Service of the Passive Tense

April 22nd, 2010

Categories: Arrogance, Communications, Information, Language, Manner of Speech, Passive Tense, Speaking

firing1People use the passive tense to address something painful or uncomfortable such as a death or firing: “Joe will be missed.” Those words are removed from the situation and don’t tug at heartstrings. They are impersonal and far less difficult to say than “I or we will miss Joe.” I’ve always felt that this is why people who normally speak clearly revert to an archaic, haughty turn-of-phrase like this.

responsibility1A boss or parent who wants to duck confrontation might say, “Responsibility must be taken,” instead of “Felicia, please make this happen-I’m counting on you.” The first version is so fuzzy that the speaker risks nobody within hearing distance picking up that gauntlet. The effect? I predict inactivity and more increasingly desperate passive pronouncements.

Some think the passive voice is appropriate for formal occasions because it makes them sound elegant, like a proper English butler. “It is expected that our members enjoy the holiday punch,” makes my eyes glaze over and not because I’ve had too much of the spiked potion. So much more, well, punch accompanies “Members crowd the bar from Thanksgiving through New Years for the frisky fisherman’s punch.”

mountrushmore1The passive comes in handy when a writer doesn’t know something or can’t be bothered to look it up. “Likenesses of US Presidents are carved into a South Dakota mountain,” sounds as though there’s a chunk of information somewhere when actually the writer was too lazy to look up that “Gutzon Borglum sculpted the heads of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson,  Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln into Mount Rushmore, located in the Keystone, S.D. vicinity.”

Do you use the passive tense? When? Does hearing it spoken annoy you more than reading it?


10 Responses to “Service of the Passive Tense”

  1. ASK Said:

    A former boss of mine called the passive tense the “voice of avoidance.”

    But in its defense, it can add some variety to a story or article. Best to include both active and passive verbs in a long piece. Let’s be honest; Do any of us listen that closely to what other people are saying?

    I think hearing it is less offensive than reading it.

    And the active voice can be annoying…how many times have you listened to someone peppering their talk with “ah, you know?”

  2. Jeremiah Said:

    While I generally dislike using the passive tense in both speech and text, as you rightly point out, doing so can occasionally be quite helpful.

    It is a little like how Italians use the third person instead of the familiar when addressing someone to whom they owe respect or do not know well, or how the military insist on subordinates addressing their seniors as “sir.” Both of these serve to diminish familiarity by putting distance between people that might otherwise not exist.

    When I was fairly junior, working at a big NY Stock Exchange company, one day I found myself at a meeting in the chairman’s office, having to answer questions. I called him “Mr,” and he stopped me and said my name is “Al.” He was a wonderful man whom I came to know quite well over the years, but I never did become entirely comfortable calling him “Al.”

    I’m a reserved person, and I like it that way. I prefer to place distance between me and almost everyone else, and the more the better. Since I don’t really care to know well most of the people that I meet in my everyday life, I very much resent the way modern day informality, especially in how we communicate with each other, makes it a sin for me not to be familiar with them.

    Furthermore, maybe your “Joe” was an “SOB!” It is far more truthful, instead of “We will miss Joe,” to say, “Joe will be missed [at least by his mother].”

  3. EAM Said:

    I have used it in the past (no pun intended) when writing papers in college and other pieces of correspondence and I didn’t realize it until it was pointed out. Hearing it spoken is annoying because it makes it sound as though the person is talking in the third person, not active.

    Anyway, it’s something I continue to work, well because, I don’t want to be perceived as a passive person.

  4. Jeanne Byington Said:


    I love the term, “voice of avoidance.” Says it all as far as I am concerned, ah, you know?! Tee hee.


    The third person in French or Italian is a sign of respect and formality that is recognized by most people who speak those languages, I suspect. It achieves space between people but in a different way than the passive tense in English does.

    And I never thought of the speaker using the passive to get out of an uncomfortable situation where he or she doesn’t want to knock a dead or fired person although I think I sensed it [more about this under my response to EAM]. You could be right about Joe–maybe even his mother doesn’t miss him but his gerbil or kitty cat might.


    I agree with you, hearing the passive tense grates more than reading it. When I hear “She will be missed,” I think “the speaker doesn’t mean it.” And that loops back to what Jeremiah said–how handy to use it when you don’t like the person.

  5. KF Said:

    A good point. I think sometimes folks use the passive tense and are not even aware they are doing it.

    Using the active voice has so much going for it. One of the most interesting skills I read about was how to avoid using forms of the verb “to be”. People do it constantly, as I probably have in this comment.

    Many years ago I read a piece on Mario Cuomo, maybe in the NYT Magazine. Commenting on how well he speaks and writes, the author reported that Mario had told him that when he was in high school (maybe St. Francis Prep in Queens or Bklyn.) he was given assignments in English class to write essays WITHOUT using a form of the verb “to be”.

    It’s hard! But what more lively, interesting sentences one writes. I try, when I think of it, to follow that good advice. It’s not exactly about avoiding the passive tense, but it does make for good copy.

  6. Jeanne Byington Said:


    I immediately thought of “to be or not to be!” I am now afraid to look back at the posts on this blog to see how many instances of “to be” there are. Yikes. Good tip. Mario Cuomo was an outstanding speaker!

  7. Christine B. Whittemore Said:

    Grrr on passive tense… Although at times, it must be used to best capture the amorphous entities and uncomfortable unmentionables, as you so aptly state.

    The excessive use of passivity usually communicates to me discomfort with language and with ownership over the thought process of writing. [See, I can get quite pompous in my use of passive voice]. Much better to take ownership and actively engage, something that blogging has reinforced in so many ways.

    Now, what about all of the other tenses that get massacred in the English language: conditional, subjunctive…

  8. Jeanne Byington Said:


    I should cover the conditional on the blog as much for its superb manipulation value as anything else. Thanks for the suggestions!

    Pompous is a great word to associate with the passive tense. You also capture one of its uses as a way to try to duck ownership of a remark.

  9. Lucrezia Said:

    The passive tense is mostly used by pussyfooters, those unable and/or unwilling to face facts. People die, get fired, lose their shirt along with other miseries. Skirting issues in such a fashion may be seen as a kindness to the bereaved and shirtless. It’s not and it doesn’t help. Kudos to that former boss who termed it as “the voice of avoidance.” It would be a privilege to work with/and or under such a person.

  10. Jeanne Byington Said:


    KF noted in her comment that at times people use the passive tense and don’t realize it. I bet that’s true, but pussyfooting may be the unconscious inspiration. And I agree…I love “the voice of avoidance.” Wish I’d thought of it!

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