On more than one occasion the MTV program Catfish concluded an episode with the following statement about one of the participants to the show -namely the catfish- and whom I will arbitrarily call "John":

"Despite numerous attempts, John was unable to be reached."

In my opinion, as a non-native English speaker, this sentence is somewhat peculiar. It states as a fact that John is currently unreachable, but the only thing we really know is that MTV Catfish tried to contact this person and these attempts failed. It is certainly possible, and in fact very likely, that John communicates with his friends and family as allways.

Therefore in my humble opinion the following sentence is much preferable:

"Despite numerous attempts, MTV Catfish was unable to reach John."

Am I right? Or am I missing some subtlety of modern English?

  • It's an idiom, meaning (Our) Reaching John is not possible or We were unable to reach John. Normally the idiom puts the blame on John, not on Us. Commented Feb 6, 2023 at 3:14
  • It's contextually (obviously) implicit that John was unable to be reached by us. I think this question looks like a peeve. Commented Feb 6, 2023 at 4:00
  • Agree with @FumbleFingers. If one is going to complain about the construction, one may as well complain about the use of “unable.”
    – Damila
    Commented Feb 7, 2023 at 4:02

2 Answers 2


In the passive voice (in this case the passive infinitive "to be reached"), when the subject (or rather what would be the subject in the active voice) is not explicitly named, it has to be inferred from context. In this case, the intended subject is presumably "us," not "anyone."

So the meaning is not "John was unable to be reached by anyone"; it's "John was unable to be reached by us" (or by MTV, or by the show, or by its producers).


Both versions provided are fine (the original and your version). It's implied that he was unable to be reached by MTV, given that that's who's presenting the information. So, "Despite numerous attempts, John was unable to be reached," functions the same as "Despite numerous attempts, John was unable to be reached by MTV."

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