The Passive Voice

The passive voice is used to show that the subject of the verb does not perform the action, but rather undergoes the action or is acted upon. In French, unlike in English, a verb may be used in the passive voice only if its subject could become a direct object of that verb when used in the active voice. (An indirect object cannot be the subject of a passive verb.) Look at some examples:

  • Passive: I was congratulated by my friends. (“I” is the subject.)
  • Active: My friends congratulated me. (“Me” is the direct object.)

The sentences above can be passive in both French and English.

  • Active: My husband bought me a new car. (“Me” is the indirect object.)

The sentence above cannot be passive in French (although the passive English sentence “A new car was bought for me by my husband” is acceptable) because it is impossible to convert the indirect object to a passive subject.

If there is no direct object of the verb in French, the sentence may not be passive:

  • Passive: The letters were answered.

Who answered the letters? This sentence cannot be passive in French because there is no direct object.

The passive with être

The passive is formed as follows:

  • subject + form of être + past participle + par + agent (if the agent is mentioned)

Because the past participle is conjugated with être, it must agree in number and gender with the subject. The agent is generally, but not always, preceded by par.

  • Ce livre est écrit en français. (This book is written in French.)
  • La maison sera bâtie bient(tm)t. (The house will be built soon.)
  • Ce livre a été écrit par Gail Stein. (This book was written by Gail Stein.)
  • La voiture avait été vendue par son père. (The car had been sold by his [her] father.)

With verbs expressing condition or emotion, par may be replaced by de:

  • Elle est respectée de tous ses collègues. (She is respected by all her colleagues.)
  • Nous serons accompagnés de nos parents. (We will be accompanied by our parents.)
  • Ils sont aimés de tous. (They are loved by all.)
  • La terre est couverte de neige. (The ground is covered with snow.)

The passive with se

Some passive constructions may be formed by using the reflexive pronoun se with the third person singular form (il) of the verb. This construction, although not always possible, is most commonly used when an action is ongoing or when the person by whom the action is performed (the agent) is not important:

  • Il s'appelle Michel. (He is called Michael.)
  • Cela ne se fait pas. (That is not done.)
  • Ce livre se compose de 12 chapitres. (This book is composed of 12 chapters.)
  • La glace se vend ici. (Ice cream is sold here.)
  • Les bouquinistes se voient le long de la Seine. (The booksellers are seen along the Seine.)

Avoiding the passive

The passive should be avoided if possible. This is easily done if the agent is expressed. Simply rewrite the sentence in the active voice:

  • Passive: Ce livre a été écrit par Gail Stein.
  • Active: Gail Stein a écrit ce livre.

If the agent is not expressed, the passive voice can be replaced by on + the third person singular ( il) of the verb:

  • Passive: Le français se parle ici. (French is spoken here.)
  • Active: Ici on parle français. (French is spoken here.)