Effective Technical Writing in the Information Age

When To Use The Passive Voice


As a student writer, you will frequently encounter circumstances favoring the passive voice, especially when you prepare technical reports based on labs you have completed. You might even be told never to use "I" or "we" in your papers. The convention of writing scientific reports (especially the "Experimental" section) largely in the passive voice is strong and sensible, and you should not fight it, but know how to work within the boundaries. When used correctly, the passive voice has the desired impact of focusing the reader’s and writer’s attention on methodology and data generation, and it helps to foster objectivity, universality, and efficiency.

Passive voice, couched within direct sentences containing simple subjects and verbs, is generally preferred in the following circumstances:

  • Throughout the "Experimental" section of a scientific report, or anywhere that you must summarize your own or another author’s experimental procedure or findings, but the actual inclusion of names would be awkward, distracting, or unconventional:

    Initially, a fractured steel specimen was plated with electroless nickel and secured in an epoxy mount by vacuum impregnation.

    The findings of the November 1997 report to NASA were based on DMTA, DSC, and FTIR test results.

  • In formal abstracts (condensed summaries) that introduce papers:

    Sensitivity experiments are reviewed to investigate the influence of Pacific sea surface temperature anomalies on blocking in the Northern Hemisphere.

  • When it makes sense to emphasize the receiver of the action rather than the doer:

    The samples should be monitored regularly and should be dried carefully once they are cool.

    Winter wheat is planted in the autumn and ripens in the following spring or summer.

  • When emphasis or variety demands it, or when the flow of your paragraph suggests that a passive construction is the most clear choice:
One facet of multiple phase transformation can be seen through an examination of the gas gathering process. This process . . .