Not being too Passive about what is done to you


Normally, when you tell a story, it goes like this: A man breaks into a bank, he steals all the money, tells everyone to stay on the floor while he runs off.  After all, the essence of a good story is that somebody is doing something unusual.  And initially, the focus is on the person doing it.  It’s when people start asking questions, that the focus changes – what happened to the bank?  What became of the money?  And the newspaper headline isn’t going to be “Someone robbed the local bank” but “Local bank robbed by armed man” or the like.  Then you get replies like “The bank was broken into” “The money was stolen” “The thief was identified and arrested by the police”.  The first thing or person you mention – the subject of the verb – is no longer the doer, but on the receiving end.  Something is being done to him or her or it.  In English it comes out as the right bit of the verb “to be” and the past participle – a kind of perfect tense with “be” instead of “have”. In grammatical terms it is called the “passive voice” rather than the “active voice,” and, of course, because the time relationships all stay the same, it can occur in all the tenses.


Surprisingly, the same thing can happen in French.  You can say “La banque a été cambriolée (the bank has been broken into)” “L’argent a été enlevé (the money was taken away)” “Le coupable a été identifié et mis en garde à vue (the perpetrator was identified and arrested).”   There are two things to watch for – the “to be” bit has to be in the right tense, and you are up against the choice of imperfect or passé composé every time you would say “was” or “were” in English – and the new subject has to be the direct recipient of the action.  In English a dog can be given a bone, but in French it has to be the bone that “is given”. Put it back into an “active” statement and Someone gave the bone to the dog, not the dog to the bone.  We can do it with almost any verb, even with prepositions attached – GCEs were done away with.  The issue was looked into.  Butter was done without.  It wasn’t put up with for long.  In French it can only be a verb that has a direct object when used in the normal “active” shape (subject verb direct object).


French speakers do not really like using this passive voice.  They prefer the subject of the verb to be the one carrying out the action.  Also, bringing in the extra “be” verb as well as the action verb you are talking about can lead to some very long and complicated sentences. The last example in the paragraph above holds the key to one way they avoid it.  “Someone gave the bone to the dog”.  Blame that guy “On”.  Your car has been stolen? Tell the police “On a volé ma voiture”  You were told in the shop it was guaranteed for life?  “On m’a dit que c’était garanti à vie”.  “On” can also prevent you having to say who told you, when you can’t quite remember, or don’t want to.  “On” stands for person or persons unknown, and if you can bring them into it some way it makes life much easier.


Another way of avoiding the passive is to pretend the recipient of the action did it to him- or her- or it- self.  Places aren’t to be found, they find themselves – L’usine se trouve près de la gare (The factory is to be found near the station).  Ces livres se vendent en librairie (these books are sold in bookshops).  Emotions are dealt with in the same way.  Je m’étonne (que..) is not the exclamation of a proud person saying he wonders at himself, it merely means I am astonished (that…).  Il se fâche doesn’t mean he’s angry with himself, but normally with whoever is causing it.  You end up fâché, or étonné or énervé.  Remember that in the passé composé etc, reflexive verbs use “être.”


A curiosity in French is that the infinitive, that we always think of as being “to do something,” can also mean “to be done”.  So “Il s’est fait avoir (literally he has made  himself to have)” really means he’s been diddled – He has got himself had. “J’ai fait laver la voiture” means “I have had the car washed” not made it do the washing.  The “à vendre” notice on the side of a house means to be sold, not to sell.


This is all a bit toothsome, but as always it is worth while listening closely to French speakers around you. You’ll recognise these ways of avoiding the passive and hear them used quite regularly.  If in doubt, or if what you want to say is too complicated,  make it simple and turn it round to the familiar subject verb object.  The most important thing is to feel confident about what you say.





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