How the Passive Voice Kills Your Message

We should listen to speeches and craft our own messages like detectives, asking whodunnit?
Photo: The White House.

Photo: The White House.

As I listened to President Obama’s State of the Union speech Tuesday night, I admit I was encouraged and moved at times. But I couldn’t help giving each sentence Anat Shenker-Osorio’s passive-voice test.

Shenker-Osorio is author of “Don’t Buy It: The Trouble with Talking Nonsense About the Economy.” She’s a language researcher and consultant and one of my favorite messaging gurus.

As she wrote in the Boston Globe a while back, when Obama—or anybody—uses the passive, they invariably fail to say who is to blame or why the challenges and problems and outrages they’re describing exist in the first place. This failure, in turn, leaves us with no good clues about viable solutions. If we don’t know how we got here, it’s hard to figure out how we get where we want to go.

Shenker-Osorio analyzed a December 2013 speech Obama gave on inequality in America. It was a powerful speech in many ways. Obama defined inequality in America as a “significant issue both morally and economically” and pushed back on the idea that government can’t do anything about it. The messages were profound and novel enough that the speech was heralded as one of the most important—and truly progressive—of his presidency.

But he fell short. Shenker-Osorio summed up the problem this way:

You might think this would make the wealthy tremble in their calfskin loafers. In fact, though, the very grammatical constructions of the speech suggest they have nothing to fear. Even as he made the case for government involvement, Obama’s language signaled something else: that our economic divide is a problem of origin unknown, and thus beyond our power to solve.

How could you do this with simple, seemingly innocuous grammatical choices? As Shenker-Osorio explains, when talking about the problem, Obama used a sentence structure that “excludes human actors from the subject position.” For example, he said “The deck is stacked” against the working class. Why? Because “taxes were slashed,” and “growth has flowed to a fortunate few.” Further, “his words suggested abstract ideas were capable of independent action”—the economy, for example, seems to be somehow running itself and writing its own rules.

This language gives us no indication of who did it, why, or how—who stacked the deck? Who designs the economy to run a certain way? It’s like he’s saying “And then inequality happened.” Like it was inevitable. Fate. A natural occurrence beyond anyone’s control.

Thus, the difference between passive and active voice can mean the difference between, on the one hand, seeing there’s a problem, and on the other, seeing a problem and seeing what needs to be done about it. Research bears this out. The way that you talk about a problem like inequality—the origin story you give it—“shapes what you think ought to happen next” to fix it. Anat writes (with my emphasis):

This is the danger when we suggest that no one is to blame. Unless we describe problems as having been made by people, it’s reasonable to conclude they cannot be fixed by people. Until we can talk about who did what to get us here, in ways that extend to our very sentence structure, it will be hard to put forth a compelling case that we can change course.

Now, the SOTU was definitely a “take action” kind of speech, more focused on solutions than problems and calculatedly without finger-pointing. To his credit, Obama avoided some of the worst message-killing passive (there was lots of “I will use my authority to…” and “Let’s work together to…” here, not to mention all the investing and building and protecting and fixing to be done by him and by us all and by Congress). Unfortunately, however, he reverted again to the passive voice when talking about threats to justice and equity: “Inequality has deepened.” “Upward mobility has stalled.” “The Voting Rights Act was weakened.”

The passive voice kills. So, we should all listen to speeches and craft our own messages like detectives on a case: Who has deepened inequality and how? Who has done what to stall upward mobility? Who threatened citizens’ right to vote by weakening the Voting Rights Act? How did they do it? What was their motivation? Who gained? Who lost?

Imagine the power and clarity Obama could have achieved about the obvious and logical steps for us to take as a country to restore American justice and equality for all if he’d opted for declarative sentences about who did what to whom.

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  1. Howard Garrett says:

    This is so true. It continually amazes and frustrates me that whenever massive pollution events or corporate crime is reported the culprits are undisturbed behind their smokescreens. When somebody gets a DUI their name goes out in the media, but when the Gulf of Mexico is devastated by the reckless scramble to extract carbon fuels the responsible companies’ owners and leaders can hide behind a few stool pigeons who take the media heat for a while then use their bloated accounts to whitewash their evil deeds. Kudos to Sightline for exposing the names of the PR and legal firms providing comfort and propaganda for coal and oil exporters through Washington.

  2. Stu says:

    While the passive voice is often not the best choice, it can be powerful at times, and it is sometimes necessary–for variation, to de-emphasize part of a message to allow other parts to shine brighter, and for political reasons.

    Would being more aggressive always be better for Obama? Maybe, but sometimes swinging for the fences results not in a home run but a strikeout.

  3. Amy Waterman says:

    I agree with Stu. I would go one step further and say that if Obama specifically called out actors (large corporate interests or more specifically insurance, oil, gun lobbies for example), he risks alienating players with whom he as to maintain some goodwill. He cannot make much policy alone and in our democracy, or what’s left of it, he has to work on incremental change with some involvement from Congress and corporate interests. His language is an accurate reflection of his challenges and achievable goals.

    • Faith says:

      I agree, Amy. And furthermore, his state of the union speech was also an attempt to reunite and start to recover from the deep divisions that brought our government nearly to a halt last year. If he went all “active” voice by specifically calling out people to blame for inequality and going backwards in voting rights, etc., that explicit finger-pointing would have only served to further divide. I mean, we can read between the lines, right? That said, I do believe it is important to use passive voice judiciously.

  4. TOM CIVILETTI says:

    I agree with Stu and Faith – passive voice has value, both in style and in content. At times an action deserves more attention than the actor. This does not that bad actors mean should be able to avoid responsibility.

  5. Anna Fahey says:

    Good points here, folks. I agree that there is a time and place for the passive voice–sparingly applied it can be powerful in its own right. And maybe the SOTU is one of those places. However, it’s a problem if leaders at all levels, pundits, journalists, and anybody else writing about this stuff NEVER break out of passive when describing the biggest problems of our time. It’s cumulative. The point is that in one speech it can be a cop out. Over time it can actually shape the way we conceive a problem and the way we go about dealing with it (or failing to).

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