In October 2020, Kayleigh McEnany stood before the press to discuss President Trump’s decision to campaign in public after discovering that Hope Hicks tested positive for COVID-19. The coronavirus pandemic had claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands at this point, so there was understandable media outrage. McEnany, the Press Secretary for President Trump, declared that “it was deemed safe for” Trump to go out in public despite the real possibility he could infect people with coronavirus. Yet, McEnany’s sentence leaves a lot of questions unanswered. For example, who deemed it safe? Doctors? Trump? A sanitation worker? She used the time-honored political passive voice technique to ensure the actor in the sentence was a mystery.
If your secondary education experience was anything like mine, you heard the adage that you should avoid using the passive voice whenever possible. I cannot envision which of my English teachers informed me of this rule, but I distinctly remember it being drilled into students’ heads.
This is because we often speak with a definitive subject that is better off receiving the emphasis in a given sentence. The passive voice allows the speaker to emphasize the object receiving an action, rather than the doer of said action.
“Dinner was made by Dan.”
This sentence sounds overly formal and unnatural. Also, it would be nice of us to give Dan the credit he deserves for making dinner by placing him first in the sentence:
“Dan made dinner.”
The passive voice loses even more points because it can’t even be used in every situation. Verbs like clap, laugh, and occur don’t work in passive sentences like “The performance was clapped…”, “The jokes were laughed…”, or “The event was occurred….” Speaking and writing in active voice is easier to teach due to its more comprehensive range of applicability.
When using the passive voice, it becomes easy for the speaker to shift listeners’ attention to their own advantage and, in doing so, manipulate what the audience focuses on. This sounds innocent enough in articles talking about how “Biden was sworn in on January 20th” because—to most people—it made little difference who had done the swearing-in (sorry, Justice Roberts).
True to the politician’s stereotype, however, we also have many examples of politicians using this tense irresponsibly. Both Bush presidents and Bill Clinton are infamously guilty of using some variant of the passive voice line “Mistakes were made” to indirectly talk about the Iran-Contra scandal, the Abu Ghraib torture scandals, or administration officials discussing banking policy in front of fundraisers. This syntactic construction allowed a former president to omit the agent of the mistakes—himself and his administration.
As a perfectly grammatical sentence, most people wouldn’t think to question who made the mistakes. This is where things get sneaky. Had he provided the doer but not the object: “My administration made,” we would have immediately wondered why he didn’t finish his sentence. In this scenario, the reader or listener is more aware that they are missing information: what did the administration make? Using passive voice allowed the president to avoid direct blame for what happened under his administration. Thus, people in power use passive voice to shape conversations in their favor. In other words, “language is the vehicle of politics.”
Researchers have found correctly interpreting passive sentences to be more challenging for people than in active voice. Our brain expects linguistic information to come in a particular order. In other words, we expect the doer to come first, followed by whatever was done. Since passive constructions flip the order of ‘players’ in a sentence, it takes us an extra beat to correctly assign the roles. A 2003 study by Fernanda Ferreira looked at the way we speak can affect the listener’s comprehension. She found that passive sentences were interpreted by relying on time-efficient heuristics rather than syntactic algorithms.
You probably have already guessed it, but the passive voice is not the only way politicians use speech to tweak our perception of what they say. Whether it’s vagueness, dishonesty, distorted information, or changing topics, politics has created linguistic strategies designed with the politician’s success in mind at their constituents’ expense.
For instance, at the 2016 presidential debate, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton were asked how they would lower healthcare costs and “make coverage better.” In what became a classic speech style for Trump during his presidential term, he used his response time to attack the Affordable Care Act. He made a few vague mentions that the ACA had to be “repealed and replaced.” In other words, he shifted the conversation’s focus onto the problems with government healthcare rather than presenting ideas for how to reform it.
In pragmatics, this is a violation of something called the maxim of relevance. When speaking, we assume certain ‘guidelines’ to determine how we should talk to communicate clearly. These are called Grice’s Maxims. Trump’s avoidance-based approach to answering questions in the 2016 presidential debates exemplifies violation of the maxim of relevance, which states that we assume a speaker to say things relevant to the conversation at hand.
It’s important to note that these guidelines can be broken, and indeed they are appropriately broken in certain situations. For instance, a comedy show may rely heavily on sarcasm. But there is a marked difference between a comedian whose goal is to entertain and a politician whose duty is to inform, guide, and protect.
For various reasons, I guarantee that no politician would ever agree to a ban on using the passive voice when they speak. Lucky for us, I’m not asking them to.
No, I’m giving you this information so that you start looking deeper into not just what our representatives are telling us, but how they are communicating and what their communication styles say about their intentions. At the end of the day, we live in a democracy; we have the power to choose who is in charge of our country. The way a person speaks can say a lot about their integrity and values. By giving the passive voice a moment in the spotlight, I hope to provide you with an example of the power of understanding speech beyond simply the words coming out of a person’s mouth.
The headline picture is a satirical image depicting an imagined conversation between Former President Bush and Former President Trump. The Commoner is not claiming it is a direct quote of a conversation that took place.
Ellie is a regular contributor at The Commoner, focusing on the Latin American experience in the USA and international affairs. She graduated from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2018 with a bachelor’s degree in linguistics and has since taught English as a foreign language both online and in Mexico. She enjoys listening to podcasts about foreign culture and annoying her fat and sassy tortoiseshell cat with lots of love and pets.