The worst sentence ever: “Mistakes were made”

In my day job as a journalist and editor, I eradicate a lot of passive voice. Let’s face it, 95% of passive voice usage is bad writing. It’s the easiest thing to attack when I first sit down to edit something. Find the passive voice construction, figure out what the subject and predicate of the sentence should be, rewrite. It’s the fastest way to improve someone’s writing. The next step? Strip out adverbs. Third step? That’s a trade secret.

Anyway, I highlighted some wisdom from Stephen King in my blog recently. He once wrote that the use of passive voice is a sign of a timid and insecure writer. I absolutely agree with him.

But there is one example of a passive voice sentence that is not indicative of timidity. “Mistakes were made.” This sentence is a dodge. It’s an example of political obfuscation, cowardice and cunning. Countless politicians and hacks have used this sentence construction to admit fault without actually pinning any blame to themselves. Look at the sentence: “Mistakes were made.” Who made the mistakes? This sentence certainly doesn’t explain it.

Wikipedia has a helpful list of historical uses of the sentence. President Ulysses S. Grant used a variation of it while discussing corruption in his administration. Richard Nixon used it quite a bit during the Watergate scandal. Ronald Reagan used it while discussing the Iran-Contra affair. Bill Clinton used it while discussing some fundraising shenanigans.

“Mistakes were made” is a slippery phrase people both in and out of power use to avoid accepting full responsibility. My fellow journalists should not allow politicians, businessmen and bureaucrats to get away with it. If you are at a press conference and you hear a senator or a CEO utter those words, interrupt him or her.

“Mistakes were made.”

“Excuse me, Senator. Who made those mistakes.”

“Um, I did.”

That’s right. Pin those people down. Their communications directors and pollsters have trained them to never actually say “I made a mistake,” and civil society suffers as a result. These people are avoiding accountability. Someone might counter and tell me, “Oh, we know what they mean. We know they made the mistakes.”

Well sure, we know it. But we have to extrapolate that truth for ourselves. We’re not really hearing an admission of guilt from Nixon, Reagan or Clinton. There is no accountability in their statements. Language is a powerful thing. There is a reason why they are using passive voice in this case. They know what they’re doing. And we should call them on it.

Just contemplate the emotional reactions you have when you read these two sentences.

“Mistakes were made.”

“I made a mistake.”

You cannot deny the power of that second sentence. The person speaking those words is taking a stand. They are claiming responsibility for something that went wrong. We, the listeners, hear and accept that admission of guilt. And in some small way, we accept it. We’re ready to move on. We’re ready to fix whatever went wrong.

The person speaking the passive voice is hiding in the shadows. We may be angry about those mistakes, but the speaker is being slippery. Maybe he made the mistake. Maybe someone else did. We can’t be sure because no one and standing up and taking the blame. So we feel cheated. We feel lied to. And the person who speaks the words gets to dodge blame in some small way. It has to stop.

“Mistakes were made” is the worst sentence in the English language. We need to kill it.


NPR’s Kai Ryssdal’s essential interview with Donald Rumfseld

Old man Donald Rumsfeld has emerged to flog another book. He’s making the rounds on various media outlets to promote Rumsfeld’s Rules. Unlike his memoir, this book has no narrative. Instead it’s a set of dozens of rules that he’s come up with over the years as guiding principles for his management philosophy.

When he walked into the NPR  American Public Media (apologies for conflating NPR and APM) studio recently to do an interview with Kai Ryssdal, host of the network’s business and economy show Marketplace, Rumsfeld probably wasn’t expecting a hard-hitting interview, but that’s exactly what he got in the six minutes he spent on the air. You can hear the whole interview by clicking this direct link to

Actually I’m surprised that Rumsfeld could have expected anything less than a grilling based on how things started out. Ryssdal’s first question asked Rummy to expound on the origin of one of the rules in the book: “It’s easier to get into something than it is to get out of it.” That the management philosophy of the man who ran the Defense Department during the invasion and initial years of the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan, two wars that we are still trying to extract ourselves from more than a decade later.

Rumsfeld said he came up with that rule when he was the Middle East envoy for President Ronald Reagan during the bombing in Beirut, Lebanon, that killed 241 U.S. Marines.

