Passive voice in German- how to form it and how to use it

The passive voice is an important topic in German grammar that is usually introduced at B1 level. Its main point is to shift the focus away from the agent (the person or inanimate object performing the action) to the action that is happening to, or experienced by, the person or inanimate object.

In German, the passive voice is formed with the auxiliary verb "werden" and the past participle of the main verb, except in the perfect and pluperfect tense where the auxiliary verb is "sein" and the past participle of the main verb is followed by "worden". Sounds complicated? Let's look at the tenses of the passive voice in German more closely.

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" (procedural passive) and "ZP" indicates "Zustandspassiv" (statal passive). The "Vorgangspassiv "refers to actions that are taking place (Der Brief wird geschrieben= The letter is being written), whereas the "Zustandspassiv "denotes a state after a preceding action (Der Brief ist geschrieben= The letter is written). The "Vorgangspassiv" is more important in modern German, so we are going to concentrate on this form of the passive, but we will return to the "Zustandspassiv" at the end of this post.

The first thing you notice when comparing the active to the passive sentences is that subject (Nominativ) and direct object (Akkusativ) have become reversed. While the subject of an active sentence is often (but not always) a person, the Nominative case in passive sentences is usually an inanimate object. Datives or Genitives are not affected by the passive (Mir wird ein Brief geschrieben or Der Brief wird mir geschrieben= A letter is being written to me).

The second aspect worth noting, which we mentioned above, is that Present tense in German, the Präterium, the German Future I and Future II use a form of "werden" as an auxiliar verb which indicates the tense and the past participle of the main verb. So the only thing that changes when comparing the Present to the other tenses is the tense of "werden". By contrast, the Perfekt tense in German and the Plusquamperfekt/past perfect in German use a form of "sein" + the past participle + worden. So "sein" is simply turned into the past.

Present VP Der Brief wird geschrieben (The letter is being written)

Perfect VP Der Brief ist geschrieben worden (The letter has been written)

Präteritum VP Der Brief wurde geschrieben (The letter was written)

Pluperfect VP Der Brief war geschrieben worden (The letter had been written)

Future I VP Der Brief wird geschrieben (The letter will be written)

Future II VP Der Brief wird geschrieben worden sein (The letter will have been written)

The third aspect concerns the direct object in passive sentences. As you can see from the table, the objects don’t have to be mentioned, unless they add important information to your sentences. So if it is not important that the letter was written by Martin, don’t mention him. The most common preposition to use in the passive is the dative only preposition “von”. It is used for agents (people, institutions). But there are two other prepositions that could introduce the object. They are the accusative only preposition “durch”, which is used for processes, procedures, and intermediaries, and another dative only preposition “mit” for devices or tools.

e.g. Die Reisegruppe wird von der Reiseleiterin begrüsst.

Umweltfreundliche Energie kann durch Windkraft gewonnen werden.

Sie wird mit einem Auto abgeholt.

Conditional passive (Konjunktiv 2 Passiv)

Using the conditional tense in the passive requires a good understanding of the conditional tense (Konjunktiv 2) in German. So before you consider this tense, read my post on the topic and give the Konjunktiv 2 some practice. Skip this section altogether when you are at B1 level or below as it will only confuse you.

Present conditional Der Brief würde heute noch geschrieben werden,.... (The letter would be written today, ..)

Past conditional Der Brief wäre gestern geschrieben worden,... (The letter would have been written yesterday, ..)

Passive in German without a subject

Unlike English, passive sentences in the German language do not need a subject when the first position of your sentence is occupied by an adverb of time or location. Instead, the latter can be implied.

e.g. Active voice: Viele Leute tanzen nachts in den Clubs der Stadt.

Passive voice: In den Clubs der Stadt wird nachts getanzt.

Active voice: Man arbeitet in Deutschland sonntags nicht.

Passive voice: Sonntags wird in Deutschland nicht gearbeitet.

To make the subject explicit, the previous passive sentences can be rephrased:

Es wird nachts in den Clubs der Stadt getanzt.

Es wird sonntags in Deutschland nicht gearbeitet.

Passive voice in German with modal verbs

Adding modal verbs to sentences in the passive adds nuance to the meaning and changes the word order.

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

(Perfekt Der Brief hat geschrieben werden müssen)

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

(Plqu. Der Brief hatte sofort geschrieben werden müssen)

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

(Futur II Der Brief wird sofort sofort geschrieben worden sein müssen)

NB. The tenses in brackets are rarely used.

Passive connotations in the active voice

Many native speakers of the language avoid the passive voice in the grammatical sense by giving their sentence a passive connotation. 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)

Zustandspassiv (statal passive)

Let's finally take another look at the "Zustandspassiv". As we said above, it denotes a state that results from previous action. 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. As you can imagine, German native speakers therefore 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.

e.g. Ich bin 1982 geboren (instead of Ich wurde in 1982 in the Vorgangspassiv)

das Geschäft ist geöffnet/geschlossen. (instead of das Geschäft wurde geöffnet/geschlossen)

So there is a lot to learn when it comes to the passive voice in German. However, make sure you don't overuse it. If the agent is more important than the action itself, use the active rather than the passive voice.

e.g. die Teilnehmer:innen meiner Deutschkurse haben das Passiv nach ein bisschen Übung gut verstanden.

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