Stefanie Wulff and Ryan Boettger

Title: Passive voice in student technical writing: gender or genre?

Abstract:Passive voice is frequently discussed in technical communication textbooks, and it has been extensively studied in writing research. Textbooks traditionally caution against the use of passive voice, arguing that it impairs comprehension. In contrast, research studies report less conclusive results, pointing to robust shares of passive voice in professional writing samples in service of text organization. For example, 67% of transitive verbs identified in professional engineering documents were constructed in passive voice (Ding, 2001), and ecologists often used passive constructions with clear purposes like emphasizing and organizing information more effectively (Conrad, 1996). Researchers from both these studies found that the passive voice was used in legitimately and appropriately. This raises the question if and to what extent the use of passive voice may depend on the specific text type and/or genres produced.
Similarly, recent research (typically corpus-based) suggests that many structural choices hinge not only on differences between genre and text types, but the gender of the writer. Female writers have been shown to make comparatively more conservative language choices than their male peers in other contexts (Biber, 1995), such that female writing exhibits more features associated with an engaged writing style, while male writing exhibits more features associated with an informational writing style (Argamon et al., 2003). While these previous studies suggest that female writers employ the active voice more often than the passive voice, no study to date has corroborated this hypothesis.
To address this question, we will analyze all occurrences of the passive voice from 1,098 writing assignments produced by 46 female and 41 male students enrolled across sections of an introductory technical writing class and an advanced scientific writing course. Students produced a variety of text types, including instructions, job materials, correspondence, white papers, briefing notes, and critical reviews. Using the concordancing software AntConc (Anthony, 2014), we will examine if and to what extent the use of passive voice varies as a function of text type and the gender of the student writer. More specifically, by means of a Collostructional Analysis (Gries & Stefanowitsch, 2004), we will explore whether passive voice varies between female/male writers and/or across text types as a function of the verb encoded. These quantitative analyses will be complemented with a qualitative analysis of the specific functions associated with passive voice in female and male student writing and in different text types. We will end with an outline of teaching guidelines for the proper use of passive voice.

Anthony, L. (2014). AntConc 3.4.4. Tokyo, Japan: Waseda University.
Argamon, S., Koppel, M., Fine, J., & Shimoni, A. R. (2003). Gender, genre, and writing style in formal written contexts. Text, 23 (3), 321-346.
Conrad, S. M. (1996). Investigating academic texts with corpus-based techniques: An example from biology. Linguistics and Education, 8 (3), 299-326.
Ding, D. (2001). Object-centered—How engineering writing embodies objects: A study of four engineering documents. Technical Communication, 48 (3), 297-308.
Gries, St. Th, & Stefanowitsch, A. (2004). Extending collostructional analysis: a corpus–based perspective on ‘alternations’. International Journal of Corpus Linguistics, 9 (1), 97-129.