For years, Geoff Pullum has been carrying on a war against the people who carry on a war against the passive voice without having the faintest idea what it is, and this piece for the Chronicle of Higher Education is a beautiful distillation of it. He quotes “a colleague and friend with an American doctoral degree” who read a draft he had written, “cast a disapproving eye on a couple of passive clauses (correctly identified, I should note), and stressed that she herself tried to avoid passives.” He is delighted: “an empirical claim by a self-identified passive avoider! My colleague, you see, has an excellent and well-written book to her name—a record that could be checked.” So check it he did, learning that “26 percent of the transitive verbs in that five-page preface [to her book] are in passive rather than active clauses,” versus an average of about 13 percent passives in newspapers and magazines: “And here we have double that percentage, in the writing of an academic who imagines that she avoids passives!”
But this 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.
The man has a way with words as well as grammar. (Perhaps this would be a good time for me to tout his delightful The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax and Other Irreverent Essays on the Study of Language.)