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Passive Voice In German- How to Form and How to Use It

Updated: Apr 5

Understanding the passive voice is a crucial aspect of mastering German grammar, typically introduced at A2-B1 levels. The passive voice shifts the focus from the agent (the one performing the action) to the action itself. In this comprehensive post, we'll explore how to form and use the passive voice in German.

Demystifying Passive Voice in German: Formation and Usage

Embarking on the journey of mastering German grammar unveils a multitude of linguistic nuances, and among them, the passive voice stands as a powerful yet often misunderstood element. In this blog post, we'll delve into the intricacies of the passive voice in German, demystifying its formation, exploring its varied tenses, and understanding its nuanced usage. Whether you're a language enthusiast or a German learner, join us as we unravel the elegance of the passive voice, bringing clarity to this essential aspect of German language structure.

Forming the Passive Voice

In German, the passive voice is constructed using the auxiliary verb "werden" and the participle of the main verb. However, in the perfect and pluperfect tenses, "sein" serves as the auxiliary verb, and the participle is followed by "worden." Before we delve into the various tenses of the passive voice in German, we have to clarify the difference between two categories.

Vorgangspassiv vs. Zustandspassiv in German

In German, the passive voice is divided into two main categories: "Vorgangspassiv" (procedural passive) and "Zustandspassiv" (state or stative passive). Here's a breakdown of the differences between them:

  1. Vorgangspassiv:

  • Focus on the Action: Vorgangspassiv is used to emphasise the action or process of an activity.

  • Formation: It is formed with the auxiliary verb "werden" (conjugated according to the tense) and the participle of the main verb.

  • Example: "Der Brief wird geschrieben" (The letter is being written).

  • Usage: Commonly used to describe ongoing or dynamic actions in the past, present, or future.

2. Zustandspassiv:

  • Focus on the Resulting State: Zustandspassiv emphasizes the resulting state or condition that arises from a completed action.

  • Formation: It is formed with the auxiliary verb "sein" (conjugated according to the tense) and the past participle of the main verb, followed by "worden."

  • Example: "Der Brief ist geschrieben worden" (The letter has been written).

  • Usage: Typically used to describe a state or condition that exists as a result of a completed action in the past.

In practice, Vorgangspassiv is often preferred because it is more versatile and generally more straightforward. Native speakers tend to use it to avoid the complexities associated with Zustandspassiv.

The German Tenses in the Passive Voice

In the table below, you will find sample sentences for each of the German tenses in the active and two forms of the passive voice where "VP" refers to the "Vorgangspassiv" and "ZP" indicates "Zustandspassiv" (state passive).

Key Aspects of Passive Voice in German

  • Reversed Subject and Object: In passive sentences, the subject (Nominativ) and direct object (Akkusativ) switch positions. While the subject of an active sentence is often a person, the Nominative case in passive sentences is usually an inanimate object. Dative or Genitive cases in German remain unaffected, e.g.

  • Tense Variation: The tense of "werden" changes to indicate the time frame, while "sein" is used in perfect tenses. For example, Present, Präteritum, German Future I, and Future II use "werden," while Perfekt and Plusquamperfekt use "sein" + past participle + "worden."

  • Handling Direct Objects: Direct objects in passive sentences may not be mentioned unless crucial to the context. The dative preposition "von" is commonly used for agents, the accusative preposition "durch" for processes, and "mit" for devices or tools, e.g.

  • Conditional Passive: Utilising the conditional tense in passive constructions involves a good grasp of Konjunktiv 2 in German. Examples include

Der Brief müsste geschrieben werden

(The letter would need to be written)

Der Brief hätte geschrieben werden müssen

(The letter would have needed to be written)

The German Passive Voice without a Subject

  • Unlike English, passive sentences in German don't necessitate a subject when the first position is occupied by an adverb of time or location. Instead, the latter can be implied.

The Passive Voice with Modal Verbs

  • Modal verbs alter the word order when used with passive constructions, offering nuanced meanings.

  • Present Der Brief muss sofort geschrieben werden (The letter needs to be written)

  • Perfekt Der Brief hat geschrieben werden müssen (The letter had to be written)

  • Präteritum Der Brief musste sofort geschrieben werden (The letter needed to be written)

  • Pluperf. Der Brief hatte sofort geschrieben werden müssen (The letter had to be written)

  • Futur I Der Brief wird sofort geschrieben werden müssen. (The letter will need to be written)

  • Futur II Der Brief wird geschrieben worden sein müssen (The letter will have had to be written)

Passive Connotations in Active Voice

  • Native speakers often convey a passive sense without explicitly using it, employing structures like "lassen + sich + infinitive" or "sein + zu + infinitive. The main ways to do so are:

  • lassen+ sich+ infinitive

Das Problem lässt sich lösen.

(the passive voice version would be "das Problem kann gelöst werden")

Sie lässt sich von einem Taxi zum Restaurant fahren.

(Sie wird von einem Taxi zum Restaurant gefahren)

  • sein+ zu+ infinitive

Das Problem ist zu lösen.

(Das Problem kann gelöst werden)

Das Konfliktgespräch ist nicht zu vermeiden.

(Das Konfliktgespräch kann nicht vermieden werden)

  • sein+ infinitive+ bar

Das Problem ist lösbar.

(Das Problem kann gelöst werden)

Das Konfliktgespräch ist unvermeidbar.

(Das Konfliktgespräch kann nicht vermieden werden)

  • Gerundiv (modal participle)+ zu+ Partizip I (only possible when verbs use "werden" in the passive)

Das zu lösende Problem sollte sofort diskutiert werden.

(Das Problem, das gelöst werden muss, sollte sofort diskutiert werden)

Die zu verkaufenden Kleider müssen ins Schaufenster gehängt werden.

(Die Kleider, die verkauft werden sollen, müssen ins Schaufenster gehängt werden)

Another Note on the State Passive (Zustandspassiv in German)

  • While the "Zustandspassiv" denotes a state resulting from a previous action, it's less common in modern German. Native speakers often prefer the "Vorgangspassiv" for past actions. So when we say "der Brief ist geschrieben" (The letter is written), the preceding action must have been the writing of the letter. The point of the Zustandspassiv is therefore to communicate that the action has now been completed.

  • German native speakers often use the Vorgangspassiv in the past to avoid the Zustandspassiv altogether. So they would say "Der Brief ist geschrieben worden" (The letter has been written). It is for that reason that the Vorgangspassiv has become more important. However, there are some forms of the Zustandspassiv that are still used fairly frequently.

Mastering the passive voice in German is pivotal for effective communication. Be mindful of overusing it; choose the active voice when the agent is more crucial than the action itself.

Feel free to explore more grammar topics and enhance your German proficiency on our blog "Auf Deutsch, bitte!" — your go-to resource for German language learning. You'll find posts on everything ranging from adjective endings in German, the four German cases, pronouns in German to German syntax. However, we also discuss topics on the language as a whole, such as how many words there are in the German language, and if German is difficult to learn.


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