French Grammar: Alternatives to the Passive Voice

Creative Commons Image via The LEAF Project

Creative Commons Image via The LEAF Project


French Grammar: Alternatives to the Passive Voice
la grammaire française: les alternatifs à la voix passive


In French as in English, verbs can be expressed in either the active voice or the passive voice.  In the active voice, the subject does the action of the verb.  In the passive voice, the action of the verb is done to the subject.

The passive voice is used much less commonly in French than it is in English. When it is used, the passive voice tends to convey a somewhat formal or literary tone. In conversation, French speakers tend to use various active voice constructions instead of the passive voice.


Le chien est promené par mon frère.
The dog is walked by my brother.


Mon frère promène le chien.
My brother walks the dog.

a. To emphasize the person who performed an action, c’est or ce sont can be used in place of the passive voice.

C’est mon frère qui promène le chien.
It is my brother who walks the dog.

b. Very often, French will use the subject pronoun [on] with the third-person singular form of the verb:

On parle français ici.
French is spoken here.

Comment dit-on … ?
How is … said? (What does … mean?)

On m’a dit d’attendre.
I was told to wait.

On finira la tâche.
The task will be finished.

c. A reflexive verb can be used in place of the passive voice.

Ça s’écrit comment?
How is that written (spelled)?

Il s’appelle Vincent.
He is called Vincent. (His name is Vincent.)

Le français se parle au Maroc.
French is spoken in Morocco.

Les croissants se vendent dans une boulangerie.
Croissants are sold in a bakery.


C’est Debussy qui a composé “Clair de Lune”.
It’s Debussy who composed “Clair de Lune”.

C’est Victor Hugo qui a écrit “Notre Dame de Paris”.
It’s Victor Hugo who wrote “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”.

On vend des médicaments dans une pharmacie.
Medications are sold in a pharmacy.

On avait lavé les fenêtres.
The windows had been washed.

“Livre” s’écrit l-i-v-r-e.
“Livre” is written (spelled) l-i-v-r-e.

Ça ne se fait plus.
That’s not done any more.

Les livres se vendent dans une librairie.
Books are sold in a bookstore.

Comment t’appelles-tu?
How are you (informal) called? (What is your name?)

Je m’appelle Thérèse.
I am called Thérèse. (My name is Thérèse.)