Chut ! (Shhh!) If you listen very carefully as you study French online, you can hear it.
It can be subtle. Matter-of-fact. Even a little formal.
It’s not a verb tense, like l’imparfait (the French imperfect). It’s not a verb mood, like le subjonctif (the subjunctif).
It’s the passive voice.
What is the passive voice in French?
When it comes to language, a voice sets the tone for a sentence. The voice highlights the most important information.
Most of the time, we use the active voice. You can recognize the active voice because the person (or thing) performing the action is usually right in front of the verb. For instance:
- Je lave la vaisselle. (I wash the dishes.)
- Thierry écrit l’histoire. (Thierry writes the story.)
- Sandrine a chanté la chanson. (Sandrine sang the song.)
In the active voice, we focus primarily on the person doing the action. Active voice answers the question: “Who is doing this?”
The passive voice has the opposite emphasis, putting our focus on the object of the action being done:
- La vaisselle est lavée par moi. (The dishes are washed by me.)
- L’histoire est écrite par Thierry. (The story is written by Thierry.)
- La chanson a été chantée par Sandrine. (The song was sung by Sandrine.)
Passive voice answers the question: “What is the object of the action?”
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Why Do French Speakers Use the Passive Voice?
The first reason to use the passive voice is to emphasize the action being done.
When we use the active voice, we’re highlighting the person or thing doing the action. In fact, this is very often the first piece of information in an active voice sentence.
Marie prépare le gâteau. (Marie prepares the cake.)
The focus here is naturally on Marie, since her name starts the sentence.
En revanche (on the other hand), if you want to emphasize the fact that the cakes are being prepared – regardless of who’s preparing them – you can use the passive voice:
Le gâteau est préparé par Marie. (The cake is being prepared by Marie.)
In the passive voice, the object of the action – the cake – is the focus of the sentence. In this sentence, Marie is basically an afterthought. Let’s face it: You could drop Marie completely out of the sentence, and it wouldn’t alter the meaning of the sentence that much:
Le gâteau est préparé
par Marie. (The cake is being prepared by Marie.)
You still get the important information from this passive voice sentence; you still know that the cake is being prepared. It doesn’t matter how hard Marie has been working on it, even if she’s spent extra time sifting flour or applying fancy cake decorations. All you care about, in this passive-voice version of the sentence, is that you’ll have some yummy cake to eat.
The second reason to use the passive voice is if you don’t know who is doing the action in the sentence. You might see this used in a “breaking news” scenario. For example:
Dix maisons du quartier ont été cambriolées. (Ten houses in the neighborhood were burgled.)
We don’t know who the burglar is yet; we just know that ten houses were burglarized in that neighborhood.
Quelques heures plus tard, tous les biens volés ont été restitués . (A few hours later, all of the stolen property was returned.)
We still don’t know who perpetrated the burglaries, but at least we can deliver the happy news that all of the stolen objects were given back to their rightful owners.
A related reason for using the passive voice in French is to recount an event without placing responsibility (or blame) on a specific person.
Des erreurs ont été commises. (Mistakes have been made.)
In this passive voice example, we’ll admit that some bad decisions were made and that things went awry. But we’re not pinning those mistakes on any particular people.
How to Form the Passive Voice in French
The formula for using the passive voice in French is fairly straightforward.
Object of the action + auxiliary verb + past participle of the main verb [+ attribution]
Going back to our earlier example:
Le gâteau est préparé par Marie. (The cake is being prepared by Marie.)
Here, le gâteau (the cake) is the object of the action.
In a present-tense sentence, the auxiliary verb will generally be a form of être:
- La bibliothèque est fermée maintenant. (The library is closed now.)
- Le travail est fait. (The work is done.)
- La lessive est finie. (The laundry is done.)
In a past tense, the auxiliary verb could be a form of either avoir (to have) or être (to be), or a combination thereof (in the case of the past anterior):
- La boîte était portée. (The box was carried.)
- La pièce a été peinte. (The room has been painted.)
- Des erreurs ont été commises. (Mistakes have been made.)
Notice that the past participle of the main verb needs to agree in gender and number with the subject that it follows. That’s why there’s an -e on the end of porté (the past participle of porter, to carry) and peint (the past participle of peindre, to paint) – and why -es is added to the end of commis (the past participle of commettre, to commit), since erreurs is both feminine and plural. This is true even when avoir is used.
The last part of a passive voice sentence, the attribution, is optional. You can use par (by) or sometimes de (of) to state who performed an action.
