Dennis Waterman’s pathetic passives

by Tom Albrighton 20 March 2012 Copywriting, Tone of voice

Dennis Waterman’s astonishing comments on domestic violence in the Mirror are an object lesson in how not to use the passive voice – and show how revealing it can be when you do use it.

In grammatical terms, the passive voice is formed with an auxiliary verb (usually ‘to be’ or ‘to get’) plus a participle of a transitive verb. The subject of the sentence is the person or thing being acted upon (the ‘patient’) rather than the person or thing taking action (the ‘agent’).

It’s much clearer with an example. This sentence is passive:

The loo seat has been left up again

…whereas this one is active:

You’ve left the loo seat up again!

As this example shows, it’s possible to avoid mentioning the agent completely, which has the effect of obscuring or diffusing responsibility. Something was done, but it’s not clear who actually did it.

Sometimes, this can be useful. There are occasions when you need to describe a situation without ascribing responsibility, because such a remark would probably be construed as blame:

The amends to the document haven’t been done yet

However, by the same token, the passive can be used to weasel your way out of culpability. Let’s review those classic Waterman quotes in full:

She certainly wasn’t a beaten wife, she was hit and that’s different.

I could be so good for you

With this majestic double-barrelled evasion, Waterman erases himself from the picture completely. Whatever went on in that marriage, it clearly wasn’t anything to do with him.

First we get ‘she wasn’t a beaten wife’, which uses a personal characterisation (‘beaten wife’) to describe a physical event (being beaten). This makes the beating an attribute of the wife, rather than an action of the husband.

Then we have ‘she was hit’, which is a classic passive-case reworking of ‘I hit her’. Again, by making Rula Lenska the subject, Waterman implicitly lays the blame at her door. What was she thinking of, being hit like that?

It doesn’t end there:

if a woman is a bit of a power freak and determined to put you down, and if you’re not bright enough to do it with words, it can happen. And it did happen in my case.

What ‘can happen’ exactly, Dennis? A troublesome event like, oh I don’t know, punching your wife in the face? Yes, that does happen and it’s a right pain – like a rain shower just as you’re starting a round of golf. ‘It did happen in my case’ is a roundabout, passive way of saying ‘I did it’.

Something must have brought it on. When frustration builds up and you can’t think of a way out… It happened and I’m very, very ashamed of it.

Again, ‘it happened’, not ‘I did it’. But again, it really wasn’t Waterman’s fault – ‘something must have brought it on’. And my guess is that ‘something’ wasn’t Waterman’s free will, or his capacity to think, but some perniciously irritating attribute of his ex-wife.

But the worst of all has to be this:

It’s not difficult for a woman to make a man hit her.

This isn’t a passive construction, but the sense is the same: the five-year-old’s plea of ‘look what you made me do!’ Like rape victims who bring it on themselves by wearing particular clothes or leaving the house at night, Lenska practically asked for a beating by being so ‘intelligent’ – the witch.

Contrast that verbal ignominy with the way Lenska herself describes events:

There were times when he hit me. I became the object of his hate.

‘He hit me’ is unambiguous, but note how she avoids saying ‘he hated me’. Instead, Waterman’s hate is characterised as a ‘thing’, while Lenska passively becomes its object. This convoluted construction again removes Waterman from the picture, while framing his hating in a rather abstract way – but who can blame someone for shying away from such a painful truth?

Clearly, Waterman always likes to have the last word, so here goes:

It’s been suggested that I’m chauvinistic but I don’t think I am, I’m just… I think there is a place for women at home.

So where would that be, Dennis? In the kitchen? Or crouching under the stairs, bleeding and terrified, dialling 999?

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