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The passive - Easy Learning Grammar French

What is the passive?
The passive is a form of the verb that is used when the subject of the verb is the person or thing that is affected by the action, for example, I was given, we were told, it had been made.

1 Using the passive

  • In a normal, or active sentence, the ‘subject’ of the verb is the person or thing that carries out the action described by the verb. The ‘object’ of the verb is the person or thing that the verb ‘happens’ to.
  • Ryan (subject) hit (active verb) me (object).
  • In English, as in French, you can turn an active sentence round to make a passive sentence.
  • I (subject) was hit (passive verb) by Ryan (agent).
  • Very often, however, you cannot identify who is carrying out the action indicated by the verb.
  • I was hit in the face.
  • The trees will be chopped down.
  • I’ve been chosen to represent the school.
TipThere is a very important difference between French and English in sentences containing an indirect object. In English we can quite easily turn a normal (active) sentence with an indirect object into a passive sentence.Active
Someone (subject) gave (active verb) me (indirect object) a book (direct object).
Passive
I (subject) was given (passive verb) a book (direct object).
In French, an indirect object can NEVER become the subject of a passive verb.

2 Forming the passive

  • In English we use the verb to be with the past participle (was hit, was given) to form the passive. In French the passive is formed in exactly the same way, using être and the past participle. The past participle agrees with the subject of the passive verb; that is, the endings change in the feminine and plural forms.
Elle est encouragée par ses parents.She is encouraged by her parents.
Vous êtes tous bien payés.You are all well paid. (‘you’ refers to more than one person here)
Les portes ont été fermées.The doors have been closed.
  • Here is the present tense of the -er verb aimer (meaning to like, to love) in its passive form.
PronounPresent tense of êtrePast participleMeaning
jesuisaimé (masculine)
aimée (feminine)
I am loved
tuesaimé (masculine)
aimée (feminine)
you are loved
ilestaiméhe/it is loved
elleestaiméeshe/it is loved
onestaimé (singular)
aimés (masculine plural)
aimées (feminine plural)
one is loved
we are loved
noussommesaimés (masculine)
aimées (feminine)
we are loved
vousêtesaimé (masculine singular)
aimée (feminine singular)
aimés (masculine plural)
aimées (feminine plural)
you are loved
ilssontaimésthey are loved
ellessontaiméesthey are loved
  • The passive of -ir verbs is formed in the same way, except that the past participle is different. For example, elle est remplie (meaning it is full).
  • The passive of -re verbs is formed in the same way, except that the past participle is different. For example, il est défendu (meaning it is forbidden).
Grammar Extra!When on means we, the past participle can agree with the subject of the sentence, but it is optional.
On est aimés de tout le monde.We’re loved by everyone. (masculine)
  • You can form other tenses of the passive by changing the tense of the verb être.
  • Imperfect: j’étais aimé(e) I was loved
  • Future: tu seras aimé(e) you will be loved
  • Perfect: il a été aimé he has been loved
  • Irregular past participles are the same as for the perfect tense (see The perfect tense).

3 Avoiding the passive

  • Passives are not as common in French as in English. There are two main ways that French speakers express the same idea.
  • by using the pronoun on (meaning someone or they) with a normal, active verb
On leur a envoyé une lettre.They were sent a letter. (literally: Someone sent them a letter.)
On m’a dit que tu ne venais pas.I was told that you weren’t coming.
(literally: They told me you weren’t coming.)
  • For more information on Pronouns, see Pronouns.
  • by using a reflexive verb
Les melons se vendent 2 euros la pièce.Melons are sold for 2 euros each.
Key points
  • The present tense of the passive is formed by using the present tense of être with the past participle.
  • The past participle always agrees with the subject of the passive verb.
  • You can sometimes avoid a passive construction by using a reflexive verb or the pronoun on.

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