French The Passive Voice

Overview

Le passif, or la voix passive (the passive voice), allows us to avoid mentioning the subject of a sentence and instead place the emphasis on the person or thing affected by the action. We use the passive when the subject of the sentence is not important or is unknown. If the subject is mentioned, it is introduced by the prepositions par or de. The passive voice is formed using être as an auxiliary verb followed by the participe passé.

Kicking Soccerball on Field

The passive voice, or la voix passive, is used to describe an action that is being done to a subject by an agent of the remaining sentence. It differs from the commonly used active voice because the subject is not directly doing the action. Instead, the action is being carried out onto the subject.

The passive voice in French is similar in structure to the passive voice in English. It would be best to review this concept in English before furthering your knowledge in French to best understand its grammatical usage.

How to Form the Passive Voice:

To form the passive voice, you conjugate être for the desired tense of the sentence and follow it with a past participle. The subjects of the sentence are then introduced by using either de or par.

Look at the following example sentences that compare the active to the passive voice. Pay attention to the tense of each example.

Le Présent

Voix active:    Thomas lance le ballon.                      Thomas throws the ball.

Voix passive: Le ballon est lancé par Thomas          The ball is thrown by Thomas.

Le Passé Composé

Voix active: Les secouristes ont aidé les enfants.     

The first aid workers helped the children.

Voix passive: Les enfants ont été aidés par les secouristes. 

The children were helped by the first aid workers 

L’Imparfait

Voix active: Valentin écrivait des lettres gentilles.

                                                            Valentin used to write thoughtful letters.

Voix passive: Des lettres gentilles étaient écrites par Valentin.

Some thoughtful letters used to be written by Valentin. 

Le Futur

Voix active: Des milliers de touristes visiteront la Tour Eiffel l’année prochaine.

Thousands of tourists will visit the Eiffel Tower next year.

Voix passive: La Tour Eiffel sera visitée par des milliers de touristes l’année prochaine.

The Eiffel Tower will be visited by thousands of tourists next year.

What to take away from these examples:

  • Notice how the subject of each sentence in the active voice follows par in each sentence written in the passive voice.
  • In the passive voice, être (preceding the past participle) is conjugated in the tense of the verb found in the original sentence. In the first example of the passive voice, être is conjugated in the present tense (est) because the verb lancer is conjugated in the present tense (lance) in the active voice. In the second example, être is conjugated in the past tense (ont été) because aider is conjugated in the past tense (ont aidé) in the active voice. In the third example, être is conjugated in the imperfect (étaient) because écrire is conjugated in the imperfect tense (écrivait) in the active voice In the final example, être is conjugated in the future tense (sera) because the verb visiter is conjugated in the future tense (visiteront) in the active voice. 
  • The second part of the passive voice is the past participle. You use the past participle of the conjugated verb in the active voice sentence. On this past participle, you must make agreement in gender and number to the new subject of the sentence in the passive voice. In the first example, agreement on the past participle lancé is not needed because the subject (le ballon) is masculine and singular. In the second example, an -s is added to the past participle aidé because the subject (les enfants) is masculine and plural. In the third example, -es is added to the past participle écrit because the subject (des lettres) is feminine and plural. In the last example, an -e is added to visité because the subject (La Tour Eiffel) is feminine and plural.

How to Avoid Using the Passive Voice

It’s very often that you hear professors and other leaders in academia suggest that you don’t use the passive voice unless you have to. There’s no rule against using it or not, but speaking in the active voice is more natural and most often used. When the subject of a sentence is unknown or unimportant, we often resort to using the passive voice. This means, there wouldn’t be anyone or anything to write after par or de in the passive voice sentence. In French, we can avoid this by using the pronoun On.

Voix active: Il a donné un message à Jean.

Voix passive: On a donné un message à Jean.

Using the pronoun On puts an active sentence into the passive voice because the reader is unsure of who specifically did the action. In this example, someone gave a message to John.

What to review:

Understanding the passive voice requires a lot of background knowledge in French. It would be most useful to review the following concepts to understand the information in this module, to complete the A2.2 modules, and to prepare for the upcoming modules in B1.1:

Other concepts to review:

  • Agreement in gender and number with past participle
  • Identifying verb tenses based on conjugation

Our teachers and tutors are experienced and passionate about helping students improve their language skills. Our platform offers a flexible and convenient way to learn from the comfort of your home or in person. Find whether your favorite teacher is available for in person classes or choose any teacher for online class or simply let us pick a great teacher for you.

Highlighted Author:

France, Paris, Smiling woman standing on a bridge with the Eiffel tower in the background
Smiling young african american businessman writing in diary and using laptop in creative office

Private Classes

Meet one or more times weekly with a dedicated French instructor online at a pace and schedule that custom fits your busy life.

Group of cheerful young women studying together

Group Courses

Our group French courses meet twice a week for 1-hour classes. Learn French with other motivated students. Best option for French CEFR certification.
 
Inspirational International Women's Day Quotes for 2023

Self-Study

Do you like to study on your own when it’s convenient for you? Buy helpful charts, vocabulary lists, and courses.

Additional Topics

People buying vegetables at the farmers market
French The Pronoun "en"

The adverbial pronoun en can replace a quantity, a place, or the object of the preposition de. This little word has many possible translations: any, one, some, about it / them, of it / them.

Adult African American father next to daughter plays the synthesizer
The French Pronoun Y

Y replaces or refers back to an adverb phrase of place or of location. In its simplest form, it means just there (in the meaning of in that place) It can also mean in something, on something, under something, beside something, etc.

Who is it
French Relative Pronouns Qui vs Que

In French, direct object pronouns are used for verbs which aren’t followed by prepositions: Me (me), te (you), nous (us), vous (you), le (him or it), la (her or it), les (them). For example, Je vois le garçon. Je le vois. (I see the boy. I see him).

Show More
Common European Framework of Reference for Languages

The CEFR is an international standard used to describe language ability. Here are specific details of the CEFR for this topic.

General Explanation:
Can understand sentences and frequently used expressions related to areas of most immediate relevance (e.g. very basic personal and family information, shopping, local geography, employment). Can communicate in simple and routine tasks requiring a simple and direct exchange of information on familiar and routine matters. Can describe in simple terms aspects of his/her background, immediate environment and matters in areas of immediate need.
Specific Capabilities at this Level
Writing:
I can write short, simple notes and messages relating to matters in areas of immediate needs. I can write a very simple personal letter, for example thanking someone for something.
Spoken Production:
I can use a series of phrases and sentences to describe in simple terms my family and other people, living conditions, my educational background and my present or most recent job.
Spoken Interaction:
I can communicate in simple and routine tasks requiring a simple and direct exchange of information on familiar topics and activities. I can handle very short social exchanges, even though I can’t usually understand enough to keep the conversation going myself.
Reading:
I can read very short, simple texts. I can find specific, predictable information in simple everyday material such as advertisements, prospectuses, menus and timetables and I can understand short simple personal letters.
Listening:
I can understand phrases and the highest frequency vocabulary related to areas of most immediate personal relevance (e.g. very basic personal and family information, shopping, local area, employment). I can catch the main point in short, clear, simple messages and announcements.