1. Objectives

In this unit you will learn how to:

  • Identify and translate sentences using the passive voice, in any tense.
  • Identify and translate demonstrative pronouns.
  • Identify and translate uses of selbst and selber.
Last revised on September 10, 2014.

2. Passive Voice

So far we have been limiting ourselves to the active voice, in which a subject commits an action as, for example, in “The boy kicks the ball.” But you will encounter passive voice quite frequently in formal German prose. Passive voice expresses that something is done to the grammatical subject by someone or something. A past tense example is, “The ball was kicked by the boy,” or even just, “The ball was kicked,” which doesn’t specify who did the kicking at all. A present tense example is: “The election results are counted before the winners are announced.” As you can see, English expresses passive voice by using the verb “to be” plus the past participle of the action verb.

German expresses the passive voice by using the verb werden plus the past participle of the action verb. Passive voice in the various tenses is simple enough, following the rules you have learned so far, but the results are uniquely recognizable as passive voice, because werden is the verb that changes tense, while the action verb(s) remain as past participles:

Present tense

Dieses Schiff wird von der neuen Firma gebaut.
This ship is being built by the new company.
[or:] This ship is going to be built by the new company. (Review the basics of present tense.)

Past tense

Dieses Schiff wurde von der neuen Firma gebaut.
This ship was built by the new company.

Present perfect

Dieses Schiff ist von der neuen Firma gebaut worden.
This ship was built by the new company.

Note: The auxiliary verb for werden is sein. The past participle of werden becomes worden only in passive voice (instead of the normal geworden).

Past perfect

Dieses Schiff war von der neuen Firma gebaut worden.
This ship had been built by the new company.


Dieses Schiff wird von der neuen Firma gebaut werden.
This ship will be built by the new company.

Future perfect

Dieses Schiff wird von der neuen Firma gebaut worden sein.
This ship will have been built by the new company.

Points to remember:

  1. In the passive voice, werden and its parts correspond to English “to be” and its parts.
  2. The past participle of the action verb stands in final position within the clause or sentence (but before any parts of verbs that were sent to the end by larger-scale changes such as perfect tenses or subordinating conjunctions).
  3. worden corresponds to English “been”: Almost without exception when you see worden you are dealing with the passive voice in one of the perfect tenses (present or past or future). The exception is in older poetry, where worden may also appear as an alternative form of geworden generally, not just in passive voice.
  4. The prepositions von, durch and mit are translated in the passive voice to English “by” or “with.” Von is used to refer to agents (people, companies), durch to refer to means, e.g. Das Haus wurde durch eine Bombe zerstört (The house was destroyed by a bomb) and mit for instruments, e.g., Spaghetti wird oft mit Gabel und Löffel gegessen (Spaghetti is often eaten with a fork and spoon).
  5. Passive voice, as you’ll be able to tell from context, is occasionally used to express an unfriendly, commanding tone or an impersonal, bureaucratic tone. Examples:

    Stille! Hier wird jetzt gearbeitet!
    Silence! Get to work now (everyone)!

    Sie sagen nichts. Alle Fragen werden vom Direktor beantwortet.
    You will say nothing. The director shall answer all questions.

Review the other usages of werden covered in Unit 8 and then practice identifying what role werden is playing whenever you encounter it.

Last revised on November 14, 2018.

3. Demonstrative Pronouns

The relative pronouns listed in the chart in Unit 8 may also be used as demonstrative pronouns, which are generally translated as “that one,” “the one,” or “those.” The most common uses of demonstrative pronouns which are of significance for reading and understanding written German are as follows:

  1. Introducing a relative clause:

    Diese Werkzeuge sind die, die wir in Deutschland kauften.
    These tools are the ones (those) which we bought in Germany.

