One of the most common constructs of political speech is what’s technically known as the ‘passive tense,’ which conveys what happened without directly assigning any specific responsibility. For example:

The passive is used when the subject of the verb action is not as important as what happened. Note the difference between

  1. He burned down the house. (Active verb)

  2. The house was burned down. (Passive verb — who, or what, caused the house to burn down is not known, or is not as important as the fact that it burned down.)

Politicians use this form a lot, as it’s a convenient way to weasel out of why something happened.

Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales fell back on a classic Washington linguistic construct on Tuesday when he acknowledged that “mistakes were made” in the dismissals of eight federal prosecutors last year.

The phrase sounds like a confession of error or even contrition, but in fact, it is not quite either one. The speaker is not accepting personal responsibility or pointing the finger at anyone else. It is a construction that other officials, from Richard M. Nixon’s press secretary to Ronald Reagan to John H. Sununu and Bill Clinton, have used when someone’s hand was caught in the federal cookie jar.

While listening to this week’s edition of NPR’s ‘Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!‘, I heard mention of a wonderful new term for the passive tense, also mentioned at the end of the just quoted NYT article:

The nonconfessions inspired William Schneider, a political guru here, to note a few years ago that Washington had contributed a new tense to the language. “This usage,” he said, “should be referred to as the past exonerative.”

5 thoughts on “A little tense…

  1. I’ve seen it referred as both ‘passive voice’ and ‘passive tense.’ Since the explanatory site I linked to used ‘passive tense,’ I figured that’d be fine here.

  2. I am glad your NPR station broadcasts “Wait, Wait …” Ours didn’t for a long time, and it now is one of my favorite programs.

  3. I am glad your NPR station broadcasts “Wait, Wait …”

    I know they do, because I occasionally stumble across it, but I can never remember when it’s on the air. NPR’s started ‘podcasting’ their shows — posting them as downloadable .mp3 audio files that are automatically sent to my iPod — and I listen to the show that way as I walk back and forth to school and work. It’s a great little show, though, I’m glad I can tune in to it this way.

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