Passive Voice in French

Instructor: Ashley Brandenburg
Did the chicken lay the egg, or was the egg laid by the chicken? In order to find out, we need to look at the passive voice. In French, as in English, this is an important grammatical construction to understand agency.

Active vs Passive Voice

baseball bat

What Is Voice?

In grammar, when we talk about voice, we are talking about the relationship between the subject of the phrase and the action described therein. In French as in English, we have two choices for voice, active and passive.

We talk about active voice when it's the subject of the sentence who is doing the action. For example, in the sentence, 'Tom hits the ball,' Tom is the subject, and HE is doing the action of hitting the ball.

Passive voice, therefore, is the opposite, and the subject of the sentence RECEIVES the action. If we use the example above, the passive voice equivalent would be, 'The ball is hit by Tom.' The subject of the sentence is the ball, and it receives the action of being hit (by Tom).

It's important to remember that, in French as in English, it is generally preferred to write and speak using the active, not the passive voice. There are some alternatives to using the passive voice in French, which we'll look at later in this lesson.

Conjugating the Passive Voice in French

In order to conjugate the passive voice in French, we need three pieces:

1. The auxiliary verb, être, conjugated in the present tense

2. The past participle (participe passé) of the verb we're trying to use in the passive voice

and

3. Par (or, in certain instances, de), which translates roughly into 'by' in English

For instance, if we want to translate our English example from the beginning of the lesson, we would have this in the active voice: Tom frappe la balle. Changed into the passive voice, this becomes: La balle est frappée par Tom. Here the auxiliary verb être, is conjugated for la balle, and we use the past participle of the verb frapper.

If we are using the passive voice to describe a state of being rather than an action, we use de in the place of par. For example, in the active voice: Tout le monde aime le base-ball.= Everyone loves baseball. becomes Le base-ball est aimé de tout le monde.= Baseball is loved by everyone.

Attention!

Because you are using être as your auxiliary verb, make sure that your past participle agrees in gender and number with the subject. In our original example: La balle est frappée par Tom, balle is feminine singular, so we have to make the past participle, frappée, feminine singular as well.

If we were talking about a larger ball, say, a basketball, we would use a different vocabulary word, le ballon, and our sentence would change to this: Le ballon est frappé par Tom. Here our past participle, frappé, is now in the masculine singular form to agree with the masculine singular ballon.

Take a look at some more examples using some different objects in the same sentence:

Les balles sont frappées par Tom.= The balls are hit by Tom.

Les ballons sont frappés par Tom.= The (larger) balls are hit by Tom.

Notice that, in each case, our past participle agrees in gender and number with the object that it is modifying.

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