Created By: johnnye on October 16, 2012 Last Edited By: johnnye on October 17, 2012

Defensive Passive Voice

Someone uses the passive voice to obscure the fact they did something wrong

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Alice has dropped Bob's Priceless Ming Vase on the floor, and when he walks in on the scene of carnage and asks what happened, what does she say?

"It... got broken". Cue guilty expression. She's not blaming anyone else, she's not even making a particular effort to pretend it wasn't her... she just can't quite bring herself to utter the phrase "I broke it."

Many overzealous style guides recommend never using the passive voice at all on the basis that it always sounds evasive, but it's a perfectly ordinary way of speaking in cases when the object of the verb is the focus of the sentence, or the subject is unknown. As such, examples should be of characters deliberately trying to duck blame for something they (or someone they're covering for) have done.

Occasionally subverted as "It got broken. By me."

See also Strange-Syntax Speaker.


  • Fresh Meat, Josie tells Kingsley that "Heather's arm got broken," only for Vod to walk in and correct her that to "No, you broke it." She goes through several other excuses only for other characters to walk in each time and repeat that she broke Heather's arm.
Community Feedback Replies: 4
  • October 16, 2012
    • A kind of Weasel Words often employed by politicians and other public figures when "apologizing" for some misdeed is the individual in question observing that "Mistakes were made", which, of course, fails to specify who made the mistakes.
  • October 16, 2012
    The promotional flyers for The Doom Generation claim that "someone ends up dying" whenever the protagonists stop somewhere to obscure the fact that they're dying because the protagonists are killing them.
  • October 16, 2012
    ^That's not the passive voice. In fact, making this about the passive voice is probably a bad idea, as people in general--even professional writers--seem to be unable to identify the passive voice a majority of the time. Strunk & White's The Elements of Style, for example, contains four examples supposedly of the passive voice, but only one of them actually is (and that one was awkward for reasons that had nothing to do with the passive voice--but that's another story).

    "I've got it! The patient was killed by his own doctor! is an example of the passive voice, and one that quickly puts the lie to the whole notion that there's anything "passive" about the PV.

    Evasiveness about agency is probably a trope. The use of the passive voice as one particular way to be evasive about agency probably is not. I'm glad the description doesn't reinforce common negative stereotypes about the passive voice, but that part seems more appropriate to a Useful Notes or something.

    This name will likely invite massive misuse, as indeed, we're starting to see in only the second comment. (No offense to TB Tabby, who's in good company when it comes to not understanding the passive voice.)
  • October 17, 2012
    ^ Hmmm, that's a good point. I was a bit hesitant about the over-encyclopaedic tone of the description, but it's a pet peeve of mine too. Maybe I should scrap this and work on a less grammatically-specific version.