Mistakes Were Made

It’s a classic in the annals of political bologna: “mistakes were made.” Politicians since Ulysses S. Grant have used it to evade taking personal responsibility for their blunders. Instead of being honest and forthright and simply saying, “I made a mistake,” they use what English teachers call the “passive voice,” which inverts the normal word order and doesn’t say who or what actually performed the action. Mistakes were made. By whom? By someone who is trying to cover his butt. The late political speechwriter William Safire called this political use of the passive voice “passive evasive.”

Partly because of this political misuse, the passive voice has often been maligned. Experts tell us to always use the active voice: I made a mistake. But English has a passive voice because it sometimes serves a very good purpose.

If I’m just trying to evade any personal responsibility for my mistakes, then I’m using the passive voice because I’m a coward and a weasel and shouldn’t be trusted. But what if I’m addressing you and you’re the one who made the mistake? Because the passive voice lets us not say who made the mistake, the sentence will be exactly the same.

Mistakes were made. [i.e., by me]

Mistakes were made. [i.e., by you]

Even though those sentences look exactly the same, they are really two very different sentences; they have different meanings. If I’m talking to you about mistakes you made, I might use the passive voice to avoid being unnecessarily accusatory. Maybe I want to get past blaming you for the mistakes and focus instead on fixing them. If I start by bluntly confronting you with your mistakes, that may create some psychological resistance that will actually get in the way of solving the problem.

(“Create some psychological resistance” — that’s a polite way of saying “you’ll get ticked off.”)

If I follow the experts’ advice to use the active voice and say “You made a mistake,” that sentence may make it harder for us to work together to actually fix the problem. This too is a kind of writing in bad faith: simply following the experts’ advice instead of thinking for ourselves to answer those three fundamental questions:

What am I trying to say?

Who am I talking to?

And why?

No one else can answer those questions for you: not Strunk and White, not your college English teacher, and certainly not me. When you’re writing, you’re the authority, the only authority that counts, because you’re the only one who can answer those three questions. And in answering those questions, you may need the passive voice to help do the job you’re trying to do. (And if you’re like me, you need all the help you can get.)

The experts also tell us that writing well is writing deliberately, but there’s more to it than that. Consciously choosing the passive voice to hide behind — that’s just as deliberate as consciously choosing it to avoid accusing someone. But can a piece of writing be considered “good writing,” however deliberate and stylistically competent, if its purpose is to hide the truth from readers?

I think that’s a whole ‘nother kind of bad faith: creating an illusion that I am trying to communicate, when really I’m just using the language in a self-serving way to protect my own reputation.

Good writing is more than just making deliberate choices; it’s communication. If I’m hiding behind the passive voice to avoid taking the blame, that’s not communicating; that’s just lying. That’s me not telling the whole truth, because I’m afraid that the whole truth will make me look bad.

But if I’m using the passive voice because someone else screwed up and I’m trying to find a way to work together to fix it, that’s not lying. That’s diplomacy. And it’s not just good writing; it’s the best kind of writing there is, because it says so much more than the words alone seem to say. Instead of accusing you, I’m letting you know I want us to work together. And that is communication: using language to bring us together to find solutions whenever mistakes are made.

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