The Passive Voice in French
American high school counselors often advise students to avoid the passive voice in their college application essays. Active phrases reflect an active participant on a college campus, or so it would seem. Once I was in college, I had a Latin teacher who disagreed. There was certainly a place for the passive voice, he assured us, and proceeded to show us passive forms of the first through fourth conjugations, as well as deponent verbs, whose forms are passive but whose meanings are active. In French we use the verb être for the passive voice, along with a past participle. We use the passive voice to emphasize the direct object of action. The agent of action, the complément d’agent, is generally introduced by the preposition par. We can also eliminate the complément d’agent from a sentence in the passive voice.
Why Would You Use the Passive Voice?
Why would you use the passive voice? Let’s look at the sentence “Le cadeau a été offert par Simone à Paul”. Wouldn’t it be much simpler and less cumbersome to say “Simone a offert le cadeau à Paul”? In this case, yes, it would be simpler and it is probably the sentence I would choose if I were to describe the event. Sometimes, however, the agent of action remains unknown, or we would prefer not to name the agent, or we would like to emphasize the receiver of a particular action.
How about this one? “Les votes ont été comptés”. This could illustrate all three of the scenarios indicated for why we would use the passive voice – there’s a good chance we do not know the individuals counting the votes, some parties might not like to identify these people (although others most certainly would), and the focus of the sentence is the votes, which receive the action of counting, not those individuals who might have counted them.
How to Use the Passive Voice Intuitively?
What you will notice in this passive phrase, as well as in other passive phrases, is that there is one more element than there would be were we to use the active voice, with the verb être being conjugated in the desired tense and corresponding to the subject of the sentence, and the action received by the subject in participle form. Since the verb être acts like an equal sign, the participle needs to correspond in gender and number to the subject of the sentence (votes ≈ comptés). The passive voice can seem complicated because of all of these things: the extra element that is necessary for a passive sentence, the use of participles and their agreement with the subject, etc., but the passive voice can be quite intuitive if you do not lose sight of the receiver of the action and the action’s time frame.
14 Examples of the Passive Voice
Here are 14 examples of the passive voice in different tenses and modes:
#1 Présent: The sentence “Je suis surprise par les résultats” includes the verb être in the first person singular conjugation of the present tense. The gender of the je becomes clear with the use of the feminine singular form of the verb surprendre (je ≈ surprise). If this looks like an adjective modifying the je, we can remember that past participles are often used as adjectifs qualificatifs. The active version of this phrase is “Les résultats me surprennent” – notice the elimination of the verb être and the conjugation of the verb surprendre in the third person plural present conjugation. We will return to this active sentence later.
#2 Passé composé: The sentence “Le document a déjà été lu” includes the verb “to be” in the third person singular conjugation of the passé composé. The past participle of lire is in the masculine singular form, as it mirrors the subject of the sentence (document ≈ lu).
#3 Imparfait: The sentence “Le texte était traduit en plusieurs langues” includes the verb être in the third person singular conjugation of the imperfect tense. The past participle of the verb traduire reflects the subject of the sentence (texte ≈ traduit).
#4 Plus-que-parfait: The sentence “Les propositions avaient été présentées au comité” includes the third person plural conjugation of the verb être in the plus-que-parfait. The past participle of présenter matches the feminine plural subject of the sentence (propositions ≈ présentées).
#5 Futur: The sentence “Les erreurs dans le texte seront aperçues” includes the third person plural conjugation of the verb être in the future tense. The feminine plural past participle of apercevoir is used to agree with the subject (erreurs ≈ aperçues).
#6 Futur antérieur: The sentence “Nous n’aurons pas été payés pour tout notre travail” includes the first person plural conjugation of the verb être in the future perfect tense. The masculine plural past participle shows that the nous is also masculine and plural (nous ≈ payés).
#7 Conditionnel présent: The sentence “Je serais élue avec une pluralité des votes” includes the first person singular conjugation of the verb être in the present conditional. The feminine singular past participle of the verb élire shows that the je is feminine (je ≈ élue).
