Whether in French or in English, we use the passive voice when we want to talk about what happened without necessarily putting the emphasis on who carried out the action. In this post we’ll cover everything you need to know about the French passive voice, including how and when to use it, its grammatical details, as well as a couple of alternative options to the passive voice in French. As always, we’ll provide plenty of example sentences throughout.
This is a very comprehensive post with a lot of detail, so if you’re already familiar with some elements of the passive voice you may want to scroll down to the sections where you need some clarifications. Now let’s get started!
What is the passive voice?
Before we even get started on the French passive voice, let’s begin with the basics of what exactly we mean with the passive voice in the first place. The same concepts apply to both English and French.
The passive voice describes a type of sentence in which the verb’s action is being done to the subject, rather than by the subject. The action is performed by someone or something else, known as the agent of action. In French, this agent of action is known as le complément d’agent.
Sentences in the passive voice contrast with sentences in the active voice, in which the subject performs the action on someone or something else. Or, in the case of reflexive verbs, in which the subject performs the action on themself.
Now let’s compare active voice vs passive voice with a simple example:
- Active voice: The dog eats the sandwich.
- Passive voice: The sandwich is eaten by the dog.
The action is the same in both of these sentences, but the subject changes between the two. In the first example, the subject of the sentence, the dog, performs the action of eating the sandwich.
In the second example, the subject of the sentence, the sandwich, is having the action of being eaten done to it. Who or what is carrying out this action? The dog, which is the agent of action in this passive sentence.
How to form the Passive Voice in English
Now that we’re clear on what the passive voice is, let’s start our grammar lesson by looking at how it’s formed in English. This will be useful as we move on in the next sections, because we use the same method to form the passive voice in French.
The passive voice is formed by using two verbs: the verb to be conjugated to agree with the subject, and the past participle of the action verb that was performed on the subject.
- The votes are counted by the election committee.
- The guests are escorted by ushers.
The agent of action is always introduced by a preposition. In English, you use the word by.
- The boy is picked up by his parents.
- My mailbox was smashed by some idiot.
The agent of action doesn’t always have to be known. If it is not mentioned in the sentence, there is no need for a preposition.
- The votes are counted.
- My mailbox was smashed.
How to form the Passive Voice in French
- L’argent est compté par le gérant à la fin de la journée. – The money is counted by the manager at the end of the day.
In this example, we’ve conjugated être to agree with the subject, which is the money, or l’argent. Compté is the past participle of the verb “compter,” meaning “to count.”
Using the preposition Par in the French passive voice
The French preposition par usually translates as by in English. In most cases, par is the preposition we use with the French passive voice to introduce the agent of action.
- Le bureau est nettoyé par une femme de menage. – The office is cleaned by a cleaning lady.
- Les gladiateurs sont tués par des légionnaires romains. – The gladiators are killed by Roman legionnaires.
Just like in English, there’s no need for a preposition if the complément d’agent isn’t mentioned.
- Toutes les chaises sont occupées. – All the chairs are occupied.
Using the preposition De in the French passive voice
With verbs that express a state of being, such as being loved, liked, or detested, technically we use the preposition de before the agent of action. In this case, de also translates into English as by.
- Le Pape est adoré de ses passionnés. – The Pope is adored by his devotees.
- Le directeur est respecté de tous les étudiants. – The principal is respected by all his students.
Note that although de is the correct preposition in these situations, you’ll still likely hear many French speakers use par with these verbs. This is common in informal speech, as not all French speakers follow the grammatical rule that applies here.
Grammar rules for the French Passive Voice
If you are familiar with using être as an auxiliary verb in compound tenses such as the passé composé, you’ve already learned that the past participle must agree with the subject in gender and number.
This same rule of gender agreement applies to any verbs used in the passive voice. Let’s review this rule here. Keep in mind that by gender, we’re talking about the gender of the French noun, since all nouns are either masculine or feminine.
