Avoid the passive voice

Posted on June 19, 2019

Richard Nixon and his press secretary were famously ridiculed for saying “mistakes were made.” And yet, the same phrase has been used by Democrats and Republicans ever since.

To many people, the passive voice seems like a great way to avoid responsibility. E.g., “the deadline was missed,” “the wrong email was sent,” or as Justin Timberlake’s agent said, “I am sorry if anyone was offended by the wardrobe malfunction during the halftime performance.”

But speaking that way is a lousy way to present your case for social change. For example:

Don’t say . . . Say . . .
Five-thousand people lost their jobs at Walmart.

One-hundred Sam’s Club stores were closed.

One-hundred demonstrators were arrested.

The new law ends health insurance for 50,000.

Walmart fired 5,000 loyal hardworking employees to increase profits for the owners.

Walmart closed 100 Sam’s Club stores, laying off thousands of hardworking employees.

At the instruction of the mayor, police illegally arrested 100 peaceful protesters.

The legislature and governor took away healthcare coverage from 50,000 citizens of our state.


Why . . .

When you’re speaking about politics or policy, it is essential to show how you and your side are different from the opponents. It’s not enough to convey “I am on your side,” you have to demonstrate that the political opponents are against their side.

Whenever possible, be proactive in both language and deed.