A link was posted recently on Twitter to an IELTS site looking at writing processes and describing graphs.
The following caught my eye:
…natural processes are often described using the active voice, whereas man-made or manufacturing processes are usually described using the passive.
The claim seems to go back to 2011 online (http://ielts-simon.com/ielts-help-and-english-pr/2011/02/ielts-writing-task-1-describe-a-process-1.html).
This is an interesting claim. It has been shown that passives are more common in abstract, technical and formal writing (Biber, 1988 as cited by McEnery & Xiao, 2005). Here the claim is about specific written texts on natural processes and man-made processes.
Well we can simplify this by asking are there more passives used when writing about man-made processes than when writing about natural processes? Since if you use passive clauses then you don’t use active clauses and we can come to a conclusion by deduction.
BYU-Wikipedia corpus can be used to get approximations of natural process writing and man-made process writing. The keywords I used (for the title word) were ecology and manufacturing. Filtering out unwanted texts took longer than expected especially for the manufacturing corpus. In the end I had an ecology corpus of 77 articles and 153,621 words and a manufacturing corpus of 116 articles and 98,195 words.
The search term I used to look for passives was are|were [v?n*]. This gave me a total of 293 passives for ecology and 304 passives for manufacturing. According to the Lancaster LL calculator this showed a significant overuse of passives in manufacturing compared to ecology. According to the log ratio score this is about 2 times as common (if I understand this statistic correctly). Now this does not mean much as a lot of the texts in the wikipedia corpora won’t be specifically about processes but still it is interesting.
What is more interesting are the types of verbs used in passives in ecology and manufacturing. The top ten in each case:
Thanks for reading.
Biber, D. (1988) Variation Across Speech and Writing(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).
McEnery, A. M. and Xiao, R. Z. (2005) Passive constructions in English and Chinese: A corpus-based contrastive study . Proceedings from the Corpus Linguistics Conference Series, 1 (1). ISSN 1747-9398 Retrieved from http://eprints.lancs.ac.uk/63/1/CL2005_(22)_%2D_passive_paper_%2D_McEnery_and_Xiao.pdf