Passive Voice in German Grammar

Introduction

The passive voice has two forms in German grammar. The processual passive is conjugated with the verb werden and emphasises an action. The statal passive is conjugated with the verb sein and emphasises a condition. Who or what caused the action or condition is either not important, unknown or assumed to be general knowledge.

Learn when how to use the passive voice in German with our simple online lesson and passive conjugation tables. In the exercises, you can practise what you have learnt.

Example

Ein Mann wurde angefahren. Er ist verletzt

Dem Verletzten wurde ein Verband angelegt. Jetzt wird der Mann ins Krankenhaus gebracht

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Usage

We use the processual passive when we want to emphasise an action (What is happening?). Who is causing the action is unimportant or unknown.

Example:
Ein Mann wurde angefahren.A man was run down.
Dem Verletzten wurde ein Verband angelegt.A dressing was applied to the hurt man.
Jetzt wird der Mann ins Krankenhaus gebracht.Now the man is being brought to the hospital.

The most important information here is that someone was run down, bandaged up, and is being taken to hospital. Who ran the man down, applied the dressing, and is driving him to the hospital, is not important or unknown.

We use the statal passive to describe the condition (situation) after an action.

Example:
Er ist verletzt.He is hurt.

During the action, the man became hurt – now he is hurt.

Conjugation of German Passive Voice

Processual Passive

To conjugate the processual passive we need a form of werden and the past participle of the full verb. The rule for constructing sentences in the the processual passive is:

subject + form werden (+ object) + past participle

tenseexample sentence in processual passive
present Der Mann wird verletzt.The man is being hurt.
present perfect Der Mann ist verletzt worden.The man has been hurt.
simple past Der Mann wurde verletzt.The man was hurt.
past perfect Der Mann war verletzt worden.The man had been hurt.
future Der Mann wird verletzt werden.The man will be hurt.
future perfect Der Mann wird verletzt worden sein.The man will have been hurt.

Statal Passive

To conjugate the statal passive we need a form of sein and the past participle of the full verb. The rule for construction sentences in the the processual passive is:

subject + form of sein + past participle

tenseexample sentence in statal passive
present Der Mann ist verletzt.The man is hurt.
present perfect Der Mann ist verletzt gewesen.The man was hurt.
simple past Der Mann war verletzt.The man was hurt.
past perfect Der Mann war verletzt gewesen.The man had been hurt.
future Der Mann wird verletzt sein.The man will be hurt.
future perfect Der Mann wird verletzt gewesen sein.The man will have been hurt.

Active or Passive

We use the active form to emphasise who or what is performing an action.

Example:
Der Lehrer erklärte uns das Passiv.The teacher explained the passive to us.

We use the passive to emphasise the action itself. Who or what is performing the action is often left off in passive sentences.

Example:
Das Passiv wurde uns (vom Lehrer) erklärt.The passive was explained to us (by the teacher).

Verbs that can’t form the passive

Verbs with no accusative object can’t form the passive. Some of these verbs are:

  • verbs whose present perfect form takes sein (e. g. fahren)
    Example:
    Ich fuhr selber nach Berlin.I drove to Berlin myself.
    Ich wurde selber nach Berlin gefahren.I was driven to Berlin by myself.

    Passive is impossible, because I drove myself.

    But: fahren can also be used with haben + accusative object. In this case, a passive sentence is possible.

    Example:
    Mein Vater fuhr mich nach Berlin.My father drove me to Berlin.

    Passive: Ich wurde (von meinem Vater) nach Berlin gefahren.I was driven to Berlin (by my father).

  • reflexive verbs
    Example:
    Ich habe mich versteckt.I’ve hidden myself. (Ich bin mich versteckt worden.I was hidden myself.)
  • other verbs without an accusative object
    Example:
    Er schläft.He’s sleeping. (Er wird geschlafen.He is slept.)

    But: In colloquial speech we often use an impersonal passive (see exceptions), for example as an order.

    Example:
    Jetzt wird geschlafen!Now it’s time to sleep!

Info

Some verbs that have an accusative object can’t be used in the passive voice. For example, haben, kennen, wissen, es gibt.

Example:
Ich habe einen Hund.I have a dog. (Ein Hund wird gehabt.)
Ich kenne die Frau.I know the woman. (Die Frau wird gekannt.)
Ich weiß die Antwort.I know the answer. (Die Antwort wird gewusst.)
Es gibt viele Museen.There are many museums. (Viele Museen werden gegeben.)

Turning the Active into the Processual Passive

When we turn the active into the processual passive, the following things happen:

  • The accusative object becomes the subject.
  • The subject is left off, or only included as “von (+ dative)”.
  • The verb is used in the past participle form and we also need the helping verb werden in its conjugated form.
subjectfinite verbobjectinfinite verb
active Jemand verletzt den Mann.
passive Der Mann wird (von jemandem) verletzt.

Example for all tenses:

tenseactiveprocessual passive
present Jemand verletzt den Mann.Someone is hurting the man. Der Mann wird (von jemandem) verletzt.The man is being hurt (by someone).
present perfect Jemand hat den Mann verletzt.Someone has hurt the man. Der Mann ist (von jemandem) verletzt worden.The man has been hurt (by someone).
simple past Jemand verletzte den Mann.Someone hurt the man. Der Mann wurde (von jemandem) verletzt.The man was hurt (by someone).
past perfect Jemand hatte den Mann verletzt.Someone had hurt the man. Der Mann war (von jemandem) verletzt worden.The man had been hurt (by someone).
future Jemand wird den Mann verletzen.Someone will hurt the man. Der Mann wird (von jemandem) verletzt werden.The man will be hurt (by someone).
future perfect Jemand wird den Mann verletzt haben.Someone will have hurt the man. Der Mann wird (von jemandem)verletzt worden sein.The man will have been hurt (by someone).

Exceptions

Only the accusative object can become the subject. If there is a dative object that needs to be moved to the first position in the active sentence, it stays in the dative.

active:
Man legte dem Verletzten einen Verband an.Someone put a dressing on the injured man.
passive:
Dem Verletzten wurde ein Verband angelegt.A dressing was put on the injured man.

Active sentences without an object can also be made passive (impersonal passive). For this, we use the personal pronoun es or an adverbial modifier.

Example:
Wir tanzten (gestern) viel.We danced a lot (yesterday).Es/Gestern wurde viel getanzt.(Yesterday) There was a lot of dancing.