The German Passive Voice

Instructor: Samantha Green

Sam is from the UK but lives in the USA, she has taught college German and has both a bachelor's and master's degree in German Studies

The passive voice is often used to avoid identifying the subject of a sentence. The passive is very common in German, so this lesson helps you learn how to read it and use it yourself.

Active vs. Passive

In both English and German, in a standard 'active voice' sentence the subject of the sentence acts upon a object - 'the mouse eats the cheese'.

Both languages, however, offer an alternative to this, called the passive voice. Instead of the subject acting upon the object, the subject receives the action - 'the cheese was eaten by the mouse'.

How to Form the Passive

To turn an active sentence into a passive one in English, we follow a specific set of rules:

  • We take the direct object 'the cheese' and make it the subject.
  • The active verb 'eats' is then changed for the past 'eaten', and 'to be' is inserted as the auxiliary verb. This results in 'the mouse eats the cheese' changing to 'the cheese is eaten'.

Luckily for us English speakers, the German process is very similar. But instead of using 'to be' as the auxiliary verb, German uses the verb werden (pronounced WEHR-dehn).

As with the English method, the accusative direct object from the active sentence becomes the subject of the passive sentence, so den Käse (the cheese) changes to its nominative case form der Käse. Again, as with the English method, we use the past participle of the verb. 'Eat' in German is essen, which becomes gegessen.

Our active sentence was:

  • Die Maus isst den Käse. (The mouse eats the cheese.)

In the passive it is:

  • Der Käse wird gegessen. (The cheese was eaten.)

Sometimes, you need to say something without giving away who did it. Well, luckily for you, that's what we usually use the passive for: to avoid identifying the active subject. If, however, we want to keep that information, we do it by using the prepositional phrase von + dative. For example:

  • Der Käse wird von der Maus gegessen. (The cheese was eaten by the mouse.)

Translation: The mouse eats the cheese - the cheese is eaten
der Käse

Tenses in the Passive Voice

The passive can be used in all the tenses, not just the present. In English we do this by changing the tense of the auxiliary verb 'to be', like so:

  • The cheese is eaten, the cheese was eaten, the cheese will be eaten.

It's the same basic idea in German:

  • To change the tense of the passive sentence, we change the tense of werden. There is, however, one exception - the past participle of werden in the perfect tense. It is usually geworden, but in the passive we use worden. Here is a table of examples of all the tenses:

Tense Example Sentence Translation
Present Der Käse wird gegessen. The cheese is eaten/the cheese is being eaten.
Simple past Der Käse wurde gegessen. The cheese was eaten/the cheese was being eaten.
Present perfect Der Käse ist gegessen worden. The cheese has been eaten.
Future Der Käse wird gegessen werden. The cheese will be eaten.
Present with modal Der Käse kann gegessen werden. The cheese can be eaten.
Past with modal verb Der Käse konnte gegessen werden. The cheese could be eaten.

Verbs That Take the Dative

There is no English equivalent to this, so it might seem a little tricky at first. In passive sentences using dative verbs, there is a slightly different approach required.

Dative verbs do not have accusative direct objects, so we are unable to move them to the subject position as we usually do in the passive. Instead, we keep the dative object in the dative case, but continue using the usual passive sentence structure with werden + past participle. For example:

  • Active = Er dankt dir. (He thanks you.)
  • Passive = Dir wird (von ihm) gedankt. (You are thanked.)

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