Here’s a quick quiz about something you’re probably at least a little bit insecure about. Which of the following is in the passive voice?
1. There were a great number of dead leaves lying on the ground.
2. It was not long before she was very sorry that she had said what she had.
3. Stilton v. Jones is applicable here.
4. The plaintiff had made a mistake.
How did you do? The answer is “none of them.” None of these sentences is a very good one, and all could be made snappier, more pertinent, and more memorable, but none is passive. The first two examples actually come from Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style as examples of passives. They aren’t. Strunk & White is famously inept at grammar.
In a sentence in passive voice, the subject does not perform the action. Thus both of the following are passive:
Mistakes were made. (Subject is “mistakes,” verb is a form of “to make.”)
Mistakes were made by the plaintiff. (Ditto; the fact that the actor—the plaintiff—is also supplied does not change the voice of the sentence.)
And this is not passive, although it is feeble:
The plaintiff had made a mistake. (Subject is “the plaintiff,” verb is a form to “to make.”)
Passive voice is characterized by a be-verb (am, is, was, be, been, etc.) combined with a past participle (assigned, made, given, forsaken, etc.). You can mix and match passives all day long with that formula:
The recipe was written down by Grandma.
Both contracts were signed under duress.
That subsection had confused the judge.
You’ll see lots of writing advice to avoid passive voice. Most of that advice is really aimed at weak, flabby sentences. You should certainly avoid those, whether they are passive or just uninspired be-sentences (as in some of the numbered examples at the top). Good writers will not write weak, flabby sentences, or, having written them, will revise them. This will also eliminate much use of the passive voice. Just don’t make the mistake of calling everything that does not read like a pulp action novel (“Conan smashed the blond warrior’s skull!”) passive.
Passive voice is quite properly used by excellent authors who know how to write, including E.B. White himself (in his fiction). It has proper uses, including the introduction of new information about the subject:
Then something happened to Dr. Jekyll that changed everything. He was transformed into a monster by the potion that he had concocted.
The second sentence is passive; it delivers the punch promised by the first, and no sensible editor would make you change it to active.