The passive voice

(The passive of verbs in German grammar)

Table of contents – passive voice

On this page you will find the following:

  1. Using the passive voice
  2. Dynamic and stative passive voice
  3. Further explanations and exercises

When and how is the passive voice used?

The passive voice (in German: Passiv) is one of the two directions of action (which is the grammatical voice). Its unique feature is that the subject of the sentence sustains or endures the act that the verb (the German predicate) describes. Generally, the subject of a sentence bears more importance than the other constituents. To make use of this fact, the passive formation achieves putting the object of an active sentence in the foreground and emphasizing it. This original object becomes the subject of the passive sentence through transformation.

In principle, however, the passive voice is not as frequent as the active voice in German.

Compare the following characteristics now:

  • The passive voice may be used for various reasons. Note the most important ones in the following example sentences:
    • Perhaps the speaker or writer does not know the person or thing that is performing the action at all, or they are simply not necessary for making the statement comprehensible:
      • „In zwei Monaten wird hier ein neues Freibad eröffnet.“ (In two months, a new outdoor swimming pool is going to be opened here.)
        • Whoever is building the pool is of no interest to the overall picture.
      • „Meiner Oma wurde gestern die Handtasche geklaut.“ (My grandma’s purse was stolen yesterday.)
        • It is clear that a thief stole the purse, but who that was is unknown.
    • Putting the statement into the passive voice, one may want to emphasize the result of the action of the declaration:
      • „Die Wohnung wurde erst vor drei Wochen neu gestrichen.“ (The apartment was repainted only three weeks ago.)
        • Here, it is the result that counts, the freshly painted walls, and not who painted them.
    • The subject of the active sentence should deliberately remain unnamed in order not to address anyone directly:
      • „Das Bürolicht ist über Nacht schon wieder angelassen worden.“ (The office light was left on again overnight.)
        • Here, the speaker utilizes the passive, so no one gets accused directly.
      • „Ich wurde auf das Übelste beschimpft.“ (I was insulted in the worst way.)
        • The person who insulted is, of course, known but shall not be named.
    • Furthermore, with the usage of the impersonal passive, it is possible to direct the primary focus of the utterance entirely to the action – that is, to the predicate itself. A statement in the impersonal passive usually includes the personal pronoun ‘es’ (it) as the subject:
      • Es wurde viel gefeiert und getanzt.“ (There was much celebrating and dancing.)
      • Es ist viel geredet worden, aber eine Entscheidung gab es nicht.“ (There was much talk, but no decision was made.)

What is the difference between the dynamic and the static passive?

The German language divides the passive voice further into two forms. On the one hand, the dynamic passive can be constructed, which describes processes, activities, and so on. On the other hand, there is the static passive, which represents states.

Here is a brief overview of the difference between the two forms:

  • The dynamic passive is formed with the auxiliary verb ‘werden’ + Partizip Perfekt (past participle):
    • „Flugzeuge werden in regelmäßigen Abständen generalüberholt.“ (Aircraft are overhauled periodically.)
      • Präsens (present)
    • „Tut mir leid; das Auto wurde bereits verkauft.“ (I’m sorry; the car has already been sold.)
      • Präteritum (preterite)
  • The static passive, on the other hand, requires the auxiliary ‘sein’ + Partizip Perfekt (past participle):
    • „Alle Fenster sind geschlossen.“ (All windows are closed.)
      • Präsens (present)
    • „Das Auto war schon gebraucht, als ich es gekauft habe.“ (The car had already been used when I bought it.)
      • Präteritum (preterite)

Further explanations related to the ‘Passive voice’

The following explanations are relating to the topic ‘Use of the passive voice in German grammar’ and might be interesting too: