The passive engineer
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“The Passive Engineer”. Reported by Austin Fadely. Passive voice (PV) is a specific style of writing. It emphasizes action rather than actors. Passive constructions are a form of the verb “to be” and a past participle. Not many people understand the purpose of passive voice.

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“The Passive Engineer”

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“The Passive Engineer”

Reported by Austin Fadely


Passive voice (PV) is a specific style of writing.

It emphasizes action rather than actors.

Passive constructions are a form of the verb “to be” and a past participle.

Not many people understand the purpose of passive voice.

Active voice (AV) emphasizes actors.

Active constructions are anything that is not a combination of “to be” and a past participle.

What is passive, what is active?


Passive

i.e.: The ball was thrown (by Tom).

Notice the verb constructions.

Also notice that by Tom is not needed.

You can omit the actor with PV.

Active

i.e.: Tom threw the ball.

Tom is the subject, not the ball.

Emphasis is on actor, not action.

Passive vs. Active


First bad reason to use PV : “it sounds objective.”

  • Many professions require objectivity, like engineers, scientists and businesspeople

  • But the passive voice can be vague, and it will not hide bad or subjective methods

  • Good writers do not compromise their objectivity by being vague


Second bad reason to use PV:“I” and “We” sounds unprofessional.

  • Not true, “I” and “We” does not sound unprofessional; just avoid sounding tedious.

  • PV is more of a political tool; it can be used to completely omit the actors.

  • One can use PV to avoid taking responsibility i.e.: “mistakes were made” (PE).


Sometimes it’s good to be vague

  • There are cases where one wants to be vague; otherwise, we would not have the passive voice.

  • PV can soften harsh or alarming comments.

  • i.e.: “the resume was sent without being proofread” (PE)

  • This sounds less harsh than, “I sent your resume without proofreading it.”


The good reason to use PV: emphasize results.

  • Since the subject of PV is always the action, PV can be used to emphasize results.

  • i.e.: I collected the data.

  • vs.: The data were collected.

  • The latter is an example of PV, and it emphasizes “data” rather than “I.”


So when is it okay to use PV?

  • 1. When the actor is not important.

  • i.e.: The Statue of Liberty was given to the U.S. (who cares who built it, haha).

  • 2. When you do not know who the actor is.

  • i.e.: The house was robbed last night. (Nobody knows who did it).

  • 3. When the actor wishes to remain nameless.

  • i.e.: $1000 was donated to the sanctuary.


When should PV be avoided?

  • 1. When writing instructions.

  • PV can often be wordy and confusing if it is used too often, as is the case with instructions.

  • It is too easy to lose track of who should do what.

  • i.e.: A is connected to B on apparatus X which is then connected to cord F which is fed into apparatus Q.

  • vs.: Connect A to B; then connect X to cord F, and feed cord F into apparatus Q.


When should PV be avoided?

  • 2. Do not use “it” constructions like “it should be noted that…, it would seem that…etc….”

  • Using these “it” constructions does not clarify anything; they just take up room and time.


Works Cited

  • “The Passive Engineer,” Professional Training Company. Updated: Nov 21, 2005 <http://blackboard.umbc.edu/webapps/portal/frameset.jsp?tab=courses&url=/bin/common/course.pl?course_id=_15124_1>Accessed: Feb. 24, 2006.


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