French Pronominal Verbs With Passive Meaning

If you speak French with any degree of fluency, you will  have seen reflexive verbs (verbes réfléchis) in sentences like:

Je me lave les cheveux. (I’m washing my hair.)
Elle s’est couchée tôt. (She went to bed early.)
Venez vous asseoir ici. (Come sit over here.)

These are called reflexive verbs because the action  ‘reflects’ back to the subject. For example, Je me lave les cheveux is literally translated as “I myself wash the hair.”

These kinds of verbs are also called pronominal verbs because they have an extra pronoun in front of the verb. The infinitive form is se laver, se coucher and s’asseoir. This should be old hat to most readers  by now.

But what about the following examples of pronominal verbs?

On ne peut plus rien cacher, tout se sait. (You can’t hide anything anymore. Everything can be found out.)
Ce poisson peut se manger cru. (This fish can be eaten raw.)
Cela ne se fait pas.  (This is not done.)
Ça ne se dit pas ici. (This is not said around here.)
La maison se voit de loin. (The house can be seen from afar.)
Vous venez de Toulouse. Cela s’entend. (You’re from Toulouse. The accent is noticeable.)

( I apologize for the somewhat rough translations.) What we have here are some very common verbs in pronominal form: se savoir, se manger, se faire, se dire, se voir and s’entendre.

But these pronominal verbs are not used reflexively.  Ce poisson se mange cru does not mean, “This fish itself eats  raw.”  Instead we have a simple but very sophisticated grammatical form that is very useful. And, when used properly, this form is the sign of true proficiency in French.

This use of the pronominal verb form is a very elegant way of conveying a passive meaning. In other words instead of saying Ce poisson peut être mangé cru (This fish can be eaten raw), French replaces être mangé by se manger. The sentence now become Ce poisson peut se manger cru.

This is a great solution because it is compact and in an active form. Let’s take Tout se sait. This could actually be formulated as Tout peut être su. This is correct French but somewhat cumbersome.  Tout se sait is so much more to the point and powerful because of the active form.

Once you’ve got a hang of how this works, you realize that you can can take most ordinary verbs and make them pronominal for this passive effect. This only works in the third person, and this is why you will have many examples with cela or ça, as in:

ça se voit (this can be seen)
ça se sent (this can be felt)

Let’s put this idea to work with some simple verbs like boire (drink), sentir (smell, feel), conduire (drive) and prendre (take). Here is what the passive pronominal forms would look like:

Ce vin se boit frais. (This wine is to be drunk chilled.)
Le pain frais se sentait de loin. ( You could smell the fresh bread at a distance.)
Cette voiture se conduit très facilement. (This car drives very easily.)
Le médicament se prend bien. (The medication is easily taken.)

This pronominal verb construction in French is common in French but quite challenging for learners. It’s not difficult just a bit unusual. If you master it, your French-speaking friends and colleagues will be very impressed.

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