Passive voice has its uses
Geoffrey K. Pullum reports at Lingua Franca that a colleague whom he had asked to read a manuscript returned it with the advice that he should avoid the passive voice.
I know, I know. You will have crawled under the desk to wait for the concussion to shake plaster from the ceiling. But actually, his response was quite mild—no suggestions of disinterring Strunk and White and George Orwell and displaying their heads on poles on the National Mall. He merely pointed to a couple of his sentences and explained mildly his reasons for casting them in the passive.
Then he turned to a piece of the colleague’s work and demonstrated just how frequently she resorted to the passive voice.
Of all the bogus pieces of advice about English usage, and it is as common as nostrums purported to cure cancer, baldness, and erectile dysfunction, few can rival the uninformed belief that the passive voice is, in and of itself, a Bad Thing. This is quackery, and I want you to be freed from its spell.
If you want a thoroughgoing, technical explanation of how the passive voice functions in English, I recommend a post by Professor Pullum at Language Log. There are subtleties. If you stay here, I’m offering a streamlined account.
The active voice in its simplest form follows a subject-verb-object pattern in which the subject of the sentence performs the action the verb describes: Quack writes nonsense.
The passive voice in its commonest form combines a form of be with the past participle of a verb in a sentence in which the subject receives the action rather than performing it: Bad advice is followed by the credulous.*
People scorn the passive voice because it can be used in reprehensible mistakes-were-made constructions to dodge responsibility. But the active voice can be used just as cravenly. The weasely mock apology I am sorry if my remarks offended anyone is not a passive construction.
There are places in which the passive voice is perfectly acceptable, even desirable. The two most common are sentences in which the actor causing the action is unknown, and sentences in which the action or the object of the action are more important than the actor.
In the first category: The door was jimmied after midnight. You could write a flabby active-voice Someone jimmied the door after midnight, but since you can’t identify who the someone is, the action is more important information.
In the second: The university president was arrested and accused of drunken driving. Who arrested him? Who d’you think arrested him, the faculty senate? You can assume that the police arrested him. The more important information is who got behind the wheel while hammered, and the passive construction allows you to put that information up front in the sentence for more impact.
Professor Pullum’s conclusion at Lingua Franca: “[T]his is where modern American writing instruction has brought us. Totally unmotivated warnings against sentences that have nothing wrong with them are handed out by people who (unwittingly) often use such sentences more than the people they criticize. And the warnings are consumed by people who don’t know enough grammar to evaluate them (which is why the percentage of passives in published prose continues basically unchanged over time). The blind warning the blind about a danger that isn’t there.”
*It’s notable that the quacks and the people who make the mistake of taking their advice frequently misidentify passives. Not every sentence containing a form of be is a passive. They are paying attention to Pullum is not a passive construction. There is no reason to panic is not a passive construction.