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French Passive Voice

How to use and avoid the French passive voice


Using the passive voice

Now that you know about prepositions and agents and how to conjugate the passive voice, it's on to more practical matters. The French passive voice may be used for two reasons:

A) To put more emphasis on the person or thing performing the action:

Active: Un enfant a écrit ce livre. - A child wrote this book.
Passive: Ce livre a été écrit par un enfant. - This book was written by a child.

B) To focus on an action without identifying the performer:

   Jean a écrit ce livre. - Jean wrote this book.
   Il a été écrit en 1927. - It was written in 1927.

Avoiding the passive voice

The French passive voice has a slightly formal or literary tone and is used less frequently than in English. There are several alternatives to the passive voice (besides the active voice):

A) To focus on the performer, use c'est:

   Ce livre a été écrit par un enfant. > C'est un enfant qui a écrit ce livre.
   This book was written by a child. > It's a child who wrote this book.

   Le record a été battu par une femme. > C'est une femme qui a battu le record.
   The record was beaten by a woman. > It's a woman who beat the record.

B) To avoid identifying the performer, there are two options:

   1. On (impersonal subject pronoun)

   Ce livre a été écrit en 1927. > On a écrit ce livre en 1927.
   This book was written in 1927.

   Ils ont été pardonnés. > On les a pardonnés.
   They have been excused.

   2. Se (passive reflexive)

   Ce livre est souvent lu. > Ce livre se lit souvent.
   This book is often read.

   Les mûres ne sont pas vendues ici. > Les mûres ne se vendent pas ici.
   Blackberries aren't sold here.
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