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The Passive Voice in German

Grammar tips and examples

The passive voice is used much less in German than in English. But it is used, and German-learners should know something about the use of verbs in the active and passive voice. The passive voice is most often encountered in writing (as in this very sentence), in the newspaper and in literature. Observe the following color-coded examples in German and English:

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   Ich schreibe den Brief.
   I'm writing the letter.

   Der Brief wird von mir geschrieben.
   The letter is being written by me.

Note in the examples above...

  1. To form the passive, German uses werden (to become) + the past participle, while English uses "to be."
  2. The word "letter" (Brief) in the ACTIVE sentence is an object being acted upon (active) by the subject "I" (ich). In the PASSIVE sentence the former object (Brief) becomes the subject, while the former subject (I, ich) is now the agent (by me/von mir).
  3. Only transitive verbs (those that take a direct object) can be made passive. The direct object (accusative case) in the active voice becomes the subject (nominative case) in the passive voice.

Active and passive voice forms are not tenses. The active or passive voice can be in the present, past, future or any other tense. To conjugate verbs in the passive voice, you must know the forms of werden (see below). A passive voice sentence may or may not include the "agent" (by whom something was done). If the agent (by me, by Anna) is a person, it is expressed in German with a von-phrase: von Anna (by Anna). If the agent is not a person, then a durch-phrase is used: durch den Wind (by the wind). Here are some more color-coded examples, with and without the agent expressed:

   Der Sturm hat das Haus zerstört.
   The wind storm destroyed the building.

   PASSIVE/PASSIV (no agent expressed)
   Das Haus ist zerstört worden.
   The building was destroyed.

   PASSIVE/PASSIV (agent expressed)
   Das Haus ist durch den Sturm zerstört worden.
   The building was destroyed by the wind storm.

   "FALSE PASSIVE" (predicate adjective)
   Das Haus ist zerstört.
   The building is destroyed.
   Das Haus war zerstört.
   The building was destroyed.

Note in the examples above...

  1. Except for the last "false passive" example, all the ACTIVE and PASSIVE sentences are in the same tense (present perfect/Perfekt).
  2. The ACTIVE verb form "hat zerstört" changes to "ist zerstört worden" in the PASSIVE.
  3. Although the normal past participle of "werden" is "(ist) geworden," when the past participle is used with another verb, it becomes "ist (zerstört) worden."
  4. If the ACTIVE sentence contains a past participle (i.e., "zerstört"), it will also appear, unchanged, in the PASSIVE sentence with "worden."
  5. The agent (der Sturm) is not a person, so the PASSIVE voice sentence uses durch to express "by" — rather than von. (Note: In everyday German, this rule is often ignored by native-speakers who may also use von for impersonal agents.)
  6. The preposition von is always dative, while durch is always accusative. (See Lesson 14 of German for Beginners).
  7. The "false passive" example is NOT in the passive voice. The past participle "zerstört" is only being used as a predicate adjective, describing the condition of the building ("destroyed").

Vocabulary Note: Although it has little to do with the passive voice, a few vocabulary comments related to the examples above are in order. Besides "house," das Haus can also refer to a "building" or structure. Second, although it has several meanings, German Sturm usually means a "gale" or a strong wind storm, as in "Sturm und Regen" (wind and rain). Because the two words are similar to English (cognates), it is easy to misunderstand their true meanings in German.

Aus der Zeitung: Some slightly edited passive examples from a German newspaper: "Ein neues Einkaufszentrum soll in diesem Sommer eröffnet werden." (A new shopping center should be opening this summer.) "Er ist zum 'Mr. Germany 2006' gewählt worden." (He was chosen 'Mr. Germany 2006.') "Es wurden zunächst keine genauen Zahlen genannt." (For the time being no exact figures were named/given.) "Am Dienstag wurde im Berliner Schloss Bellevue gefeiert: Bundespräsident Johannes Rau wurde 70 Jahre alt." (On Tuesday in Berlin's Bellevue Palace there was celebrating [it was celebrated]: Federal President Johannes Rau turned 70.)

On the next pages you'll find more information, including the conjugation of "werden," more grammar tips and passive voice examples in various tenses, plus some practical exercises.

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