French The Passive Voice
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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