"A mistake was made."
Bernard Cardinal Law, Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, 1/23/02. He said that regarding his twenty years of patience with accused pedophile Father John Geoghan.

Let's hear it for the passive voice.

When you wear an expensive suit at the taxpayers' expense, you don't say things like "I made a mistake", nor "I goofed", and you certainly don't look the TV cameras in the eye and say "Let's face it, folks, I'm a goddamn dumbass as well as a crook. It was wrong and I knew it, and I did it anyway. If you hired me as a baby sitter, you'd be a fool, but -- God willing -- you'd have at least enough sense to count the spoons after I left. You might want to count the babies, too."

No, you don't look right at the cameras. You read it off the TelePrompter and you use the passive voice. "Casualties were incurred." "Setbacks were experienced." "Mistakes were made."

I can't think of any real-life examples of this exact phrase in use. I do recall Amos Oz complaining about the passive voice, through some character or another in Fima1. Never mind the specific instances: "Mistakes were made" is a cliché, the idiomatic granddaddy and default signifier of passive-voiced responsibility-avoidance rhetoric. Search for it on Google (put it in quotes for an exact phrase search), and you'll get 15,900 hits. The bottom line is that you're admitting that somebody dropped the ball, that something bad did indeed happen, but you're not quite saying exactly who did it. Oz says that the passive voice makes everything sound like it just happened, like the weather. Like fate. It even sounds a little bit noble, as if the speaker isn't so crass as to point a finger at anybody. I hope we're all aware that people in public life never hesitate for a moment to point fingers -- except at themselves.

Mistakes were made, certainly. There will be a full investigation, and those responsible will be disciplined. We're making a 100% effort. A 100% effort. Against. 100%. Firmly committed. Full investigation. Those responsible, certainly. Blue-ribbon commission. Full investigation.


1 Then again, Oz has been departing the clue pattern here and there over the last year, so take it for what it's worth.

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