In English, we often use a euphemism to cushion the blow when mentioning something harsh, unpleasant, or embarrassing. One of the most common applications for euphemisms is when discussing death, particularly when talking to children. But is it better to say “passed away” or “passed on” when talking about death?
Both the phrases “passed away” and “passed on” are correct euphemisms for death. The phrase “passed away” means that someone is gone from our midst, and “passed on” has the connotation of an afterlife. Although one is not necessarily better than the other, “passed away” is more common.
This article will explore the phrases “passed away,” “passed on,” and other euphemisms for death, as well as the literal phrase “passed on” when talking about physically passing an object from one person to the next.
Which Is Correct: “Passed Away” or “Passed On”?
We use the terms “pass away” or “passed on” when talking about someone who has died. These common expressions are helpful because either option allows us to mention the harsh reality of someone’s death in a more sensitive way (source).
A euphemism is a word that we use in the place of some other term that might cause offense, embarrassment, or disquiet (source). In other words, we use euphemisms when we want to talk about a difficult topic politely.
Such euphemisms are particularly useful if you are concerned about hurting or offending someone else. However, one expression contains an adverb, while the other includes a preposition, which gives each phrase a slightly different connotation.
In the phrase “passed away,” the word “away” is an adverb that describes the verb “passed.” As a result, we can understand it to mean someone has moved away from our midst, is no longer among us, and, essentially, has ceased to be a presence in our lives.
It can also mean the end of existence or simply an end, which is fitting as death is the end of someone’s life.
It can also indicate distance from something. So to say that someone has “passed away” means that the individual is far from our current reality, no longer with us, and has disappeared from our lives. It is, perhaps, a difficult thing to grasp, but it can still be less blunt and hurtful than simply “dead” (source).
“Passed away” is a very neutral expression and has become the most common phrase as a result. The downside is that it confers less hope than the expression “passed on.”
- Unfortunately, my father passed away last year.
- I am very sorry to have to tell you, but she passed away a few weeks ago.
- Should my husband pass away, I would be distraught.
- The doctor told the family that the patient, unfortunately, passed away during the surgery.
Is it correct to say “passed on?” The terms “pass on” or “passed on” are similar to “passed away,” and it is also a correct way of saying that someone died.
“On” is a preposition of location, indicating that someone went somewhere. For this reason, we usually understand the phrase “passed on” to mean that someone has “gone to a better place” or has moved on from this life to the next, or something similar (source).
In other words, the idea of someone “passing on” implies a hereafter or an afterlife. Still, it also means that they are no longer among us, with us, or in our lives and that they have moved on.
- Are your grandparents still around, or have they passed on?
- My father is still alive and well, but, unfortunately, my mother has passed on.
- I am very sorry to have to tell you, but your aunt has passed on.
- She has passed on but leaves behind her loving husband and two beautiful children.
In contrast to “passed away,” “passed on” conveys a greater sense of hope, even though the expression doesn’t state where exactly someone passed on to. Some might argue that you risk offending someone by implying the existence of an afterlife, but such offense is generally unlikely.
The expression is still fairly neutral but is more likely to find acceptance among those with some form of religious background.
The Importance of Prepositions
Prepositions can completely alter the meaning of a phrase, and that is why it is so essential to understand parts of speech well as a non-native English speaker.
For example, there is a big difference between “in time” and “on time,” and it all lies in the preposition that each phrase uses. The preposition often determines the meaning of any phrase, just as is the case with “passed away” and “passed on.”
Both Are Acceptable
Both the terms “passed away” and “passed on” are essentially correct, and we use both as euphemisms for death. Although there are other euphemisms for death, these are the two most common ones.
Apart from the implications of an afterlife, there is little difference between the phrases “passed away” and “passed on.” Although “passed away” has become the more common of the two, both are fairly neutral, and it comes down to personal preference and judgment when choosing one over the other.
For further expressions that you can use when comforting friends or family over the death of a loved one, perhaps you would find our article “Is It Correct to Say, ‘Accept My Condolences’?” useful.
The Value of Euphemisms
We use euphemisms, especially when we talk about death, to soften the blow from bad news. We will usually use “passed on” or “passed away” or any other euphemism for death when we have to tell someone that someone or even a pet they loved died.
For example, we may say that someone is “plain” instead of saying that they are “boring,” in much the same way that we may say that someone is “resting in peace” instead of saying that they’re dead.
In some cases, we use euphemisms to provide spiritual comfort, which is the case with “passed on.” Someone who believes in an afterlife, paradise, or Heaven, will be comforted to know that a person is “in a better place” or has “passed on.”
