News & Politics

Loathsome Phrase of the Day: “He/She Will Be Missed”

Warning: The following article discusses politically correct concepts such as avoiding clichés and using the active voice. Some readers may wish to dim the screen if children are present.

Since the Orlando massacre, a lot of tweets have lampooned politicians’ noncommittal “Thoughts and prayers go out . . .” response. For example:

Though well-meaning people from all walks of life have used the phrase—and I’d be loath (not loathe!) to doubt their sincerity—I’m afraid it does qualify for #loathsomewords.

It’s not just the canned aspect but, in many instances, a disembodied quality, a detachment from personal agency. Even when the speaker says my or our thoughts and prayers, those thoughts and prayers are often just going out or are simply with the recipient. The simple act of putting a first-person pronoun at the top of the sentence—“I’m sending my thoughts and prayers”—makes all the difference. It’s still trite, but at least an identifiable will is involved.

That said, other tweeters were all over thoughts and prayers before I was. (I like to think I’d have gotten around to it eventually.) It was a related cliché that bugged me enough to earn a spot on my feed of shame:

This type of statement, of course, long predates Twitter. What social media has done is opened up the wake, allowing anyone, famous or not, to weigh in with, er, thoughts about the departed. That can be a wonderful opportunity for readers and tweeters, but it invites everything from anecdotal gems (a quote from a letter the deceased wrote, or how she inspired a career path) to boilerplate platitudes—such as He will be missed.

Even if the person really will be missed, you couldn’t ask for a more impersonal-sounding statement than that passive construction. But recast it as I will miss him and it becomes a straightforward expression of emotion. Again, it’s neither original nor specific, but if your tribute is going to be only one sentence, at least make it active.

The passive voice (She was chilled by the rudeness she witnessed rather than The rudeness she witnessed chilled her) is subtly distant instead of, as Strunk and White put it in The Elements of Style, “forcible.” It’s like a ventriloquist’s act: He can’t be held personally accountable for what comes out of his mouth.

The least we owe those who are gone is owning up to the fact that it’s we who are sending thoughts and prayers (or, hey, sending strength to the family, enjoying happy memories, doing all we can to see this never happens again—something, anything, a little fresher). It’s we who will miss them.

Senior Managing Editor

Bill O’Sullivan is senior managing editor; from 1999 to 2007, he was a features editor. In another lifetime, he was assistant managing editor. Somewhere in the middle, he was managing editor of Common Boundary magazine and senior editor at the Center for Public Integrity. His personal essays have been cited three times among the notable essays of the year in The Best American Essays. He teaches at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda.