French Passive Constructions

Learn about the passive voice and other French passive constructions

Passive constructions are those in which a verb's action is performed on the subject, rather than the subject performing the action as in active (normal) constructions. The passive voice is the most common French passive construction, but there are a couple of others to watch out for as well.

Other French Passive Constructions

  • Passive Infinitive: Even though the French infinitive translates as "to + verb," the French infinitive sometimes needs to be preceded by a preposition. This is the case with the passive infinitive, which is commonly used with indefinite and negative words, such as Il n'y a rien à manger - There's nothing to eat.
  • Passive Reflexive: In the passive reflexive construction, a normally non-reflexive verb is used reflexively in order to express the passive nature of the action, as in Ça se voit - That's obvious.
  • Reflexive Causative: The reflexive causative (se faire + infinitive) indicates something that happens to the subject, either per someone else's implied action or wish or unintentionally.

Passive Reflexive in Detail

In French (and English) it is preferable to avoid the passive voice. French has numerous constructions which are commonly used in place of the passive voice, one of which is the passive reflexive.

The French passive reflexive is used in place of the passive voice in order to avoid naming the agent of a verb. The passive reflexive is formed with a noun or pronoun, then the reflexive pronoun se, and finally the appropriate verb conjugation (third-person singular or plural). In essence, this construction uses a non-reflexive verb reflexively in order to demonstrate the passive nature of the action.

The literal translation of the French passive reflexive (something does something to itself) is strange to English ears, but it's important to recognize this construction and understand what it actually means.

  • Ça se voit. - That's obvious.
  • Ça s'aperçoit à peine. - It's hardly noticeable.
  • Cela ne se dit pas. - That isn't said.
  • Ce livre se lit souvent. - This book is often read.
  • Comment se prononce ce mot ? - How is this word pronounced?
  • Comment ça s'écrit ? (informal) - How is that spelled?
  • Un homme s'est rencontré hier. - A man was found yesterday.
  • Un coup de tonnerre s'est entendu. - A crash of thunder was heard.
  • Les mûres ne se vendent pas ici. - Blackberries are not sold here.
  • Ce produit devrait s'utiliser quotidiennement. - This product should be used daily.
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Lawless, Laura K. "French Passive Constructions." ThoughtCo, Jan. 29, 2020, Lawless, Laura K. (2020, January 29). French Passive Constructions. Retrieved from Lawless, Laura K. "French Passive Constructions." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 31, 2023).