Easy Learning German

The passive - Easy Learning Grammar German

What is the passive?
The passive is the form of the verb that is used when the subject of the verb is the person or thing that is affected by the action, for example, I was given, we were told, it had been made.

1 Using the passive

  • In a normal, or active sentence, the ‘subject’ of the verb is the person or thing that carries out the action described by the verb. The ‘object’ of the verb is the person or thing that the verb ‘happens’ to.
Ryan (subject) hit (active verb) me (object).
  • In English, as in German, you can turn an active sentence round to make a passive sentence.
I (subject) was hit (passive verb) by Ryan (agent).
  • Very often, however, you cannot identify who is carrying out the action indicated by the verb.
I was hit in the face.The trees will be chopped down.I’ve been chosen to represent the school.

2 Forming the passive

  • In English we use the verb to be with the past participle (was hit, was given) to form the passive and the word ‘by’ usually introduces the agent. In German the passive is formed using werden and the past participle, while the agent is introduced by
  • von, for a person or organisation,
  • or durch, for a thing.
Das Kind wurde von einem Hund gebissen.The child was bitten by a dog.
Die Tür wurde durch den Wind geöffnet.The door was opened by the wind.
  • Here is the present tense of the verb sehen (meaning to see) in its passive form.
ich werde gesehenI am seen
du wirst gesehenyou are seen
er/sie/es wird gesehenhe/she/it is seen
wir werden gesehenwe are seen
ihr werdet gesehenyou (plural) are seen
sie/Sie werden gesehenthey/you (formal) are seen
TipThere is/there are can be translated by a verb in the passive tense in German.
Es wird immer viel getrunken auf seiner Party.There is always a lot of drinking at his party.
  • You can form other tenses of the passive by changing the tense of the verb werden, for example, the imperfect passive.
ich wurde gesehenI was seen
TipThere is a very important difference between German and English in sentences containing an indirect object. In English we can quite easily turn a normal (active) sentence with an indirect object into a passive sentence.ActiveSomeone (subject) gave (active verb) me (indirect object) a book (direct object).PassiveI (subject) was given (passive verb) a book (direct object).In German, an indirect object can NEVER become the subject of a passive verb. Instead, the indirect object must remain in the dative case, with either the direct object becoming the subject of the passive sentence OR use of an impersonal passive construction. Ein Buch (subject) wurde mir geschenkt.

3 Avoiding the passive

  • Passives are not as common in German as in English. There are three main ways that German speakers express the same idea.
  • by using the pronoun man (meaning they or one) with a normal, active verb.
Man hatte es mir schon gesagt.I had already been told.
  • Note that man is not always translated as they or one.
Man hatte es schon verkauft.It had already been sold.
  • by using sich lassen plus a verb in the infinitive.
Das lässt sich machen.That can be done.
  • by using an active tense where the agent of the action is known.
Susi schenkte ihr ein Auto.Susi gave her a car.
Ihr wurde von Susi ein Auto geschenkt.She was given a car by Susi.
Key points
  • The present tense of the passive is formed by using the present tense of werden with the past participle.
  • In German, an indirect object can NEVER become the subject of a passive verb.
  • You can often avoid a passive construction by using the pronoun man or sich lassen plus an infinitive or an active tense where the agent is known.

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