I learned that in French, the present tense of the passive is formed by using the present tense of "être" with the past participle. Also, the perfect tense is formed with the present tense of "avoir" or "être" and a past participle.

My question is: when one has "être+past participle" in a sentence, how can one tell which case is applied? Could anyone come up with an example that shows the possible ambiguity?

  • I am not sure I understand what ambiguity you are looking for. Are you looking for cases where the past participle might also be an adjective with a different meaning? In this case, the following sentence could theoretically be ambiguous: "je suis demeuré" can either mean "I am retarded" (as in mental retardation; this is how this sentence would usually be understood; demeuré, here, is an adjective) or "I stayed" (demeuré is the past participle of "demeurer"). I don't know if this answers your question at all. Sep 20, 2016 at 23:00
  • @Alexandred'Entraigues: Thank you for your comment. I'm looking for something similar to the difference between "She is loved" and "She loved" in English but with the same "être+part participle" construction in French.
    – user6106
    Sep 20, 2016 at 23:14
  • I think this may not happen. I think on passive form, we switch the auxiliary. For instance : "Il a vendu sa voiture" vs "sa voiture est vendue".
    – Random
    Sep 21, 2016 at 7:18

1 Answer 1


If there is an ambiguity, there is an ambiguity. But there are few verbs which can form the passé composé with both auxiliaries (they need to be in the restricted set which is able to take être as auxiliary and have also a transitive form), currently we (with the help of Stéphane) have three: monter, descendre and sortir. And I'm hard-pressed to come up with a situation where there is a true ambiguity, context usually gives lots of information about what is plausible, as timing relationship and as meaning.

You could say that je suis descendu is ambiguous, but as soon as there is a context, it will be clear that firemen are carrying you down the stairs (and the idiomatic way to say it would be something like on est en train de me descendre instead of je suis descendu, French uses the passive far less often than English) or that you went in the basement to fetch something.

  • 1
    One more: sortir. Sep 21, 2016 at 12:18
  • 3
    In fact this kind of ambiguity can only occur when a verb admits both a transitive form (necessary for passive) and an intransitive form (necessary for être as an auxiliary). Moreover only a few verbs use être as an auxiliary (most of them are related to movement). Sep 21, 2016 at 12:23
  • I guess the same ambiguity exists when the perfect aspect and the passive voice are applied to other tenses too, e.g. j'ai été descendu (passé surcomposé or the passive form of the passé composé) or je fus descendu (passé anterieur or the passive form of the passé simple).
    – richard
    Feb 14, 2017 at 13:12

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