How the Passive Voice Is Used in French
Some voices like to whisper.
So if you haven’t heard of the French passive voice yet, don’t fret—it can be a bit sneaky that way.
To be clear, though, this is not the accent you’ll be using to speak French. (Though by all means, speak French in as many accents and funny voices as you can manage!)
Voice is simply the relationship between the subject and verb in a sentence.
If it has snuck past you after all this time learning French, today’s your lucky day, because we’re shining the spotlight on the passive voice!
Voice shows up in your French reading, listening comprehension, writing, and well… everything. Plus, don’t you want to be all-knowing? Yes, you do. So let’s do this.
The Ultimate Guide to the French Passive Voice
The Three Voices of French
Although this post is about the passive voice, in order to understand what it means and when it’s used, we’ll learn about the three voices. Before we can be passive, we need to be active… and pronominal? Eh, the puns aren’t too great with this topic.
The active voice
In both French and English, active voice is the most common. You likely already have a handle on it. In the active voice, the subject performs the action, like so:
Je lave la pomme.
(I wash the apple)
Jacques lance la balle.
(Jacques throws the ball.)
Pretty normal. Nothing funky here. The subject is performing the verb, and as for the rest of the sentence, there can be a direct object, no direct object, an adjective, a bunch of details, doesn’t matter. All we’re focused on is the relationship between the subject and verb in this voice.
The pronominal voice
The second most common voice (more so in French than in English) is the pronominal voice. This is where the subject is doing the verb to itself. You may be familiar with this voice if you’ve spent any time with reflexive verbs.
This one is particularly important to have a handle on in comprehension. The reflexive pronouns are not to be ignored or you’ll misunderstand altogether! Here’s how it works:
Je me lave.
(I wash myself)
Nous nous parlons.
(We are speaking to each other).
Not only do you have the subject and the verb, but a reflexive pronoun (in bold, above) which indicates that the verb is being done to the subject.
Since we’re only focusing on the passive voice in this post (geeze! I can’t do everything all at once!), if you wan’t to learn more about the pronominal voice, check out this post.
The passive voice
The gem of this post, finally! Since you will use and come across this voice the least often of these three, you’re likely less familiar with it. The passive voice is when the action of the verb is performed on the subject by the agent.
Don’t run away! We’ll learn about agents (not to be confused with secret agents) and all that jazz below. But first, here are a few examples to get you familiar:
La pomme est mangée par moi.
(The apple is eaten by me).
Le livre est écrit par Hemingway.
(The book was written by Hemingway).
Time for us to break it down!
Basic Formation of the French Passive Voice
Let’s take it step by step. We’ll reverse engineer it and start with a sentence in the active voice, with which you’re already familiar:
Ellen adore le film.
(Ellen loves the film).
Identity the agent
In the active sentence, Ellen is the subject and the object is le film. The object is what our subject performs the verb (adorer) on (i.e. She loves what?).
To go from the active voice to the passive voice, our object (“the film”) will now become our agent. In the passive voice, the agent will go in the place where you usually put the subject of the sentence. So, we’ve identified our agent: le film.
Conjugate your verb
You probably noticed in the passive voice examples that our little friend être made an appearance. In order to use the passive voice, you’ll need the correct form of the conjugated verb être (je suis, tu es, il/elle est, nous sommes, vous êtes, ils sont) and the past participle of the verb in question.
If you aren’t familiar with the past participle, it’s the form of the verb you use when forming the past tense and other compound tenses. Use WordReference.com to find the past participles for verbs if you’re still learning them, but for our verb adorer, you simply drop the -er and add -é to make adoré.
Putting our first two steps together, so far we have:
Le film est adoré…
So, the film is adored. This could be considered a complete thought. It has a subject and verb, doesn’t it?
In English, you could very well say “The macaroni and cheese was eaten.” And you can do the same thing in French. But if you need to indicate who ate the mac ‘n cheese, or in our example, who adores the film, then proceed to the next step.
Add the subject and preposition
Very backwards, I agree. But who is it that loves the film? Our imaginary friend Ellen! When adding the subject, you need to choose between par and de. De is used when the verb is expressing a state of being (like something is hated, loved, respected, adored, etc.) and par is used when the verb is indicating an action (is cooked, is made, is carried, etc.) In this case, we will use de.
Le film est adoré d’Ellen.
(The film is adored by Ellen).
The meaning is essentially the same between this and what we started with. In “Ellen adore le film,” we focus on Ellen’s love for the film, whereas in Le film est adoré d’Ellen, we focus more on the film itself. The passive voice highlights the agent, in this case le film, by putting it at the start of the sentence.
Making the Past Participle Agree
Those of you who have trekked knee-deep through the jungle that is the perfect tense, and perhaps beyond to the other compound tenses, will know what I’m getting at with this. The past participle must agree with the agent!
Don’t get confused her: When I say “the agent,” I mean “Le film” in our example.
If you’re lost in this “agreement” speak, no fear! All I mean is that the past participle must have the correct ending. If your agent is masculine singular, you do nothing; if it’s feminine singular, you add an –e; if it’s masculine plural, you add an –s; and if it’s feminine plural, you add –es.
Let’s do a few examples for good measure.
Les hamburgers sont detestés de tout le monde.
(The hamburgers are hated by everyone.) — “Les hamburgers” is masculine plural.
La tarte est faite par ma mère.
(The pie is made by my mom). “La tarte” is feminine singular.
Les filles sont récupérées par leur nounou.
(The girls are picked up by their nanny.) “Les filles” is feminine plural.
Might seem like a tiny detail, but it’s very important in both the passive voice, as well as other parts of French language. Don’t neglect your agreements!
