The Passive Engineer

Question:Why do engineers write in the passive voice? How can we avoid this?
Bill H., PE
Denver, CO

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:

1. The Passive Sounds Objective

2. Using I or We Sounds Unprofessional

3. The Passive Emphasizes Results

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:

"First we subjected the blintzer coils to the Hinzlefetzer stress test. Then we measured the stress effects in bluto units. We found an unusually low aggregation of blutomin in the coil material. Then we initiated another round of tests. Finally, we ordered out for pizza and diet cola."

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!):

Not: The project was managed successfully.
[. . . by invisible people from the Planet Zonar?]

But: We managed the project successfully.
[. . . and we're proud of it!]


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?

When Is It All Right to Be Passive?

When Is the Passive the Wrong Choice?


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:

I repaired the computer.

The computer was repaired by me.

Notice three things about this transformation of active order into passive order:

  1. The object of the active sentence —"the computer"— becomes the subject of the passive sentence.

  2. The passive verb has two parts: a form of the verb "be" ("was") and the past participle of the main verb ("repaired"). Other forms of the verb "be" include these: am, is, are, were, have been, had been, will have been. Other examples of past participles (which are not the same as the past tense, even when they look the same!) include "seen," "shown," and "swum."

  3. The actor is now part of a prepositional phrase ("by me"). Passive constructions let you omit the actor altogether:


The computer was repaired.


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?

Our clients followed our advice.
[The emphasis falls on "our clients."]

Our advice was followed by our clients.
Our advice was followed.
[The emphasis falls on "our advice."]

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 the actor is not important ("The solution was heated to 100º").

  • When the actor is unknown ("The jewelry has been stolen").

  • When you do not wish to name the actor ("One thousand dollars has been contributed").


When Is the Passive the Wrong Choice?

The passive construction will be confusing or wordy in these situations:

1. When you write instructions.

2. When "it" is the subject of the passive verb


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:


It should be noted that any change to the procedure must be recorded in the master file.

Active/ Imperative:

Note: When you change the procedure, record the change in the master file.



Static-sensitive components are stored in protective enclosures.

Active/ Imperative:

Store static-sensitive components in protective enclosures.



The form must be signed by the employee to authorize release of physician information to the insurance company.


The employee must sign the form to authorize release of physician information to the insurance company.


Sign the form to authorize release of physician information to the insurance company.


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.


It should be noted that any modification may seriously impact our present transmission rate and/or our system production.


Any modification may seriously impact our present transmission rate and/or our system production.


It is recommended that this new policy be instituted at once.


We recommend instituting this new policy at once.


Institute this new policy at once. Passive:

It has been agreed that additional journal and log offloads will be run on production.


We have agreed to run additional journal and log offloads on production.


Run additional journal and log offloads on production.

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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