The passive voice, do you even know what it is in English? If you do, that’s great, because it will be much easier to understand the French passive voice.
1) Reminder on the passive voice
A sentence is in the passive voice when the action of the verb is being done to the subject by an agent (the object of the sentence). Since the subject is acted upon by the verb, we say that it is “passive”.
The agent is usually introduced by the preposition “by” in English:
Active voice: John has turned the light on
Passive voice: The light has been turned on by John
So in the active voice, “the light” was the object of the sentence. However in the passive voice, it becomes the subject which is affected by the action.
In English, people tend to avoid using the passive voice because it makes a sentence too heavy, whereas the active voice is more straightforward and dynamic. In addition, people can get confused because the subject is usually the one making the action, not the other way around.
However, sometimes you cannot avoid using the passive voice, and that is when the doer of the action is unknown, unwanted, or unneeded in the sentence, for example:
This book was written in 1924
I have been honored for my work in this town
2) The French passive voice
The passive voice in French basically works the same as in English.
Just like you use the verb “to be + past participle” and the preposition “by”, in French we use “être + past participle” and the preposition “par”.
If you need some help to conjugate the verb “être”, there is a full table in this article.
If you need some help to form a past participle in French, here is a quick reminder:
– 1st group verbs (infinitive ending in “-er”)
Replace the “er” with an “é”: manger, to eat > mangé ; chanter, to sing > chanté
– 2nd group verbs (infinitive ending in “-ir”)
Replace the “ir” with an “i”: finir, to finish > fini ; choisir, to choose > choisi
– 3rd group verbs (irregular verbs with different endings)
You have to know them by heart, but usually they end with a “u” after some modifications of the infinitive.
vouloir, to want > voulu ; tenir, to hold > tenu ; entendre, to hear > entendu
Note that the past participle has to agree with the subject (and not the agent) in gender and number (“mangées” with an “e” and an “s” at the end if the subject is feminine and in the plural), just like “être verbs” in compound tenses.
So to use the French passive voice in the tense or mood that you wish, just conjugate the verb “être” accordingly:
So in these examples, “la lettre, the letter” is feminine, that’s why the past participle of the verb “écrire, to write”, which is “écrit” takes an “e” at the end > écrite
3) Why do we use the passive voice in French?
There are two main reasons to use the passive voice:
a) To put more emphasis on the object or thing doing the action
b) When the circumstances of the action are more important than the performer
4) How to avoid using the passive voice?
The French passive voice is actually even less popular than in English. It has quite a formal or literary connotation, so people rarely use it when they speak.
There are different ways to avoid using it:
a) If you want to put emphasis on the doer of the action, use “c’est” (“it’s”) at the beginning.
b) If the doer of the action is not important, there are 2 possibilities.
– Use the impersonal subject pronoun “on”
But be careful because “on” usually means “we” in modern spoken French. So depending on the context, these examples with “on” could also mean: “We killed his father” and “We caught the killer”.
– Use the reflexive pronoun “se”
But that one is used mostly for the present tense, because it’s really rare to have a sentence in the present tense and in the passive voice at the same time.
5) Other remarks concerning the passive voice in French
– Most of the time, the agent is introduced by the preposition “par” when the verb expresses and action. However, if the verb expresses a state of being, sometimes the preposition “de” is used instead of “par”.
– The passive voice is only possible with verbs that have a direct object. So if a verb isn’t followed by a direct object (to fall, to run, to laugh…), or if it’s only followed by an indirect object (to talk about, to think of, to believe in…), you cannot use the passive voice:
These 2 sentences cannot be put in the passive voice for example.
– There is a possibility to use the passive voice that tend to focus more on the subject than the object. You have to use the expression “se faire + infinitive” which would correspond to “to get + past participle” in English.
It’s a more modern way to use the passive voice, and I feel like it gives a bit more importance to the subject (“Croatia” and “ I ” in those examples).
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