As I listened to President Obama’s State of the Union speech Tuesday night, I admit I was encouraged and moved at times. But I couldn’t help giving each sentence Anat Shenker-Osorio’s passive-voice test.

Shenker-Osorio is author of “Don’t Buy It: The Trouble with Talking Nonsense About the Economy.” She’s a language researcher and consultant and one of my favorite messaging gurus.

As she wrote in the Boston Globe a while back, when Obama—or anybody—uses the passive, they invariably fail to say who is to blame or why the challenges and problems and outrages they’re describing exist in the first place. This failure, in turn, leaves us with no good clues about viable solutions. If we don’t know how we got here, it’s hard to figure out how we get where we want to go.

Shenker-Osorio analyzed a December 2013 speech Obama gave on inequality in America. It was a powerful speech in many ways. Obama defined inequality in America as a “significant issue both morally and economically” and pushed back on the idea that government can’t do anything about it. The messages were profound and novel enough that the speech was heralded as one of the most important—and truly progressive—of his presidency.

But he fell short. Shenker-Osorio summed up the problem this way:

You might think this would make the wealthy tremble in their calfskin loafers. In fact, though, the very grammatical constructions of the speech suggest they have nothing to fear. Even as he made the case for government involvement, Obama’s language signaled something else: that our economic divide is a problem of origin unknown, and thus beyond our power to solve.

How could you do this with simple, seemingly innocuous grammatical choices? As Shenker-Osorio explains, when talking about the problem, Obama used a sentence structure that “excludes human actors from the subject position.” For example, he said “The deck is stacked” against the working class. Why? Because “taxes were slashed,” and “growth has flowed to a fortunate few.” Further, “his words suggested abstract ideas were capable of independent action”—the economy, for example, seems to be somehow running itself and writing its own rules.

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  • This language gives us no indication of who did it, why, or how—who stacked the deck? Who designs the economy to run a certain way? It’s like he’s saying “And then inequality happened.” Like it was inevitable. Fate. A natural occurrence beyond anyone’s control.

    Thus, the difference between passive and active voice can mean the difference between, on the one hand, seeing there’s a problem, and on the other, seeing a problem and seeing what needs to be done about it. Research bears this out. The way that you talk about a problem like inequality—the origin story you give it—“shapes what you think ought to happen next” to fix it. Anat writes (with my emphasis):

    This is the danger when we suggest that no one is to blame. Unless we describe problems as having been made by people, it’s reasonable to conclude they cannot be fixed by people. Until we can talk about who did what to get us here, in ways that extend to our very sentence structure, it will be hard to put forth a compelling case that we can change course.

    Now, the SOTU was definitely a “take action” kind of speech, more focused on solutions than problems and calculatedly without finger-pointing. To his credit, Obama avoided some of the worst message-killing passive (there was lots of “I will use my authority to…” and “Let’s work together to…” here, not to mention all the investing and building and protecting and fixing to be done by him and by us all and by Congress). Unfortunately, however, he reverted again to the passive voice when talking about threats to justice and equity: “Inequality has deepened.” “Upward mobility has stalled.” “The Voting Rights Act was weakened.”

    The passive voice kills. So, we should all listen to speeches and craft our own messages like detectives on a case: Who has deepened inequality and how? Who has done what to stall upward mobility? Who threatened citizens’ right to vote by weakening the Voting Rights Act? How did they do it? What was their motivation? Who gained? Who lost?

    Imagine the power and clarity Obama could have achieved about the obvious and logical steps for us to take as a country to restore American justice and equality for all if he’d opted for declarative sentences about who did what to whom.