I realized recently that some verbs in English sound very "passive":

This house sells for a lot of money.

This apple tastes delicious!

This car drives smoothly.

It is not the house that is doing the selling. Instead, some human is selling the house! It is not the apple that is doing the tasting. Instead, some human (or animal) is doing the tasting!

Some such verbs in English (including the above) are commonly used, and this "passive" definition will likely be found in a dictionary. (Example: "sells" to mean "get bought"; "tastes" doesn't quite have the "passive" definition of "has a taste that is" listed, but does have a definition of "have the same flavour as").

Other examples of commonly used "passive" verbs include the other four senses:

This car looks expensive.

This meal smells good.

This teddy bear feels soft.

This music sounds upbeat.

But it concerns me that it's very easy to come up with many other "passive" verbs, just by thinking of everyday objects and how I use them; I first say a sentence with "I" as the subject, that uses an "active" verb that takes the everyday object as a direct object, and then at this point, it's easy to alter that sentence to easily come up with the "passive" version of that verb:

(What do I do with a ball? I bounce balls.)
This ball bounces unpredictably.

(What do I do with a pen? I write with a pen.)
This pen writes smoothly.

(What do I do with a teddy bear? I cuddle with a teddy bear.)
This teddy bear cuddles comfortingly.

(What do I do with an expensive watch? I show off my expensive watch.)
His expensive watch shows off annoyingly.

Many of these verbs probably won't have a "passive" definition in the dictionary; but yet native English speakers understand them!

It's only a few verbs that I thought of, that could not be created to be "passive" in this way:

(What do I do with a fish? I eat the fish)
This fish eats deliciously. <-- SOUNDS WRONG?


  1. Does French also have a construction that so easily creates these "passive" verbs out of normal, "active" verbs?

  2. "Se vendre" is a French "passive" verb found in the dictionary. Does French have a lot of these?

  3. Is there a straightforward way to translate these sentences into French, given that most of these "passive" verbs can't be found in an English-to-French dictionary?

  4. (Off-topic question, but very appreciated if you're willing to answer it) What is this construction called in English, or what is the linguistic concept happening, when I created these "passive" verbs?

Extra information:

I started to wonder about these "passive" verbs in English, because of the following paragraph in a grammar book:

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3 Answers 3


Solid question. I feel like this answer only responds to it obliquely, but hopefully there's something in here for you in this little catalogue of French passive strategies!

1. Zero-derivation of intransitives from transitives.

This is what we are doing when we say "The house sells for a lot of money." We've taken the transitive verb "sell + direct object", made the direct object the subject, and eliminated the direct object slot.

Edit: As Harry points out, this class of verbs is called "ergative". The noun that's sometimes the direct object of a transitive verb and sometimes the subject of an intransitive verb, here "house", is said to be in absolutive case (but neither English nor French mark case except on pronouns).

This novel reads more like a Wikipedia article. What is your deal, Herman Melville!

This is not the most common strategy in standard French (perhaps it is in colloquial French, but I don't know). Verbs tend to stay in their transitive or intransitive category more rigidly.

However, there certainly is a set of verbs that work in both, even if this set is not especially mutable.

Je sors tous les soirs. I go out every evening.

Je sors tous les crayons. I take out every pencil.

If a verb is in this category it will have both the vi and vtr entries in a good dictionary, and the passive will be available for the transitive one.

2. The use of a pronominal verb.

This is what we do when we say « La maison se vend pour des millions de dollars ».

It's hard to classify all the uses of the pronominal verb, but one of them is certainly the passive. For some tips about how to establish the meaning for a given verb, consult this answer. An excerpt:

« Le soleil se voit à travers les nuages. »
→ Guesses for se voir : to see oneself ; to see each other ; to be seen ; to be visible
→ Best guess: "The sun is seen" or "The sun is visible" depending on context

I would hazard the guess that this is the most common strategy. So many idiomatic usages arise from the pronominal verb.

3. The true passive.

This is what we do when we say « La maison a été vendue pour des millions de dollars ».

As discussed in other questions, this is very often possible but not often the most natural solution. Perhaps one consideration if you want to use it is to ensure that the verb clearly involves an action performed on an object by a subject.

What I mean is that you might, for example, say, "A chill was felt in the room." But in concrete terms, this seems to describe a state or event experienced intransitively by a group of people (perhaps they shivered) rather than an operation carried out on the "chill".

Edit: See Stéphane's comment below about other ways to say this naturally.

Another alternative is...

