Active vs Passive Voice

When should you use active voice and when should you use passive voice? I always thought it was easy, but after watching a presentation by a friend at the English Research Symposium at USU, I’m not so sure. (You can check out the abstract of that presentation here.) If you don’t know exactly what the difference between these two writing styles is, here it is.

Active Voice
Active voice is a sentence where the subject comes first, then the verb, and finally an object (if any). Writing in active voice is easy (if you have a subject), direct, and not wordy.

Subject + Verb + Object = Active Voice
I + ate + an apple. = Active Sentence

Passive Voice
Passive voice moves or completely removes the subject of the sentence. When you want to focus on the action rather than the subject, passive voice is a great way to do just that. However, when used excessively, it can become cumbersome to read.

Object + Verb + (Subject) = Passive Voice
An apple + was eaten + (by me). = Passive Sentence

What’s the Big Deal?
I always get frustrated when engineering students are told to only write in active voice or to only write in passive voice. Only after I watched the presentation did I realize why this was a problem. By removing the subject from a sentence, people can shift blame away from themselves.

It’s not obvious when people choose to use passive voice, but once you’re aware, you’ll see how people take advantage of passive voice everywhere. For example, take a sentence like this: This problem could have been avoided if this was done. Now, change it to active voice: This problem could have been avoided if I did this. While this is a vague example, I still believe this sentence shows how deliberately using passive voice can remove oneself from the problem.

While choosing passive voice can have this effect, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use passive voice. There are some sentences where the action is clearly more important and should be written using passive voice. This blog post was completed. (It doesn’t matter that I completed the post.)

Working with Engineers

I worked in the Engineering Writing Center (EWC) at Utah State University (USU). The EWC had just opened, and there was a bit of a learning curve, both for the Writing Consultants and the students. As someone who’s never written a lab report, I was suddenly helping students write and format lab reports, proposals, and other technical documents.

Not only did I not know what I was doing, the engineering students didn’t know what they were doing, either. Whenever I told someone I worked with engineers for writing assignments, there was almost always a chuckle and a comment that engineers aren’t the best writers and it’s great they have an extra resource to help them.

Here’s what I think: Engineers are surprisingly good writers!

The Reason Why
Engineers have it rough. Not only are they writing about complex systems, complete with an entirely separate vocabulary, but they have to focus on format and writing style, too. The hardest part for engineering students is that no style is consistent.

While working in the EWC, I heard that some professors only accepted active voice while others refused to see anything but passive voice. Do you know how hard it is to use active voice while emphasizing the action rather than the subject? It’s impossible! And yet, engineers are asked to do this and more according to the demands of their professors and jobs.

What I Saw
The engineering students I worked with were surprisingly receptive to the demands made of them from professors. While some students didn’t understand the differences between active voice and passive voice or why a comma should or shouldn’t be used, they were willing to learn.

I had a student come in with a proposal. He made more corrections than I did! From a previous appointment at the EWC, he learned from the Writing Consultant the differences between active and passive voice. Not only did he know what to look for, he knew how to change the sentence from passive to active voice.

I believe people should give engineers more credit on their writing abilities. As a Writing Consultant, I was not asked to understand the complex vocabulary or concepts engineering students were learning in their classes. I only had to focus on the grammar, content, and style of their documents. However, engineers are expected to understand something complex and write about it, too.

Engineering students don’t want to become engineers because they like to write, yet they write more than I do. I think they do a pretty good job at it, too.