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Voix passive

French Passive Voice

The passive voice indicates that the subject is being acted upon by the verb. It changes the emphasis to the person or thing being acted upon (the subject), rather than the person or thing performing that action (the agent). Therefore, the agent can be omitted because it is less important.

For example

La maison a été vendue par mon ami - The house was sold by my friend.
La maison a été vendue. - The house was sold.

In English, the passive voice is made up of the relevant tense of the verb to be (is/was/will be, etc.) the past participle of the action verb.

French is similar: the relevant tense of the verb être (est/était/sera, etc.) + the past participle. But French has an additional component: the past participle has to agree with the subject, as in vendue, above.

Alternatives to the passive voice in French

The passive voice is used far less frequently in French than in English, partly because French has a number of alternatives:

  1. On + active verb
    • On a vendu la maison. - The house was sold, Someone sold the house.
    • On parle français ici. - French is spoken here, We speak French.
  2. Reflexive pronoun se, especially to describe a general, widespread truth or occurrence.
    • La champagne se consomme très frais. - Champagne is consumed very chilled.
    • Cette tendance s'observe souvent à Londres. - That tendency is often seen in London.

  3. Pronominal voice

When the passive voice cannot be used in French

In English, both direct objects and indirect objects of an active sentence can become the subject of a passive sentence.

For example:

Active: They gave a present to the girl. ('Present' is the direct object (DO) and 'girl' is the indirect object (IO).)
Passive: A present was given to the girl. ('Present' (DO) becomes the subject.)
Passive: The girl was given a present. ('The girl' (IO) becomes the subject.)

In French, the latter construction is not allowed. Only the direct object of an active sentence can become the subject of a passive sentence:

Active: Ils ont donné un cadeau à la fille. (Cadeau is the direct object, fille is the indirect object.)
Passive: Un cadeau a été donné à la fille. (Cadeau (DO) becomes the subject.)
Passive: La fille a été donné un cadeau. (Incorrect: Fille cannot become the subject because it's the indirect object.)

Learn more: Introduction to voice

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