I just had a couple thoughts about passive construction. First, I see it often when students are trying to avoid using "I": Wild food is cooked at the annual Wild Food Picnic." But why not go ahead and say, "We cook wild food at the annual Wild Food Picnic." Passive is NOT better than using "I" or "we," as the subject should usually be the one that commits the action, and "we" did the cooking, so "we" should take credit for it. :)
Sometimes, writers assume "is and was" are markers of passive voice. But "is and was" have other roles, most of which have nothing to do with passive voice. For example:
I was once a champion tennis player.
That's a "predicate nominative," where the "was" just links the two nouns (I and tennis player) almost like an equal sign. There is no action (just "being"), so the sentence can't be active or passive.
The dress was red once. Now it is sort of pink.
That's a similar construction, just with an adjective (red) after the verb. That's a "predicate adjective" sentence.
Both of these use is/was to illustrate some aspect of the subject (I, the dress). Again, there's no action, so it can't be passive. It just "is".
"Is and was" can also turn a verb into a progressive verb --I am going (present progressive) rather than I go (present tense); I was going (past progressive) rather than I went (past tense). That's not passive voice, just another way the linking verb can be used (or, to be active! ... another way we can use the linking verb... see how "we" get in there!).
Those aren't passive construction. What is? It's when the ACTOR (the committer of the action) isn't in the subject position but the object position (where the object of the action should be). Or rather, the object (target of action) is in the subject position.
Passive voice is where the object is in the subject position:
Subject is usually what commits the action (the "agent" of the action)
Verb is usually the action
Object is usually what the action is committed on (the "patient or recipient" of the action).
So an active order is:
Paul (subject/agent) hit (verb) the ball (object/patient).
Passive order is:
The ball (object) was hit (verb) by Paul (subject).
The longer the sentence, I find, the more likely we trend into passive. Academic writing also often invites us to get all passive:
PASSIVE — In order to locate this paragraph, the cross reference feature was used.
ACTIVE — In order to locate this paragraph, the researchers used the cross reference feature.
What's wrong with passive construction? Well, for one reason, it allows us to avoid responsibility. "That $10 bill was stolen from your dresser" is sort of idle and guiltless. "I stole that $10 bill from your dresser" accepts responsibility (and even asserts pride, maybe).
Passive voice also leaches vividness and drama out of your sentences, because the subtext is that things just sort of happen. There's no real volition or intention in a passive construction.
"And then the car was just sort of dented."
"And I don't know how it happened, but the milk was spilled all over the floor."
And the famous Richard Nixon "admission of guilt:" "Mistakes were made."
Drama, power, conflict: Those are all in the active voice, and so you should default to active construction for livelier prose. Think about Churchill, trying to rally his country to resist occupation. He didn't use passive construction ("The battle shall be fought on the beaches") when he wanted to empower the British. Notice when he uses active and when he uses passive. (This is masterful manipulation of active/passive, by the way!). The highlighted parts are passive, and see how they are "the others in the past" (the other blue-highlighted line shows an unimaginable future for Britain, also passive), and notice how he will NOT give the Nazis the power (they are relegated to the object position, even though they are the ones subjugating!):
Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail.
We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France,
we shall fight on the seas and oceans,
we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be,
we shall fight on the beaches,
we shall fight on the landing grounds,
we shall fight in the fields and in the streets,
we shall fight in the hills;
we shall never surrender , and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God's good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.
Now Churchill was almost supernatural in his rhetorical command (notice that almost every word there is Anglo-Saxon or old English... very few "Norman" -- Romance language-- word). But when we decide to speak forcefully, we instinctively go into active mode and use strong, basic verbs and clear construction, don't we? Keep that in mind as you write!
However... passive voice is preferable in a few circumstances:
When the "actor" isn't known, or isn't relevant:
1) The general's house was broken into last night. (We don't know who "committed the action.")
2) Her grandfather's ashes were interred last weekend. (We don't care who actually dug the hole and put the box of ashes in there.)
That's pretty limited!
Passive voice is also used (ahem, that's passive-- who is using? The writer!) when the writer doesn't WANT to assign responsibility. (How would you revise that to make it active!!!?) Have you ever gotten a past-due notice from a utility company? The FIRST notice is usually quite polite and passive: "This bill has not been paid." Why? Because they don't want to be rude and alienate you as a customer by accusing you of being a deadbeat! But the THIRD notice isn't so passive: "You have neglected to pay this bill for 90 days!"
I don't think writers should give up any writing tool, and passive voice would never have developed if there wasn't some use for it. Here's a fascinating rhetorical theory: Politeness theory. It posits that the more dangerous the potential consequence of speech, the more careful, lengthy, and passive our speech becomes. During the Spanish Inquisition, or when we get stopped by the highway patrol, we want to make sure that we don't give offense or accept responsibility if the consequence of "speaking freely" means we will get punished. (Watch the wedding scene in The Godfather and see how polite and passive everyone is towards the Don.) Passive voice is a useful tool when you have to be polite!
However, we shouldn't be passive unless we have a good reason to be passive! This is especially important in the narrative of fiction. Don't evade responsibility or let your characters get away with it, and don't dodge away from action (unless, of course, you have a good reason, like to show how passive a character is).