Rumsfeld: I concluded then that the United States has to be careful about putting ground forces in [a country] because we’re such a big target. And I also over the years came to the conclusion that the United states really wasn’t organized, trained and equipped to do nation building.

This is a shocking revelation from the man who was the Secretary of Defense during the launch of two wars that both had no exit strategy. Ryssdal did not let it go.

Ryssdal: I sort of can’t believe these words are coming out of your mouth ten years later. So this was on your mind as Iraq was bubbling up?

Rumsfeld: Absolutely.

Ryssdal: And yet here we are.

At this point, Rumsfeld tried to deflect, as Republicans so often do when confronted by the foreign policy and war policy disasters of the Bush Administration. He said the United States had only 23,000 troops on the ground in Afghanistan during his time in office and President Obama ramped that deployment up to 100,000. This deflection is pure cowardice. Obama ramped up that deployment for a variety of reasons, one being that for the first decade of our occupation of Afghanistan countless experts chafed at how undermanned our mission was in that country. Any gains that were made couldn’t be held because the Bush Administration and Rumsfeld devoted too many resources to Iraq.

Modern political rhetoric is trapped in this cycle of never accepting full responsibility for anything more consequential than a sex scandal. Democrats and Republicans are guilty of this. It’s the attitude that led to politicians and bureaucrats to use the phrase “Mistakes were made.” The passive form of that sentence in itself is a dodge. It allows someone like Rumsfeld to admit fault without actually having to say “I made a mistake.” It’s cowardly and it’s weak. I wish we had leaders who actually owned their mistakes. But here we have a master of obfuscation. The intelligence was bad, so mistakes were made.

After deflecting the Afghanistan question by hiding behind Obama’s surge, Rumsfeld argued that his and Bush’s foray into Iraq was also done with careful consideration about putting troops on the ground.

Rumsfeld: We had a relatively small footprint and we changed the [Iraqi] regime, which was the policy of the United States in the Clinton Administration. Once you get a mission creep where people start attempting to do things well beyond that, that’s obviously not something the Department of Defense is trying to do.

I am astonished. Did you see how he tried to hang Iraq around Bill Clinton’s head, as if Clinton might have advocated an invasion? I’ve heard Bush apologists make this connection before, but I’m shocked that Rumsfeld is trying to do it in this context. Clinton wasn’t the one who failed to come up with an exit strategy. That’s all on Rumsfeld and the rest of that administration. Ryssdal doesn’t let him get away with it.

Ryssdal: I will do you the favor, Mr. Secretary, of assuming you are not trying to shift any responsibility here.

Rumsfeld: I’m not, it’s just reality that when you do something, then someone wants you to do something else, and then something else. And then over time the mission histrionically creeps into something other than was initiated at the outset.

Now Rumsfeld seems to be throwing the whole Bush regime under the bus. It wasn’t his idea to try building modern democracies in Iraq and Afghanistan. Perhaps not. But it was the U.S. military that was asked to do that job. And he was in charge of our military.

Finally, Ryssdal gives Rumsfeld to a chance to demonstrate some legitimate reflection and take ownership for at least some of his mistakes. No mention of the torture policy he administered. Ryssdal isn’t going into Rumsfeld’s warm crimes. Just his poor leadership and management. And yet, Rumsfeld just can’t take himself there.

Ryssdal: I do wonder whether you read Robert McNamara’s memoirs when they came out — The Secretary of Defense during Vietnam.

Rumsfeld: I have not. I served in Congress during that period.

Ryssdal: That book was widely seen as an apology for his role in Vietnam. And I looked in this book pretty hard for any rule that you had about apologizing and I couldn’t find it.

Rumsfeld: And what’s your question.

Ryssdal: Did you ever think about apologizing?

Rumsfeld: My goodness, you know, as Napoleon said, I’ve been mistaken so many times I don’t even blush for it anymore. Sure you see things that don’t turn out the way you hoped.

And that, folks, is the closest Rumsfeld is able to come to apologizing for the disaster he participated in — two wars that cost us trillions of dollars, thousands of lives and so much more. The Republican party still needs to come to grips with its role in driving us into that ditch. Until it does, it is not fit to govern our nation.

IT’s easier to get in to something than it is to get out of it.