Passive Voice in German Grammar

How to learn the German Passive voice

Introduction

In German grammar, there are two forms of passive voice: The processual passive is conjugated with the verb werden and emphasises an action. The statal passive is conjugated with the verb sein and emphasises a state. Who or what caused the action or state is either unimportant, unknown or assumed to be common knowledge.

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We use the processual passive when we want to emphasise an action (What is happening?). Who causes the action is unimportant or unknown.

Example: Eine Frau wurde angefahren. A woman was hit by a car. 
Der Frau wurde ein Verband angelegt. A bandage has been applied to the woman.
Sicherheitshalber wird sie ins Krankenhaus gebracht. To be on the safe side she is being taken to hospital. 

usage

The most important information here is that someone has been run over, has a bandage applied and is being taken to hospital. Who hit the woman, put the bandage on and is taking her to hospital is not important or unknown.

We use the statal passive to describe the state (situation) after an action.

Example: Sie ist nicht schwer verletzt. She is not seriously injured.

During the action, the woman was injured - now she is injured.

Conjugation of German Passive Voice

Processual passive
To conjugate the processual passive, we need the verb werden (to become) and the past participle of the full verb.  The rule for forming sentences in the processual passive is: 
Subject + form of werden (+ object) + past participle

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Statal Passive
To conjugate the static passive, we need a form of sein and the past participle of the full verb. The rule for forming sentences in the procedural passive is: Subject + form of sein + past participle

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Active or passive
The active form is used to emphasise who or what is doing an action.

Example: Die Lehrerin erklärt das Thema. The teacher explains the topic.
The passive form is used to emphasise the action itself. Who or what is doing the action is often omitted in passive sentences.

Example: Das Thema wurde (von der Lehrerin) erklärt. The topic was explained (by the teacher).


Verbs that cannot form the passive voice

  • Verbs that do not have an accusative object cannot form the passive.

Verbs whose present perfect tense form is sein (to be) (e.g. drive).
Example: Ich fuhr selbst nach Hamburg. I drove myself to Hamburg.
Passive is impossible because I drove myself.

But: fahren can also be used with haben + accusative object, here, a passive sentence is possible.

Example: Mein Bruder fuhr mich nach Hamburg. My brother drove me to Hamburg.
Passive voice: Ich wurde (von meinem Bruder) nach Hamburg gefahren. I was driven (by my brother) to Hamburg.

  • Reflexive verbs

Example: Ich habe mich versteckt. I hid myself. Passive is impossible

  • Other verbs without accusative object

Example: Sie schläft. She is sleeping.
But: in colloquial speech we often use an impersonal passive, for example as a command.

Example: Jetzt wird aber geschlafen! Now it's time to sleep!

Some verbs that have an accusative object can’t be used in the passive voice. For example, haben, kennen, wissen, es gibt.

Ich habe einen Hund. I have a dog. 

Ich kenne den Mann. I know the man.

Ich weiß die Antwort. I know the answer.

Es gibt viele Häuser. There are many houses.

Turning the Active into the Procedural Passive
When we turn the active into the procedural passive, the following happens:

  • The accusative object becomes the subject.

  • The subject is removed or included only as "of (+ dative)".

  • The verb is used in the participial form and we also need the auxiliary verb become in its conjugated form.

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Examples for all tenses:

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exceptions:

Only the accusative object can become the subject. If there is a dative object that has to be moved to the first position in the active sentence, it remains in the dative.

 

active:
Man legte der Verletzten einen Verband an. Someone applied a bandage to the injured woman.


passive:
Der Verletzten wurde ein Verband angelegt. A bandage was applied to the injured person.

 

Active sentences without an object can also be passivated (impersonal passive). The personal pronoun it or an adverbial modifier is used for this.