4. The use of the impersonal « on ».

On a éprouvé une froideur.

This reveals the semantically nominative nature of the verb which has been syntactically "disguised" as a passive in English.

On a vendu (ou acheté !) cette maison pour des millions de dollars.

This is a common strategy, but I confess that I haven't given deep consideration to any restrictions on it. I'm curious what others think.

5. The use of another verb or entire periphrasis.

Sometimes, as noted above, a verb can be passive or active:

The child was born.

She bore a child. (Admittedly archaic.)

Sometimes, however, the two sides of this coin belong to two separate verbs:

L'enfant est né.

Elle a accouché.

Or, to return to your example, instead of "The house sold for a million dollars" you could have said "The house fetched a million dollars." This is a change, but as in the passive, we omit who sold it.

I don't really know how common this is or isn't; I think it would be hard to identify correspondences between such cases since they look like two different meanings entirely, but aren't.

Hope this helps!

  • (I am slowly working through your answer, over probably a couple of days. Thanks for the answer!). Questions for part 1 of your answer: a) You say that there is a set of French verbs that work in both the categories of transitive and instransitive, but that this set is "not especially mutable". What does "mutable" mean?
    – silph
    Commented Jun 14, 2018 at 19:17
  • 1b: i) You use "Je sors", where in the first example sentence, sors is intransitive, and in the second, it's transitive. Were these "Je sors" examples directly related to the "creation of intrasitive verbs from transitive verbs" in English that concerned me, where many, many verbs could be made "passive"/intransitive? Because the "Je sors" examples seem not at all like the strange "Your novel reads like a dictionary." or "This teddy bear cuddles well." examples? ii) typo? you have: "and the passive will be available for the transitive one". Is that supposed to be "intransitive"?
    – silph
    Commented Jun 14, 2018 at 19:22
  • 2) In general, can I just stick a "se" just before of any French verb to make it intransitive/"passive", just like I was able to make nearly any verb "passive" in English by doing the construction pattern that I showed in my question?
    – silph
    Commented Jun 14, 2018 at 19:25
  • @silph (1a) Mutable: subject to change. (1b) Whoops, that was vague! My point was to avoid the mistake of thinking that the relationship between "I sell a house" and "The house sells" is the same as the relationship between « Je sors un lapin d'un chapeau » and « Un lapin sort d'un chapeau » because despite the apparent similarity, the house is not an agent but the rabbit is. If you wanted to make it passive, therefore, you'd use the transitive version: « Un lapin est sorti d'un chapeau ». (Which incidentally looks identical to the passé composé because of Dr. Mrs. Vandertramp...)
    – Luke Sawczak
    Commented Jun 15, 2018 at 0:18
  • 1
    I agree with “on” being an option in some cases, but for “a chill was felt” even though you could say “on a ressenti un froid”, to me “un froid s'est ressenti” feels more idiomatic (and less prone to be interpreted literally). Actually this is rather odd because an even more idiomatic turn of phrase would be “un froid s'est fait ressentir dans la salle”, which is a causative construction, arguably half way between active and passive since the subject virtually has something done to itself (semantically anyways). Commented Jul 17, 2019 at 10:21

As a native, I would say, you can without any problem translate your passive verbs the same way you've used it in English. Because, none of these sentences shock me:

Cette maison se vend cher.

Cette pomme est délicieuse ! (Here, since we don't have exact translation to the verb "to taste", "être" would be the right translation)

Cette voiture se conduit bien.

Cette voiture a l'air chère.

Ce plat sent bon.

Cet ours en peluche est doux. (Same observation)

Cette musique a l'air entraînante.

Bonus: you'd never guess, but in French, we call this construction "phrase passive" or "phrase avec un verbe au passif". Astonishing, isn't it ?

  • Not exactly the same as in English: "se" is an extra word.
    – Laurent S.
    Commented Jun 17, 2018 at 10:50
  • 1
    Well, that's a relevant observation. In this case, you should ask yourself : does the word "itself" make sense in this particular situation ? If yes, add "se" in French, else do not. Example: "This meal smells itself good". Wrong, the meal just smells --> "Ce plat sent bon." "This car drives itself well." The car doesn't actually drive itself, but it's the same weird reasoning as in English, so right --> "Cette voiture se conduit bien." Does it make sense to you ?
    – gprst
    Commented Jun 21, 2018 at 9:50

The verbs you have used in your examples are called ergative verbs. French has verbes ergatifs as well. I think the two Wikipedia articles will answer your question.

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