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Passive voice is used

August 5, 2008

Last year Andy shared with us one of his biggest pet peeves about the way people communicate: misuse of adverbs. My biggest workplace pet peeve: people who use passive voice. A few days ago I had this conversation with Ms. X, a staff member at my client:

Me: Do you know where I can find the XYZ report, Ms. X?

Ms. X: [Stares blankly at me for a good 15 seconds] … It was never done.

Me: Do you know who I could ask for some help on this XYZ-related project, then?

Ms. X: That would be the XYZ analyst. [Pause] That’s me.

So very clearly when she said, “It was never done,” what she actually meant was “I didn’t do my job.” She was hoping that I would not make the connection that the XYZ analyst was the one responsible for completing the XYZ report. But alas, I saw through her games.

This is not the first, nor will it be the last, time that someone tries to use passive voice to shirk responsibility. People do it all the time. You break something, and no one sees. So how do you describe what happened? Do you say “I broke it,” or “It broke”? It is immediately obvious that using passive voice in these contexts is a ploy to avoid responsibility, so I’m not sure why people who do it all the time think it works.

If someone else was responsible, and you knew who it was, you would include their name, so as to not leave it open to suggestion that you are the guilty party. If Ms. X knew the XYZ report was my responsibility, would she have told someone “It was never done”? I highly doubt it. She would have said “Adam didn’t do it.”

So do yourself a favor in your workplace and avoid using passive voice, unless you want to sound like a simple minded fool.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. andy permalink*
    August 5, 2008 11:26 am

    I love passive voice. It’s a great tool for when you break something but nobody was there to see it and nobody can really verify that you were in the area.

    Person: Hey, what happened to this picture frame?
    Me: I don’t know. It broke.

    Confirm that it’s broken, yet admit nothing. Like rape, it’s the perfect crime.

  2. August 5, 2008 11:38 am

    In my mind passive voices makes you sound very guilty.

    A better approach would be to say “It is broken.” Acknowledge the current state of the picture frame without speaking to the action that caused it to be in that state. Vaguely speaking of how it got to be broken is very suspicious.

  3. andy permalink*
    August 5, 2008 11:42 am

    I don’t care if I sound guilty. Grammatically it frees me from responsibility while not lying and that’s enough for me.

  4. Andrea permalink
    August 5, 2008 12:40 pm

    I agree that using the passive voice in the workplace can make you look guilty. However, I do use it sometimes when I want to avoid directing blame at my co-workers even if it is their fault. I would hope they would do the same for me if I was in a tough situation and was behind in finishing something.

  5. August 5, 2008 2:59 pm

    The other thing that really bothers me: the phrase “Now more than ever.”

    Get over yourselves people. Whatever aspect of your life/job/country you are talking about, odds are what you are going through is not the worst it’s ever been.

  6. August 8, 2008 9:23 am

    One of the attorneys that I work for hates the phrase “at the end of the day”. Apparently, his clients use it a lot, along with the word “amazing”, which, he feels, is used too liberally.

    Personally, I hate the word “basically”. Don’t condense and condescend. Give me the real deal.

    At the end of the day, we all basically put our pants on the same way. Now, more than ever, it’s one leg after the other.

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