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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.

Passive Voice.jpg

Passive voice in German grammar is a way to emphasise the action being done to the subject rather than the subject performing the action. In passive voice sentences, the focus is shifted from the doer of the action to the receiver of the action. In German, the passive voice is often used to emphasize the result or the action itself, rather than who is performing it.

The structure of a passive sentence in German is as follows:

Passive Subject (Receiver of the Action) + Verb "werden" (conjugated) + Rest of the Sentence + Past Participle

Here's a breakdown of each component:

  1. Passive Subject (Receiver of the Action): This is the person, thing, or entity that is affected by the action. In passive voice, it becomes the grammatical subject of the sentence.

  2. Verb "werden" (conjugated): The conjugated form of the verb "werden" (to be) is used as an auxiliary verb to indicate the passive voice.

  3. Past Participle: The main verb of the active voice sentence is converted into its past participle form and placed at the end of the sentence.
     

Let's look at an example to clarify:

Active Voice: Der Maler (Subject) malt (Verb) das Bild (Direct Object).

Passive Voice: Das Bild (Subject) wird (Conjugated form of "werden") vom Maler (Agent) gemalt (Past Participle).

In the passive voice example:

  • "Das Bild" is now the subject of the sentence.

  • "wird" is the conjugated form of "werden."

  • "vom Maler" indicates who is performing the action (optional in German, known as the agent).

  • "gemalt" is the past participle of the verb "malen."
     

In passive voice sentences, the performer of the action can be included using "von" or "durch" to specify who or what carried out the action. However, the performer is often omitted in German if it is not necessary for understanding the context.

Quick Tip: When forming passive sentences, remember to adjust the past participle of the main verb according to the subject's gender, number, and case. Also, practise using different tenses and learn the appropriate prepositions to introduce the agent if necessary.

 

Das Buch wird von mir gelesen. (The book is being read by me.)

  1. Die Torte wird von meiner Mutter gebacken. (The cake is being baked by my mother.)

  2. Die Straße wurde gestern von den Bauarbeitern repariert. (The road was repaired by the construction workers yesterday.)

Mastering the passive voice in German adds depth and versatility to your language skills, allowing you to express various nuances and perspectives in your communication.


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 had been run over, had 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 statal passive is: Subject + form of sein + past participle

Passive voice II.jpg

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.

Passive voice II (2).jpg

Examples for all tenses:

Passive voice II (4).jpg

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.

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