When using the passive voice, is there a specific rule for after relative pronouns — is it qui with être or que with on and avoir?

For example, take “he wanted to find his car which had been stolen”:

Il voulait trouver sa voiture qu'on avait volée.

Il voulait trouver sa voiture qui avait été volée.

Is there a more grammatically correct version of this, or can both be used with the same effect?

  • 4
    Your first example isn't passive. It's saying, "He wanted to find his car which someone had stolen". Only your second example is passive: "He wanted to find his car which had been stolen".
    – ChrisW
    Commented Jan 20, 2015 at 19:33
  • 1
    Both are correct - I'm not so sure about the punctuation, though. Except for the spelling mistake : qu'on avait volée, feminine. Oh, and one more thing : it sounds more natural to use retrouver instead of trouver.
    – Nomaru
    Commented Jan 20, 2015 at 21:51
  • Better yet, if I may. Il voulait retrouver la voiture qu'on lui avait volée.
    – Iside
    Commented Jan 21, 2015 at 0:53
  • Indeed, only your second setence is passive. If you want to use the passive voice, it's the only correct version. As Nomaru said, it sounds better with "retrouver".
    – Djouuuuh
    Commented Jan 21, 2015 at 9:30
  • Nothing to do with your question, but in an effort to avoid even the (phonetic) appearance of (sounding) “con,” I usually try to remember to replace “qu’on” with “que l’on.” However, I find your use of “qu’on” when discussing a car thief to be rather clever and entirely justified! +1
    – Papa Poule
    Commented Feb 4, 2015 at 14:48

2 Answers 2


La question n'est pas en relation avec la forme passive mais est une règle d'usage générale du pronom relatif: Qui est sujet du verbe, Que, élidé qu', est complément du verbe.

La voiture qu' on avait volée *...qu' est complément du verbe avait volée. La voiture qui avait été volée: qui, mis pour la voiture, est le sujet du verbe avait été volée, forme passive.

Mais cela s'applique dans tous les cas d'emploi de pronom relatif: J'ai bien aimé le livre que tu m'as prêté. J'ai bien aimé le livre qui a reçu le prix Médicis cette année.


The crucial thing here is 'case', a concept used to a greater extent in Latin, German, Russian or Arabic, but only shows up in French on a few pronouns. This concept refers to the role of a noun in a sentence. Just like il has the counterparts le, en and lui, so we can say qui has the counterparts que, dont and then a load of preposition + lequel formulas. Indeed in some languages, they list this group as a declension of one word (normally starting with the equivalent of qui).

It's a case of choosing the right one, according to its role in the sentence. Don't forget that this series is officially called relative pronouns and that they are all therefore essentially nouns that represent something in a phrase (which is joined to an earlier phrase). If you want to make it easier, cut the second phrase off just before the qui/que/dont/auquel... and ask yourself what it represents.

qu'on avait volé : well, on is already the doer, the thief, so the car, the thing stolen, the accusative is represented by que.

qui avait été volée : by chosing a passive, you risk getting confused, as it involves putting a logical object (the thing stolen) as the grammatical subject (the thing doing a verb), but because here the car commands the verb it becomes qui.

qui porte une plaque marocaine : is easier, because the car is obviously the doer, the carrier so takes qui (just as you could replace it with il/elle).

dont les vitres sont cassées : here dont replaces de la voiture.

à laquelle il avait dédié sa vie : we're now going further down the series into the prepositional options, but same again, à laquelle represents à la voiture.

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