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.