If the subject is masculine singular, the past participle remains in its base form.
- L’homme est discipliné par son patron. – The man is disciplined by his boss.
- L’entraîneur est embrassé par son équipe. – The coach is embraced by his team.
If the subject is feminine singular, we add the letter e to the past participle.
- La femme est disciplinée par son patron. – The woman is disciplined by her boss.
- La banane est mangée par le singe. – The banana is eaten by the monkey.
If the subject is masculine plural, we add the letter s to the past participle.
- Les entraîneurs sont embrassés par leur équipe. – The coaches are embraced by their team.
If the subject is both feminine and plural, we add both an e and an s.
- Les bananes sont mangées par le singe. – The bananas are eaten by the monkey.
Using the French Passive Voice in the negative
When we express the action in the negative when using the passive voice in French, the ne and the pas are placed before and after the conjugated form of être.
- La banane n’est pas mangée par le singe. – The banana isn’t eaten by the monkey.
- Les bananes ne sont pas mangées par le singe. – The bananas are not eaten by the monkey.
When to use the Passive Voice in French
Honestly, it’s not so common that we use the passive voice in French. Nevertheless, we do use it in certain situations. There are two main reasons we use the passive voice in French, so we’ll look at each one here.
To emphasize the agent of action
Changing a sentence structure between active voice vs passive voice can put the emphasis on different actors in the sentence. Often we choose to use the passive voice to underline who carried out the action.
- Active voice: Une jeune femme gagne la course. – A young woman wins the race.
- Passive voice: La course est gagnée par une jeune femme! – The race is won by a young woman!
To omit the agent of action
The other reason to use the passive voice is when the agent of action is omitted entirely. This could be because whoever performed the action is unimportant, or because the agent of action is unknown. By omitting the agent of action the focus remains on the action itself, along with the subject of the action.
- Les ordures ménagères sont ramassées les jeudis. – Household waste is picked up on Thursdays.
- Beaucoup de gladiateurs sont tués. – Many gladiators are killed.
In the first example, we don’t need to know who picks up the trash, just that it gets collected on Thursdays. Likewise in the second, the important point is that many gladiators are killed, without needing to mention by whom.
The French passive voice in different tenses
It’s important to remember that the passive voice is not a tense, but rather a specific construction that we employ for the various reasons we’ve discussed above.
In most of our examples so far, we’ve demonstrated the passive voice in the simple present tense. In fact, the French passive voice is just as common in several other tenses.
To use the French passive voice in a given tense, we just conjugate the verb être as we normally do in that tense. The construction is otherwise the same as we’ve seen through the rest of this post.
To demonstrate the passive voice in other French tenses, take a look at these examples showing the active vs passive voice for each tense.
Présent de l’indicatif
- Active voice: Le cuisinier prépare la nourriture. – The chef prepares the food.
- Passive voice: La nourriture est préparée par le cuisinier. – The food is prepared by the chef.
- Active voice: Le cuisinier a préparé la nourriture. – The chef prepared the food.
- Passive voice: La nourriture a été préparée par le cuisinier. – The food was prepared by the chef.
- Active voice: Le cuisinier préparait la nourriture. – The chef was preparing the food.
- Passive voice: La nourriture était préparée par le cuisinier. – The food was prepared by the chef.
- Active voice: Le cuisinier préparera la nourriture. – The chef will prepare the food.
- Passive voice: La nourriture sera préparée par le cuisinier. – The food will be prepared by the chef.
- Active: Il est possible que le cuisinier prépare la nourriture. – It is possible that the chef may prepare the food.
- Passive: Il est possible que la nourriture soit préparée par le cuisinier. – It is possible that the food may be prepared by the chef.
Alternatives to the Passive in French
The passive voice in French has its nuances, and is useful in the situations we’ve described above. It’s especially common in news broadcasts or news articles where the agent of action is less important than the action itself, but not necessarily as frequent in everyday speech.
