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Passive Voice

Passive voice is very common and stylistically nice in German (unlike in English, where it is treated as a second-class citizen!). The concept is easy: in a passive voice sentence, the thing that would bethe OBJECT in the equivalent ACTIVE sentence is made into the SUBJECT, and the doer of the action (if expressed at all) is added within a prepositional phrase with VON (or sometimes "durch"). The verb used in the German passive sentence is WERDEN, not  "sein", which is what causes most confusion among English speakers.

Active Voice:
Ich mache die Tür auf. I open the door.
Der Hurrikan zerstrört die Stadt. The hurricane destroys the city.

Passive voice:
Die Tür wird von mir geöffnet. The door gets opened by me.
Die Stadt wird von dem Hurrikan zerstört. The city gets destroyed by the hurricane.

NOTE: I translate "gets opened" and "gets destroyed" instead of "is opened" and "is destroyed" (which would be a more proper translation) in order to AVOID using forms of "to be" in English which might cause me to incorrectly use "sein" in my German sentence instead of werden!

It's important to note that German is much less ambiguous than English regarding the passive voice. In English, if we say "the door is always closed at six", we could mean one of two things:

  1. Every day at six o'clock someone closes the door. -or-
  2. Every day at six when we look at the door, it happens to be closed (and who knows what time it actually GOT closed).

For the first meaning, we have to assume that the word "closed" is the past participle of the verb "to close", an ACTION that HAPPENS to the door. For the second, we assume that the word "closed" is just an adjective describing the door at a given time.

Because German uses werden for passive, there's no possibility for confusion:

Die Tür wurde um 6 geschlossen. The door was closed ("got closed") at six.
Die Tür war um 6 geschlossen. The door was closed (already) at six.

Obviously in English "closed" is both a participle and an adjective. The situation with "open" is a little different, because we have separate forms for the participle (opened)  and the adjective (open).

Die Tür wurde um 6 geöffnet. The door was opened at six.
Die Tür war um 6 geöffnet. The door was open at six.

Unfortunately, with most verbs, the adjective and the participle are the same form, which makes it dangerous to translate directly from English!

The perfect tense of werden is normally "ist geworden" (As in "Mein Vater ist Polizist geworden.") However, when making PASSIVE sentences in the perfect tense in German, "geworden" just becomes "worden":

Die Tür wird um 6 geschlossen. (Present)
Die Tür wurde um 6 geschlossen. (Simple Past)
Die Tür ist um 6 geschlossen worden. (Perfect Tense)

The last two sentences mean EXACTLY the same thing!

Future Tense

Remember that future tense can be expressed in two ways in German. Firstly, and most commonly, it is expressed with the PRESENT tense, using a time phrase that indicates  a future time:

Ich fahre morgen nach Mannheim. I'm going to Mannheim tomorrow.
Wir fliegen im Sommer nach Deutschland. We're flying to Germany next summer.

Of course, there is also the possibility to make future tense with werden + infinitive at end. Therefore, it is easily possible to have two separate forms of werden in the same passive voice sentence:

Die Tür wird um 6 geschlossen. (present/future)
The door is/will get closed at six.

Die Tür wird um 6 geschlossen werden. (future)
The door will get closed at six.

(In this sentence, the "infinitive" of the verb is "geschlossen werden" or "to get closed")

This can be more confusing if the subject of the sentence is plural:

Die Türen werden geschlossen werden.

Here, the first werden is a CONJUGATED verb in plural form, and the second is just an infinitive.

Other ways to do passive voice:

Dative passive voice:

Up to now, the passive voice has been treated as a re-working of an active sentence where the DIRECT OBJECT (ACCUSATIVE) becomes the SUBJECT of a passive voice sentence. Sometimes the object is not an accusative object, but a dative one, and the form is slightly different, using the "impersonal" pronoun "es":

Es wurde mir ein Wagen gestohlen. A car was stolen from me.
Es wurde mir ein Wagen gegeben. A car was given to me.

Notice that Wagen is NOMINATIVE. That is because the impersonal "ES" and the Wagen are really the same thing. You can also avoid this "es" by placing the "mir" to the front of the sentence:

Mir wurde ein Wagen gestohlen.

Using MAN:

One of the reasons passive voice is used is to draw attention away from the AGENT of the action (who did it) and focus on the ACTION itself.  Another way to achieve this is to use an ACTIVE sentence with MAN as the subject:

Man hat mir den Wagen gestohlen. My car was stohlen.
(Here of course, the Wagen is the accusative object again.)

This isn't exactly the same thing as:

Jemand hat mir den Wagen gestohlen. Someone stole my car.

In the first case, the use of the indefinite pronoun "man" indicates that it is not important WHO stole the car, just that the car was stolen. The focus is on the action. In the second case, the use of "jemand" indicates that it is important who stole the car, but the identity of the person is not known.

Copyright © 2017 Will Lehman. All artwork copyright © 2017 Milo Schuman.