Examples of the French Passive Voice in a Variety of Tenses
I know, you’re dying to know how to do this in every other tense. It’s been killing you all this time, hasn’t it: What about the past tense?? The future?? The subjunctive?? Well, fret no more, I’ll take you through the process of conjugating the passive voice in different tenses.
So far, I’ve only used present tense examples, so we’ve got that part down. Let’s run through the rest:
In order to use the passive voice in the perfect tense, you simply put the être part of our sentence in the perfect tense. Let’s use an earlier example: La tarte est faite par ma mère.
In the perfect (past) tense, it becomes:
La tarte a été faite par ma mère.
(The pie was made by my mom).
Nothing changes outside of the conjugation of être. You still have your past participle of faire and its agreement to the subject, la tarte. Instead of using the present tense conjugation of être before the past participle, we use the perfect tense conjugation.
Here’s one more example:
Ces bâtiments ont été construits par nous.
(These buildings were built by us).
Once again, ont été is the perfect tense conjugation of être, which is followed by the past participle of construire.
Just to get a feel for things, I’ll continue running through the most common tenses with a few passive voice examples for each.
Les bonbons seront faits par George.
(The candies will be made by George).
Spiderman ne sera pas joué par Tobey McGuire.
(Spiderman will not be played by Tobey McGuire).
Past perfect (pluperfect)
La plage avait été appréciée de tous.
(The beach had been well-liked by everybody.)
Les deux étages tout en haut avaient été habités par une actrice !
(The two highest stories had been inhabited an actress!)
Je veux que mon enfant soit conduit par moi.
(I want my child to be driven by me.)
Il faut que les gâteaux soient preparés par lui.
(The cakes must be prepared by him.)
And so on, and so forth. Remember to always agree your past participle and to not be intimidated by all those verbs. It’s still only the conjugated être + the past participle.
Caution: How the French Passive Voice Differs from English
This is for all you English majors and grammar aficionados out there. You came into this post already knowing a thing or two about the passive voice in English. But beware! While it’s largely similar, there’s one thing to watch out for:
You cannot have an indirect object in the French passive voice
For example, in English, you can turn the sentence “My friend made me my favorite meal” into the passive voice: “My favorite meal was made for me by my friend.” It’s bulky, but grammatically correct.
In French, with the same example, or any that has an indirect object in it, you must keep it in the active voice. Probably for the best anyway.
When to Use the Passive Voice in French
Speaking of English, you may be aware that using the passive voice is a faux-pas. Well, overusing the passive voice is frowned upon. It’s a similar rule in French.
It does have its place, though, so first we’ll go through when it will come up, and then also how to avoid it when you find yourself writing an unnecessarily bulky passive voice sentence.
Use the passive voice if you want to…
1. Emphasize the agent
For example, if there were a cake sitting on the table, and it were particularly beautiful, you could point to it and say:
Ce gâteau a été fait par moi !
(This cake was made by me.)
This could work in many instances where you want to emphasize the agent. In our example, the cake was the most important thing.
2. Have an anonymous subject
The second reason you might want to use the passive voice is when the performer (or the original subject) is unknown, unimportant or assumed. For example:
Herman Melville a écrit “Moby Dick.” “Moby Dick” a été écrit en 1851.
(Herman Melville wrote “Moby Dick.” “Moby Dick” was written in 1851).
Since we know who wrote “Moby Dick,” in the second sentence it isn’t important that we know the subject.
However, whether you’re using the passive voice for one of these reasons, or just using it for funsies, it’s important to know some alternatives to using this voice as well.
When Possible, Avoid the Passive Voice and Use…
1. A construction using se when you have an anonymous subject
This is called the passive reflexive and is not to be confused with reflexive verbs. It’s when you place the pronoun se before a verb that isn’t normally reflexive in order to imply a passive nature.
For example, take the following passive voice sentence:
La salade est mangée froid.
(The salad is eaten cold).
Using the passive reflexive, it would become:
La salade se mange froid.
(The salad is eaten cold).
It retains the same meaning, but is a much cleaner way to express the passive voice.
2. On as another way to maintain an anonymous subject
If you would like to maintain an anonymous subject, this is the easiest way. So, instead of using this passive voice sentence:
La glace est servie après la viande.
(The ice cream is served after the meat).
You could use the subject on with the active voice instead, like this:
On sert la glace après la viande.
(One serves the ice cream after the meat).
You’re still maintaining an anonymous subject, but can use a smoother verb conjugation.
3. C’est to emphasize the subject and avoid using an agent
C’est is a great way to put emphasis on the person performing the action in a sentence and work around the passive voice all together. Here’s an example, beginning in the passive voice:
Le tableau a été fait par un enfant !
(The painting was made by a child!)
We can avoid using the passive voice by implementing c’est like this:
C’est un enfant qui a fait le tableau !
(It’s a child who made the painting).
Both sentences may seem a bit bulky to you, but the latter rolls off the tongue much better in French.
4. The active voice
If none of the above three examples apply to your situation, and you’re just using the passive voice willy-nilly (this rule applies to English as well), change the subjects, agents and verbs around and go back to the active voice.
To show you one last time how to go in reverse, here’s an example in the passive voice:
La montre sera volée par moi !
(The watch will be stolen by me!)
We can easily bring this into the active voice by changing moi into the subject (je), the past participle into the natural tense, and by moving la montre back behind the verb where it belongs as the object:
Je volerai la montre!
(I will steal the watch!)
We’ve come full circle now, haven’t we?
Whether you’re a beginner trying to make sense of it all, an intermediate learner who’s diving deep into grammar, or an advanced learner who glazed over this and wants more clarity, the passive voice in French is an important component of the language.
Now get out there and keep using your French voice—whichever it may be!