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Where Grammar, Content, and Professional Practice Meet: The Case of the Passive Voice

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2018 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Salt Lake City, Utah

Publication Date

June 23, 2018

Start Date

June 23, 2018

End Date

July 27, 2018

Conference Session

Course Structuring for Effective Student Engagement

Tagged Division

Civil Engineering

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Paper Authors


Susan Conrad Portland State University

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Susan Conrad, Professor of Applied Linguistics, is the head of the Civil Engineering Writing Project, in which engineering faculty, engineering practitioners, and writing specialists collaborate to improve writing instruction in civil engineering courses. She has written numerous articles and books about English grammar, discourse, and corpus linguistics.

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Kenneth Lamb California State Polytechnic University, Pomona

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Kenneth is an Associate Professor at Cal Poly Pomona. Kenneth is a licensed Professional Engineer in Nevada with experience working on a variety of water, storm water, and waster water systems projects. He holds degrees from the University of Nevada Las Vegas (BSCE and PhD) and from Norwich University (MCE).

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Timothy James Pfeiffer P.E. Foundation Engineering, Inc.

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Mr. Pfeiffer is a senior engineer and manager at Foundation Engineering in Portland, Oregon.

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This paper demonstrates how language choices, engineering content and the practice of civil engineering are interwoven, using the passive voice as an example. The example is part of a larger project, funded by the National Science Foundation, whose purpose is to improve the preparation of undergraduate civil engineering students for writing in industry. The passive voice makes a useful case study from the project because faculty and students are often confused about it. Advice about passive voice in handbooks is contradictory: sometimes it is described as boring, deceptive and best avoided, sometimes as reflecting the scientific method and keeping writers from sounding egocentric. In our project, engineers in industry discuss the choice between active and passive voice as related to meeting client needs, establishing responsibility, and managing liability, but these principles are not connected to active and passive in handbooks.

The paper comprises three parts: • Research about the use of passive voice in 60 reports by civil engineering students, 60 reports by professional civil engineers in industry, and 50 journal articles by civil engineering faculty: We share linguistic analyses which found that, even when they write capstone reports for real clients, students use passive voice at a frequency that is more like journal articles than workplace documents. The linguistic data is supplemented with interviews of 20 industry practitioners, in which they explain conditions under which they choose active over passive, and interviews with 50 students, in which they explain why they choose passive over active. Student interviews reveal common misconceptions, such as the belief that passives necessarily express objective information, which results in ineffective engineering content (e.g., justifying a design decision with "It was hoped that..."). • Description of new teaching materials: The materials teach students how to choose between active and passive voice and are designed to be integrated into existing civil engineering courses. The materials introduce the conditions under which practitioners favor active voice (for example, overtly establishing their responsibility for an action when it is first mentioned), explicate examples, and provide practice in revising ineffective passive sentences. The materials also counter misconceptions, such as passives being objective. • Assessment of the teaching materials: Effectiveness is assessed by three measures: frequency of passives, effectiveness of passives, and overall effectiveness of the paper as rated by an engineering practitioner. Papers written after the use of the materials have shown improvement on all three measures.

The paper concludes with tips for faculty for introducing the choice between active and passive so that students adapt to different writing contexts and understand considerations in the workplace, not just academia.

Conrad, S., & Lamb, K., & Pfeiffer, T. J. (2018, June), Where Grammar, Content, and Professional Practice Meet: The Case of the Passive Voice Paper presented at 2018 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition , Salt Lake City, Utah. 10.18260/1-2--31240

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