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September 4, 1972

Active Support For The Passive Voice

JAMA. 1972;221(10):1161-1162. doi:10.1001/jama.1972.03200230047014

Some taboos of literary style, which through constant repetition have become almost law, provoke second thoughts. One example is the virtual ban on the passive voice. Only the active voice is assumed to possess the vigorous quality of persuasion. As every newspaper reporter knows, "Man bites dog" has more bite than "dog bitten by man."

Conceding that the active voice may be best for the kind of writing that is intended to persuade, question, argue, or stir the emotions, many find it ill-suited to writing that is primarily meant to convey factual information. The active voice may be appropriate for tangential medical writing, such as medical editorials, valedictory addresses, sermons, commemorative lectures and critical comments, but it is out of place in core medical writing, which largely consists of reports of cases, observations, investigations, or surgical operations. Take for instance the following: "The patient was admitted to the coronary care