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Passive Verbs in a Father’s Day Card

Yesterday I bought a Father's Day card for my dear husband. Of course, I don't have to recognize him on Father's Day, but he is a wonderful father to our daughter and a terrific partner. So I wanted to get him a card.

I found one in the "husband" section of the greeting cards. It started out perfectly: "For a wonderful husband and father who gives so much . . . his time, his heart, his all, his best." It continued well on the inside of the card until it got to the last sentence:

"You are loved and appreciated so much!"

Why use the passive "are loved and appreciated"? Doesn't it make more sense and communicate more powerfully to say "I love you and appreciate you so much"?

I bought the card. But I intently crossed out and rewrote that last sentence before signing the card and sealing it in the envelope.

I have been wondering about why the greeting card writer would use the passive voice for that last sentence. And I now have the answer:

Passive verbs do not indicate who is performing the action of the verb. The passive "You are loved and appreciated so much" widens the choice of who might buy and give the card. It can be from the wife alone or from the wife and children. Using "I love you" would have limited the buying and giving audience to wives alone.

To Hallmark, the producer of the card, I say this: That was a very savvy verb choice, Hallmark. I appreciate your language tactics.

To all fathers and to those who have taken on a fatherly role, I say this: Happy Father's Day! You are loved and appreciated.

Syntax Training

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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.

6 comments on “Passive Verbs in a Father’s Day Card”

  • Passive verbs usually drive me nuts. Apparently, many people believe passive phrases sound more professional, although I think they often just sound pretentious and vague. I can see why in a greeting card it would make sense, though, for the reason you mentioned. Interesting post!

  • Passive verbs serve another purpose in greeting cards. You can remain non-committal. You might feel obligated to send the person a card, but don’t really have warm feelings for him or her. In your heart you can say, “Well, although I don’t love this person, somebody surely does…”

  • A friend of mine who wrote for American Greetings for a while told me she worked with a strict stylebook. Never use absolutes, such as “You were always there for me,” because “always” can’t be true. Better to say, “You were there for me when I needed you.” The New York Times Magazine did a great story about this years ago. It might be in the online archive. Worth checking out.

  • Passive verbs are too often given a bad rap(!). Seriously, sometimes a person wants to emphasize the action and not the subject, and that’s the time to use the passive tense. Undoubtedly, many people over-use passive verbs, but to wipe them out entirely of our usage is a mistake.

  • Hi, Stephanie, IB, Diane, and Bob. I have been away on vacation and was pleased to find your comments when I returned.

    Stephanie, I am glad you liked the post.

    IB, your “somebody surely does” observation made me smile. Thanks!

    Diane, thanks for telling us about the American Greetings stylebook. Very interesting!

    Bob, I agree that passive verbs play an important role in our communication. Many times the better choice is to emphasize the action rather than the doer of the action. Thanks for making that point.


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