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For example, I know verbs like "manger" can be conjugated in the passive form. Like "Marie mange une pomme" turns into "une pomme est mangée par Marie". And I understand that verbs like être simply can't be put in the passive form, but how do I know for sure which ones I can or cannot put into the passive form?

Also, can the verb "Pouvoir" be used in passive form? I use Le Conjugeur to learn french verbs conjugations and it shows me different types of conjugations like feminin, pronominal, negative form, and question. It also shows me the passive form (in case it can be used) but with pouvoir it doesn't show me the option, but when I look it up online I find the passive conjugation of it. So now I don't know if it can or cannot be conjugated in the passive form.

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The most reliable question to ask is: Does it make sense in either language?

✓ The apple is eaten. La pomme est mangée.

✗ The apple is been able to. La pomme est pue.

That said, there are a few rules we can observe, but they're almost too confusing to be worthwhile for a beginning/intermediate learner. For example, any intransitive verb — any verb that appears without an object — can't be in passive voice.

✗ Je suis dormi.

✗ L'avion est atterri par le pilote.

But this rule is a little difficult because intransitive verbs tend to be conjugated with être in the passé composé. Therefore they look like they're passive even though they're active.

✓ Je suis monté. (But this means "I climbed", not "I am climbed".)

And sometimes the intransitive verbs also have transitive variations.

✓ Le criminel est pendu. (Even though you can also say « le criminel pend ».)

Similarly, I could tell you that modal verbs like pouvoir and devoir can't be passive, but sometimes these verbs also have non-modal variations that look identical.

✓ Il est dû. (But this means "It's owed", not "It's obligated".)

So it's hard to formulate a rule, except perhaps that a verb can't be intransitive and passive at the same time or passive and modal at the same time... The takeaway being that if you see a verb in the passive voice that doesn't make sense, look up its other definitions in the dictionary. :)

Also, don't forget that the true passive voice is relatively rare in French compared to strategies like the reflexive (le soleil se voit) or the impersonal (on voit le soleil). And oddly enough, those strategies can apply even to some verbs that can never appear in the true passive.

✓ Il se peut que la grammaire française soit un peu trop déroutante.

  • I think you meant to write “passive and modal” rather than "intransitive and modal”, right? – Stéphane Gimenez Jun 14 '18 at 1:50
  • @StéphaneGimenez Right! Fixed. – Luke Sawczak Jun 14 '18 at 1:51
  • Thanks a lot! I understand it much better now :) – Laura Guzman Jun 15 '18 at 13:30

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