In contrast, it might come across as blunt, insensitive, or even cruel if we simply state that they are dead.
What Does It Mean When Someone Has Passed On?
The idea of death is scary and final, and as it is a harsh and unpleasant topic that can upset, offend, and hurt others, we use euphemisms when we talk about it.
We use euphemisms to cushion the blow or soften the impact of saying something unpleasant or upsetting, and we most often use euphemisms when talking to children, particularly about death.
The death of a loved one or even a beloved pet can be incredibly devastating and can upset others just by the mere mention of it.
Many people are also fearful of death and dying, and that is because we don’t fully understand death, and no one truly knows what happens after we die. This uncertainty is why death is such a sensitive and often upsetting topic.
Another euphemism for death is to say that someone is “in a better place.” This expression is often a gentle way of saying that the person died, but it also means that that person is in Heaven, or paradise, or simply not here anymore but free from suffering and pain.
We usually use this phrase when people die who have been sick for a very long time.
The Literal Meaning of “Passed On”
Although “passed on” is a common euphemism for death, it also has a literal meaning. This distinction between literal and figurative language is why non-native speakers can find euphemisms challenging. Those who don’t have a firm grasp of such nuances may misunderstand the speaker’s intention.
Passing an Object to Someone
To “pass on” or having “passed on” something can mean to give it to someone else after you have received that item. It involves a train of movement regarding a particular object or more than one object.
- I passed on the funny joke after receiving it from Adam.
- I passed the pencil to Jenny, and she passed it on to Jane.
- They are passing on the parcel from one to the other.
Passing Information to Someone
It is also possible to pass on information to another person after you have heard it. Think of the game “broken telephone,” where one person whispers a phrase into another’s ear and so forth until the end of the line. In this game, the phrase has passed on from one person to the next.
- Please pass my message on to your mother when she gets home.
- The teacher asked me to pass on a message to another teacher in the school.
- Sarah trusted Betty with her biggest secret, but Betty passed it on to the whole class.
Leaving Something for Someone
Once again, relating to death, to “pass something on” can also mean leaving something behind for someone else after you die.
- You may want to pass on money to your children in your will.
- He passed on the family assets to his only living relative, his elderly aunt.
- She passed on all the family heirlooms to her daughters.
Transferring a Disease or Condition
Finally, it is also possible for a person to pass something onto someone else in the form of a disease or a genetic condition (source).
- There are many genetic conditions that a mother may pass on to her children.
- My mother passed on her red hair to three of her four daughters.
- I hope that I will pass on my beautiful blue eyes to my future children.
As these examples demonstrate, there are several different literal meanings of the term “pass on” or “passed on,” and these have very little, if anything, to do with death. Unfortunately, that is why non-native English speakers may get confused when hearing the phrase used for the very first time.
Other Euphemisms for Death
Since death is among the most challenging subjects to talk about, English has developed several euphemisms for death.
Unfortunately for non-native speakers, the use of such non-literal terminology can result in confusion. Still, it is often easy to figure out what a euphemism might mean if you pause and pay close attention to the conversation’s context (source).
Here are some other common euphemisms for death:
- Resting in peace, eternal rest, asleep
- Demise, deceased, departed
- Lost her battle, lost her life, succumbed
- Gave up the ghost
- Kicked the bucket
- Didn’t make it
- Breathed her/his last
- Went to be with the Lord, went to Heaven, met his/her Maker
Take Care When Using Euphemisms
Although euphemisms have an essential purpose in the spoken form, that is to say, that they can help deliver difficult news more softly and kindly, one should always use caution when using euphemisms in the written form.
Some style guides and particularly in academic writing, euphemisms can seem dishonest, wordy, or misleading. In addition, some editors may think that using euphemisms is a way of avoiding speaking candidly and honestly, so you should be careful how you use them when writing.
This article was written for strategiesforparents.com.
It is also important to remember that euphemisms in English can be misleading or confusing for non-native speakers. That is why it is best to only use well-understood, common euphemisms in these situations and rather speak openly and honestly to ensure that you get the correct meaning across.
The phrases “passed away” and “passed on” are correct, so deciding which to use will come down to personal preference and context.
The phrase “passed away” is the most common euphemism for death in the English language. Although the term “passed on” is also a common euphemism for death, it has the connotation of an afterlife and can therefore provide comfort.
Additionally, the term “passed on” also has a few literal meanings, which usually means to pass something from one person to the next, whether figuratively or literally.