When comparing the English passive voice with the German one, you will find some differences. Let’s have a look at an example:
- Die Tür wird geöffnet. The door is being opened.
Apart from the fact that there is no “-ing form” in German, we can see that the auxiliary verb is different in each of these languages. English uses “to be,” while German uses werden.
werden- Passiv vs. sein- Passiv
A common mistake is to believe that the English sentence above translates to this:
- Die Tür ist geöffnet.
The tricky part is that this sentence is actually correct. It just means something different. The reason is that as soon as we start talking about an action, we need to use werden. The other passive voice, the one that is created using sein (to be), is not used to express an action, but instead to express a state or a result. Let’s compare the following two sentences:
- Die Tür wird geöffnet. The door is being opened.
- Die Tür ist geöffnet. The door is opened.
The first sentence indicates that in this very moment, somebody is opening the door. Thus, the action is still going on. On the other hand, the second sentence tells us that the door is already open.
In addition, we could also say:
- Die Tür ist offen. The door is open.
In both of the sentences where sein is used, we would expect to see an open door. So, what is the difference between geöffnet and offen? Well, in the first sentence, you still get the feeling that somebody had opened the door at some point in the past. In fact, you can see this in the past tense:
- Die Tür ist geöffnet worden.
On the other hand, having nothing else besides the adjective offen to give us a clue in the second sentence, we can’t actually tell if the door has ever been closed.
The “normal” werden-passive voice is called Handlungspassiv (Handlung, action) or Vorgangspassiv (Vorgang, process), while the “other” sein-passive voice is called Zustandspassiv (statal passive). Thus, the rule is:
- Handlungspassiv: werden + Partizip II (past participle)
- Zustandspassiv: sein + Partizip II
So, what is the difference between the following two sentences?
- Die Kartoffeln werden gekocht.
- Die Kartoffeln sind gekocht.
The answer is that you can only eat the potatoes in the second sentence. The potatoes in the first sentence are still cooking.
Most verbs are only used in the Handlungspassiv
Let’s look at the verbs öffnen and kochen. These are interesting examples because they can be used to describe either an action or a state. You can open something, and then that thing is open. Similarly, you can cook something and then that thing is cooked. However, this is not the case for most verbs. These verbs are actually the exception.
Now, let’s look at the verb schicken (to send). As you can immediately see, this is purely an action verb. While you could say “the letter has arrived” or something similar, you simply can’t express the state of arriving using the verb schicken. So, the following sentence must be incorrect:
Incorrect: *Der Brief ist an die Firma geschickt.
Correct: Der Brief wird an die Firma geschickt.
Translation: The letter is being sent/will be sent to the company.
The past tense of the Handlungspassiv
- Perfekt: Der Brief ist an die Firma geschickt worden.
- Präteritum: Der Brief wurde an die Firma geschickt.
Translation: The letter has been sent to the company.
Notice that the past tense of the Handlungspassiv can have two forms (the Perfekt and the Präteritum) and that for both tenses, the auxiliary werden must be used.
- Perfekt: sein + Partizip II + worden
- Präteritum: wurde(n) + Partizip II
Converting from the active voice to the passive voice
In order to understand how you can construct a sentence in the passive voice, we first need to compare and contrast the active and passive voices. So, what would the last sentence look like if it were in the active voice?
- Die Sekretärin schickt den Brief an die Firma. The secretary sends the letter to the company.
The person carrying out the action (the subject of the active sentence or nominative case) is usually omitted in the passive voice. Alternatively, it can be expressed with the preposition von (by). The accusative case (direct object) of the active sentence (den Brief) is turned into the nominative case (subject) of the passive voice (der Brief). The other parts, like the preposition (an die Firma), are not changed.
- Die Sekretärin (Nom.) schickt den Brief (Akk.) an die Firma.
- Der Brief (Nom.) wird (von der Sekretärin) an die Firma geschickt.
Translation: The letter is sent (by the secretary) to the company.
What happens to the other parts of the sentence?
