns.
Why the Second Reason Is Unsound:
Using the passive construction does not make writing objective or more professional. Using personal pronouns does not, in itself, make writing subjective or unprofessional. But as you can see in the example given below, when professors forbade personal pronouns, they were probably not advocating the passive construction. Instead, they probably meant to discourage tedious writing.
One may also have political reasons to use the passive and shun "I" and "we." The passive construction is a convenient way to avoid taking responsibility ("mistakes were made"). And in corporate life, writing actively may make us sound uppity, as though we had ideas and convictions. How much safer it feels to write "It is recommended that this new policy be implemented at once" than "We recommend implementing the new policy now."
The passive construction helps us cloud the issue and preserve the status quo (and our jobs) another day. Sometimes issues should be clouded. Harsh statements, for example, can be softened with the passive: "Unfortunately, the resume was sent without being proofread."
At Last! A Good Reason to Use the Passive: The Passive Emphasizes Results
The nature of scientific and technical report writing often requires using the passive voice. Professional reports emphasize results and the objects of actions. The actor (who produced the results or acted on the object) is less important. Without the passive construction, report writers would emphasize the wrong information:
Please note: Even in reports, the active construction may convey your meaning better. For instance, status reports should almost always identify actors (unless they really want to hide!):
When and How to Use the Passive
Here are a few guidelines, with examples, for using the passive construction wisely and well. These examples will also show you how to rewrite a passive into an active construction.
What Is the Passive Construction?
Many verbs have a passive form. The passive construction inverts the active word order to emphasize what happened, rather than who did it:
Notice three things about this transformation of active order into passive order:
When Is It All Right to Be Passive?
When You Want to Emphasize Results
Despite the admonitions of grammar checkers, the passive construction has a legitimate function. When you want to emphasize results, use the passive. Consider this statement, written three ways. Which is preferable?
None of these is inherently better than the others: It depends on what you wish to emphasize.
When the Sentence Does Not Need an Actor
Sometimes the active construction is easier to understand. But sometimes the passive construction is the clearest way to express your meaning. You must choose the construction that best says what you mean. On these occasions the passive construction is a better choice:
When Is the Passive the Wrong Choice?
The passive construction will be confusing or wordy in these situations:
1. When you write instructions
Write instructions with active or imperative verbs never with passive verbs. Instructions must focus on the action. Instructions must also indicate the actor. Passive constructions frequently omit the actor so the reader cannot tell who should be doing what. Passive verbs use the past participle and thus cannot direct action. Because of these intrinsic features, the passive construction produces vague and confusing instructions:
2. When "it" is the subject of the passive verb
Delete "it should be noted that," "it is expected that," "it is recommended that," "it may be observed that," and similar constructions. I have yet to see an instance when a passive construction using "it" as the subject clarifies anything.
Grammar Checker Note: You do not have to live with the default setting on your grammar checker. Most grammar checkers let you select the features ("long sentences," "wordiness," "passive constructions") you wish to note. Many offer a menu of different pre-set styles, from "technical report" to "advertising."
So, if you are writing a report on an experiment, disable the passive voice feature. Conversely, if you are preparing a user's guide or other set of instructions, make sure that feature is turned on. Back to the text
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