The cowardice of the passive voice

Ex-Prime Minister, Boris JohnsonRegular readers will know that I’m a big fan of the use of language and how small changes can drastically alter the meaning or the tone of what’s being said.

In advance of Boris Johnson appearing before the Select Committee who will determine whether he misled parliament, I was struck by one particular phrase that the ex-Prime Minister used in the dossier of evidence that he presented.

In point 4 of the introduction, it says:

…I accept that the House of Commons was misled by my statements…

What’s notable about that sentence is that he uses the passive voice. Basically, Boris Johnson is admitting he told a fib/lie/untruth (whatever you want to call it), but the way he phrases it, means that he doesn’t explicitly take responsibility.

In my opinion, it’s that use of the passive voice (‘was misled’) that is particularly mealy-mouthed. Especially when you see that later in the same paragraph, he’s happy to use the active voice to protest his innocence.

I did not intentionally or recklessly mislead the House on 1 December 2021, 8 December 2021, or on any other date.

It’s not the only time that the passive voice is used to avoid taking responsibility:

If it was “obvious” to me that the Rules and Guidance were not being followed

He could, of course, have said, “if it was obvious I wasn’t following the Rules and Guidance”, but that would – again – effectively be an admission of guilt.

The passive voice has its place. Its use in fiction is commonplace – particularly by authors who want to conceal the truth or heighten the mystery.

It serves to make the person involved not the active participant. To imply that things happened to them, rather than them being the one who is in charge.

How ironic, then, that the Prime Minister – the most powerful person in the country – wants to make out that ‘things happened to them’, rather than them being in charge.

Taking another sentence from Boris Johnson’s dossier of evidence, he makes it clear that’s exactly what he was doing:

I was the Prime Minister of the country, working day and night to manage the Government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic

In many ways, it’s a masterclass in evasion. Be declamatory when you want to make a point: ‘I was this / I did that’, but when it comes to ‘fessing up, neatly shift the blame / responsibility elsewhere.

The cowardice of the passive voice.

One thought on “The cowardice of the passive voice”

  1. Thanks for this! I have often felt something off-putting about various speeches, and this could be at least one reason – a subconscious recognition of someone dodging responsibility…I will be on the lookout for it more broadly now!

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