Let’s take a look at a sentence with the dative case as an example. Specifically, how do we translate the English sentence “I was told that …?” Let’s start with the active voice:
- Jemand hat mir gesagt, dass … Somebody has told me that….
In this sentence, there is no direct object that we could convert into a subject. Thus, the dative case will not be changed.
- Mir wurde gesagt, dass … I was told that….
The function of the passive voice
Let’s look at some examples where the active voice is not incorrect, but inadequate:
- Der Sturm hat die Häuser zerstört. The storm has destroyed the houses.
- Die Häuser wurden (durch den Sturm) zerstört. The houses have been destroyed by the storm.
In the active voice, the storm appears as the agent. However, when we hear something like this in the news, we are more interested in the fact that the houses have been destroyed. On the contrary, we are somewhat less interested in the fact that the storm is to blame for it. Thus, the passive voice stresses the action, not the agent that carried it out. The reasons for this can vary. For example, perhaps we don’t know who is doing it, we don’t want to say, or the agent is not important.
Therefore, the passive voice would be a better option for the news. Note that durch is used instead of von when the agent is not a person.
- Viele Autos sind gestohlen worden/wurden gestohlen. Many cars have been/were stolen.
What would this sentence look like in the active voice?
- Jemand hat die Autos gestohlen. / Diebe haben die Autos gestohlen. Somebody has stolen the cars. / Thieves have stolen the cars.
However, is the new information conveyed by the active voice very important? Of course we already knew from the passive sentence that it was somebody who did the stealing. And of course, this somebody is called a thief. That is nothing new. Thus, once again, the passive voice is the better choice.
Which kind of verbs can be used in the passive voice?
Intuitively, you will sense that not all verbs can be used in the passive voice. How could we possibly put verbs such as gehen (to go) or schwimmen (to swim) into the passive? Let’s look at this issue in more detail.
In German, there are three groups of verbs. The first group can be used in the passive voice, the second can sometimes be and the last cannot.
Group #1: Transitive verbs
These verbs require the accusative case and use haben as the auxiliary verb in the Perfekt. They make up the biggest group. They are also those that are most likely to be used in the passive voice. Here, you will find verbs such as haben, brauchen, essen, kaufen, sehen, bringen and malen. (Exceptions include haben, kennen, wissen, es gibt, freuen and ärgern, as well as all reflexive verbs).
- Er hat gestern das Bild gemalt. He made the painting yesterday.
- Das Bild wurde gestern (von ihm) gemalt. The painting has been done (by him) yesterday.
Group #2: Intransitive verbs
These verbs don’t have an accusative case. However, they also use haben in the Perfekt. Examples include schlafen, tanzen, lachen, helfen, antworten, and sprechen.
Since they have no accusative, how can we use them in the passive voice?
- Active: Gestern haben sie viel getanzt. They danced a lot yesterday.
- Passive: Gestern wurde viel getanzt. / Es wurde gestern viel getanzt.
- Active: Gestern haben wir über das neue Projekt gesprochen. We talked about the new project yesterday.
- Passive: Es wurde gestern über das neue Projekt gesprochen./Gestern wurde über das neue Projekt gesprochen.
First, notice that it is difficult to translate the passive version into English. Second, it is necessary to introduce es (it) in order to make sure that the verb is in the second position. Third, not all verbs in this group can be used in the passive voice.
Group #3: Ergative verbs
These verbs express a movement or a change of state, and use sein as their auxiliary verb. Such verbs include gehen, laufen, springen, aufstehen, einschlafen and werden. These verbs can’t be used in the passive voice.
Please note that there are some exceptions. fahren typically belongs to this group (to go by). However, when it is used in the accusative case, it behaves like a transitive verb (to drive). For example:
- Er fährt mit dem Auto. He goes by car.
Here, we can’t create a version in the passive voice. However, we can in the case below:
- Active: Er fährt das Auto. He drives the car.
- Passive: Das Auto wird von ihm gefahren.
The passive voice is a very useful tool, especially when we want to focus specifically on the action, or the person/object that is receiving it. It is often used to describe processes (such those found in manuals or recipes) where the acting subject is not of great importance.