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January 11, 1985

Use of the Passive Voice

JAMA. 1985;253(2):201. doi:10.1001/jama.1985.03350260047018

To the Editor.—  James Ransom1 has lately advised readers to "use the passive voice." If all medical writers were well-trained, skillful, and judicious verbal craftsmen and if they all cared deeply about the communicative quality and intensity of what they write, I might agree with Dr Ransom that they should use the passive where appropriate. But how will they judge where it is appropriate? Experienced readers of medical prose know that their colleagues exert no such judgment. They just use the passive voice all the time. The reasons, given in detail elsewhere,2 are these: the force of tradition, the need to conform, the wish to appear formal, impersonal, and "scientific," and a craven desire to place the maximum distance between the work done and the doer of it.A little history may reveal some truths about the passive. Many commentators think its widespread use derives from the influence