#8 Conditionnel passé: The sentence “On aurait été mieux reconnu dans une autre position” includes the third person singular conjugation of the verb être in the past conditional. The masculine singular past participle of the verb reconnaître reflects the subject of the sentence (on ≈ reconnu).
#9 Subjonctif présent: The second clause of the sentence “Nous voulons que leurs actions soient examinées de près” includes the third person plural conjugation of the verb être in the present tense. Since it follows a wish or desire, the main verb in this clause takes on a subjunctive form. The feminine plural past participle reflects the word actions (actions ≈ examinées).
#10 Subjonctif passé: The second clause of the sentence “Quel dommage que la réunion n’ait pas été bien documentée par le comité” includes the third person singular conjugation of the verb être in the past subjunctive. Since it follows an expression of regret for something that has already occurred, the past subjunctive is used. The feminine singular past participle reflects the word réunion (réunion ≈ documentée).
#11 Gérondif présent: The sentence “En étant reconnues pour leurs efforts humanitaires, les invitées faisaient bonne impression” includes the present gerundive form of the verb être. A present gerundive is used to show the conditions under which the guests made a good impression. The feminine plural past participle of the verb reconnaître reflects the subject of the sentence (invitées ≈ reconnues).
#12 Gérondif passé: The sentence “En ayant été remises en question, les décisions prises par le comité ont subi de grandes modifications” includes the past gerundive form of the verb être. A past gerundive is used to show the reason for modifications made to a committee’s decisions. The feminine plural past participle of the verb remettre reflects the word décisions (décisions ≈ remises).
#13 Infinitif présent: The sentence “Être aimé par tellement de gens est très agréable” includes the present infinitive form of the verb être. A present infinitive is used as the subject of the sentence to express a general observation. The masculine singular past participle of the verb aimer is used for this general statement with no specified direct object of action ([agent anonyme] ≈ aimé).
#14 Infinitif passé: The sentence “Êtes-vous content d’avoir été vu par chacun des délégués ?” includes the past infinitive form of the verb être. A past infinitive is used to place the two actions specified in the sentence within a sequence. The masculine singular form of the verb voir shows that the subject vous is a formal masculine singular subject (vous ≈ vu).
If you wish to avoid the passive voice, there are ways of reformulating sentences, such as those shown above, into active phrases. When a sentence includes a complément d’agent, often following the preposition par, as in #1, #10, #13 and #14, we can use this agent as the subject of the sentence. This is what we see in the active example given in #1. Another example is this active version of #10: “Quel dommage que le comité n’ait pas bien documenté la réunion”.
But what if the agent doesn’t appear at all in the original passive sentence? Sentence #2 does not specify any agent, meaning that we would need to provide one or structure the sentence in a different way. A useful pronoun to use when the agent of action is unspecified or vague is pronoun on, which can refer to a singular or plural subject. An active version of sentence #2 could be: “On a déjà lu le document”.
Another way of making passive phrases active is by using pronominal constructions. This may not work in each and every case, as there is a possibility of the sentence sounding awkward, but it is a useful tool for avoiding the passive voice or, alternately, avoiding naming the agent of action. For sentence #5 we could write “Les erreurs dans le texte s’apercevront” to indicate that any textual error will be noticed.
Of course, there are other ways to avoid using the passive voice, which include restructuring the sentence completely. Sentence #6, which describes the absence of something (money), could be rewritten as a negative sentence: “Personne ne nous aura payés pour tout notre travail”. Using the negative pronoun personne retains the unnamed agent of action while indicating the same result of the people not getting paid for the work they do.
Although these active sentences are a good way to avoid repeating the verb être, sometimes a passive sentence gives the emphasis we want, or even works better structurally, as in sentence #13. Vague or unspecified agents of action, emphasis on the receiver of action, or even keeping to one subject throughout a paragraph are all reasons to use the passive voice, not to mention contributing to the happiness of people like my college Latin teacher, whose enthusiasm for passive forms will not be easily forgotten.
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