In the sentence Le gâteau est préparé par Marie, the attribution (by Marie) tells you who prepared the cake.
Differences Between How the Passive Voice is Used in French and English
While the passive voice is used for similar reasons in both English and French, it is more commonly heard in English.
You’re more likely to read the French passive voice in a work of literature than to hear it in conversation. The passive voice in French brings a tone of formality to what it describes.
In English, we often make statements in the passive voice, like “I was given the recipe” or “She was given a note.” In French, however, on ne fait jamais ça (we never do that). Instead, you could say Quelqu’un m’a donné la recette or On m’a donné la recette (Someone gave me the recipe).
Alternatives to the French Passive Voice
French speakers routinely use a few different alternatives to the passive voice.
C’est… / Ce sont…
C’est (it is) and ce sont (these are) are extremely common ways to start a phrase in French. They’re often used where we might use the passive voice in English.
Passive English Version
C’est le vent d’hiver qui a déchiré la voile du bateau.
It is the winter wind that tore the boat’s sail.
The boat’s sail was torn by the winter wind.
C’est l’homme qui allume les bougies.
It is the man who lights the candles.
The candles are lit by this man.
Ce sont les bénévoles qui ont sauvé ces pauvres animaux.
These are the volunteers who have saved these poor animals.
The animals are saved by these volunteers.
Here, the idea is to specifically highlight the particular person or thing who performed the action. This might be done for poetic reasons (as in the C’est le vent d’hiver example), or for practical reasons – in the cases of the l’homme and les bénévoles, the implication is that you’re identifying a specific man or volunteer among more than one possibility.
Using on (One / We / “You” in General) in Place of the Passive
In French, the impersonal pronoun on (one) is frequently used to mean “I” or “you” or “we” in general.
If you wanted to express a generality without using the passive voice in French, you could simply use the pronoun on:
- En France, on prend les vacances en août. (In France, we take vacations in August. / […] people take vacations in August.)
- On trouve des articles moins chers à l’hypermarché. (You can get cheaper goods at a superstore.)
- Où est-ce qu’on peut trouver un hôtel près de la gare ? (Where can I find a hotel close to the train station?)
- On ne sait jamais. (You never know.)
Using a Pronominal Verb
Pronominal verbs are simply verbs paired with a pronoun. The pronoun used shows us who is receiving the action in the sentence.
Pronominal verbs include all of the following types:
- Reflexive (the action is done to oneself)
- Je me brosse les dents. (I brush my teeth.)
- Elle se lave les cheveux. (She washes her hair.)
- Reciprocal (the action is done to someone else)
- Ils se regardent. (They look at each other.)
- Elle m’apprend le français. (She teaches me French.)
- Passive (the action was done by an agent who may or may not be named)
- Le secret se fait savoir. (The secret is being made known.)
- L’église se voyait de la rivière. (The church could be seen from the river.)
You may hear it said that reflexive verbs can be used to form the passive voice in French. Technically speaking, these are passive pronominal verbs, although they do look suspiciously like reflexive verbs. Here are some of the most common:
Se dire – to be said; to be told
- Ces mots ne se disent pas devant les enfants. (These words are not said in front of children.)
Se faire – to be done; to be made; to be getting
- Des choses si terribles ne se font pas. (Such terrible things are not done.)
Se faire can be combined with other verbs to express events in passive voice:
- Mireille se fait récompenser pour son travail acharné. (Mireille is getting rewarded for her hard work.)
Here, Mireille is the recipient of the action (getting rewarded), but we don’t know who’s doling out the rewards.
Se savoir – to be known
- La vérité se saura enfin. (The truth will be known at last.)
Se parler – to be spoken
- En Europe, l’anglais se parle comme une langue commune. (In Europe, English is spoken as a common language.)
Se vendre – to be sold
- Les romans de poche se vendent à la bouquinerie. (Paperback novels are being sold at the used bookstore.)
Se sentir – to be felt
- La sensation de bien-être se sent pendant des heures après la thérapie. (The sense of well-being is felt for hours after therapy.)
Se voir – to be seen
- Le luxe de ses vêtements se voit clairement. (The luxury of his clothing was clearly visible.)
Se manger – to be eaten
- Ce riz doit se manger cuit. (This rice must be eaten cooked.)
Understanding the French passive voice and its alternatives (such as c’est, on, and pronominal verbs) can give you a deeper understanding of the nuances of the French language. While the active voice is preferred by French speakers in most circumstances, knowing the passive voice can broaden your spectrum of self-expression in French.