We have a couple of alternative constructions in French which can be used in similar contexts to the passive construction we’ve seen so far, both of which use the active voice instead. Each has its own particularities, and neither really has a direct English equivalent.
The particularity with using the impersonal subject pronoun on to replace the passive voice is that there is always an agent of action, we just don’t necessarily know or want to say who it is. In contrast, using the reflexive pronoun se suggests that there wasn’t an agent of action at all, that the action just happened to the subject by itself. Let’s see each of these in more detail below.
The impersonal third-person pronoun “on”
In French, the impersonal third-person subject pronoun on is used more regularly than its formal English equivalent of one. Other common translations for this use of on in French are someone, anyone, you, or they, depending on the context. The point is that on is used impersonally, not identifying any specific individual or individuals who carry out the action.
With this use of the impersonal on in French, it becomes a good alternative for the passive voice. (Keep in mind that on is also often used informally as a replacement for the first-person plural pronoun we in French; that use of on meaning we does not facilitate an alternative to the passive voice.)
- Active voice with impersonal on: Je suis retourné de fumer ma clope et on avait déjà mangé ramassé mon verre. – I came back from smoking, and someone had already cleared my glass.
- Passive voice: Je suis retourné de fumer, et mon verre avait déjà été ramassé. – I came back from smoking, and my glass had already been cleared.
- Active voice with impersonal on: On a incendié 36 voitures lors des émeutes. – They torched 36 cars during the riots.
- Passive voice: 36 voitures ont été incendiées lors des émeutes. – 36 cars were torched during the riots.
The reflexive pronoun “se”
Our other alternative to the passive voice in French is to use the third-person reflexive pronoun se. This pronoun generally translates into English as himself, herself, themself, or themselves.
- Active voice with reflexive se: Un bel appart à Paris se vend facilement. – A nice apartment in Paris easily sells itself.
- Passive voice: Un bel appartement à Paris est facilement vendu. – A nice apartment in Paris is easily sold.
This use of the reflexive suggests that the subject applies the action to themself, rather than being acted upon by an external agent of action. Keep this nuance in mind when you hear or use the reflexive se used as an alternative to the passive voice!
- Active voice with reflexive se: 36 voitures se sont incendiées lors des émeutes. – 36 cars burned [themselves] during the riots.
Conclusion: La Voix Passive
Today we provided an in-depth lesson covering everything you need to know about the passive voice in French, or la voix passive. Let’s do a quick recap before we go.
First we did a quick overview of the passive voice itself, looking at its English manifestation using the verb to be followed by the past participle. We learned that the passive voice essentially flips around the actors of a sentence in the active voice: the subject of an active sentence becomes the agent of action in a passive sentence.
We saw that the French passive voice uses the same construction as in English, using a conjugated form of être followed by a participe passé of the action verb. We then went through the grammar rules for gender and number agreement of the participe passé with the subject, as well as the rules for using negation. We also had a whole section on using the passive voice in different French tenses.
We learned that the equivalent preposition to the English by for introducing the complément d’agent is par, whereas for some verbs describing a state of being we use de in French. We also saw in numerous sections that the complément d’agent is often omitted altogether in the passive voice.
We finished up our lesson on the French passive voice by introducing a couple of other sentence structures which can often be used synonymously: with the third-person impersonal pronoun on, and with the reflexive pronoun se.
Throughout, we saw the important nuances of emphasis when using a passive voice structure, allowing us to underline, downplay, or even omit the different actors of a given action. This has been a very thorough lesson, so if you’ve followed everything so far you’re well prepared to use the passive voice in French!
about the image
If you’re wondering why we chose this image for the lesson on the French passive voice, it’s because we got to demonstrate a few different ways of describing the fate of the warriors in the Roman amphitheater.
The photo is from an annual reenactment in the southern French city of Nîmes, where the intact Roman arena, known simply as les Arènes de Nîmes, is still used for concerts and other spectacles to this day!