La voix passive: the passive voice in French

What is le passif?

Le passif, or la voix passive (the passive voice), allows us to avoid mentioning the subject of a sentence and instead place the emphasis on the person or thing affected by the action. We use the passive when the subject of the sentence is not important or is unknown. If the subject is mentioned, it is introduced by the prepositions par or de. The passive voice is formed using être as an auxiliary verb followed by the participe passé.

Learn how to use the passive voice in French with Lingolia’s quick and easy examples, then put your knowledge to the test in the free exercises.

Example

Un homme a été renversé par une voiture. L’ambulance a été appelée par des passants.

Le blessé est conduit à l’hôpital.

Les témoignages ont été recueillis par la police.

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When to use le passif in French

Most French sentences are formed in la voix active (the active voice). They focus on who or what is performing the action, i.e., the subject of the sentence.

Example:
L’ambulance conduit le blessé à l’hôpital.The ambulance drives the injured man to the hospital.

In contrast, la voix passive (the passive voice) focuses on who or what is affected by the action and the action itself. The subject of the sentence is not always mentioned in a passive sentence, either because it is unknown or unimportant.

Example:
Le blessé est conduit (par l’ambulance) à l’hôpital.The injured man is driven to the hospital (by the ambulance).

How to make passive sentences in French

To conjugate a verb in the passive voice, we use the auxiliary être + participe passé. The past participle agrees in number and gender with the subject of the passive sentence.

To learn how to transform an active sentence into a passive one, take a look at the examples in the table below.

Active Passive
La voiture renverse un homme.The car hits a man. Un homme est renversé par une voiture.A man is hit by a car.
Les passants appellent l’ambulance.The passers-by call the ambulance. L’ambulance est appelée par les passants.The ambulance is called by the passers-by.
La police recueille les témoignages.The police take down the statements. Les témoignages sont recueillis par la police.The statements are taken down by the police.

The passive can be used in all tenses and also in the subjunctive mood (le subjonctif).

Examples:
Imparfait – Un homme était renversé par une voiture.A man was hit by a car.
Futur simple – Un homme sera renversé par une voiture.A man will be hit by a car.
Passé composé – Un homme a été renversé par une voiture.A man has been hit by a car.
Subjonctif – Il est terrible qu’un homme soit renversé par une voiture.It’s terrible that a man is hit by a car.

Par and de

The agent of the sentence is usually introduced by par, similar to the English by.

Example:
Un homme a été renversé par une voiture.A man was hit by a car.

If the passive sentence includes a verb that describes a state or a feeling, we use the preposition de to introduce the agent.

Some examples of verbs used with de in the passive are: accablé deoverwhelmed by, aimé deloved by, bordé debordered by, connu deknown to, craint defeared by, décoré dedecorated with, detesté dehated by, entouré desurrounded by, estimé deesteemed by, étonné deshocked by, frappé deshocked by, haï dehated by, ignoré deignored by, oublié deforgotten by, respecté derespected by, surpris desurprised by

Example:
Le conducteur de la voiture est connu de la police.The driver of the car is known to the police.

Info

When on is the subject of an active sentence, we don’t use par or de to add an object to the passive sentence, because this also has a passive meaning

Example:
On a volé des diamants chez le bijoutier. → Des diamants ont été volés chez le bijoutier.Diamonds were stolen from the jeweller.

The passive with se and on

Instead of the passive, it is very common to use active constructions with on or se to express the same idea. We use these constructions when the subject is unknown or unimportant.

We use the pronoun se followed by a conjugated verb in the active voice.

Example:
Le journal racontant les faits se vendra bien.The newspaper that’s reporting the events will sell well.

Alternatively, we can use the 3rd person singular pronoun on followed by a conjugated verb in the active voice. This can be translated into English with the passive or with they.

Examples:
On conduit le blessé à l’hôpital.The injured man is brought to the hospital.
They’re taking the injured man to the hospital.