    Here a demonstrative pronoun (in bold) acts as the antecedent of a relative clause, which begins after the comma. Note that the demonstrative pronoun does not change word order. The demonstrative pronoun here acts as a link between the relative clause and the subject Diese Werkzeuge, allowing the entire relative clause to modify Diese Werkzeuge, without having to appear awkwardly immediately after the word Werkzeuge.

    Another example of this usage:

    Der Kuchen auf dem Tisch ist der, den ich gebacken habe.
    The cake on the table is the one I baked.

  2. As a reference back to a preceding noun, without requiring a relative clause:

    Ich finde die Regeln deutscher Schulen und die der amerikanischen Schulen ganz anders.
    I find the rules of German schools and those of the American schools quite different.

    Here the demonstrative pronoun (in bold) refers back to “die Regeln,” allowing a genitive relationship, die Regeln der amerikanischen Schulen to be expressed without having to restate die Regeln. Note that the demonstrative pronoun die agrees in number with die Regeln (plural).

    Another example of this usage:

    Die Computer von gestern sind kaum zu vergleichen mit denen von heute.
    The computers of yesterday can hardly be compared with those of today.

  3. As a reference to a noun in a preceding sentence:

    Der Porsche ist ein Sportwagen. Der ist wirklich ein Wunderauto.
    The Porsche is a sportscar. It is truly a miracle car. [or:] That is truly a miracle car.

    Here the demonstrative pronoun (in bold) is used to refer back to the masculine singular subject (der Porsche) of the previous sentence.

    Another example of this usage:

    Rosen riechen am besten. Deren Duft ist wunderbar.
    Roses smell the best. Their aroma is wonderful.

Special demonstrative pronouns

  1. derjenige, diejenige, dasjenige, diejenigen

    These mean “that one” or “those.” As you can see, these are just the definite articles combined with “-jenige.” Both parts are declined just like any other combination of article and adjective (see Unit 4) and therefore reflect the different cases.

    Ich werde demjenigen wärmstens danken, der mir jetzt hilft.
    I will thank most warmly whomever helps me now.

    Unter eingeborenen US-Amerikanern ist der Anteil derjenigen, die eine andere Sprache sprechen, äußerst gering.
    The fraction of US-born Americans who can speak another language is extremely small. (literally: Among US-born Americans, the fraction of those who speak another language is extremely small.)

    Biographien können das Leben sowohl als die Umwelt desjenigen beschreiben, über den die Biographie berichtet.
    Biographies can describe the life as well as the environment of their subjects. (literally: Biographies can describe the life as well of the environment of the one about whom the biography reports.)

    Latein war geprägt von deutlichen Unterschieden zwischen den Varietäten der ungebildeten Bevölkerung und denjenigen der High Society.
    Latin was marked by distinct differences between the varieties spoken by the uneducated population and those of “high society.”

  2. derselbe, dieselbe, dasselbe, dieselben

    Usually translatable as “the same,” and function just as the words above:

    Ich mag es nicht, wenn mein Chef dieselbe Krawatte trägt, die ich trage.
    I don’t like it when my boss wears the same tie I’m wearing.

    Die Sonne kann nicht zweimal an demselben Tag aufgehen.
    The sun cannot rise twice in the same day.

Last revised on December 9, 2016.

4. Selbst and Selber

Be careful not to confuse these two words with the similar-looking demonstrative pronouns dieselbe etc. described in the previous section. The meaning of either word is determined by its position in the sentence.

When selbst precedes the noun or phrase to which it relates, then it has the emphatic meaning "even", as an adverb:

Selbst der Direktor hat das nicht gemerkt.
Even the director did not notice that.

Selbst Haifische fressen Quallen nicht.
Even sharks don’t eat jellyfish.

Ich kaufe mir keine Lotteriekarten, selbst wenn der Jackpot groß ist.
I won’t buy lottery tickets even if the jackpot is big.

In other positions, selbst is completely equivalent to selber, that is, a demonstrative pronoun translated as a “-self” word. In this meaning, you again need to pay close attention to position in the German sentence. When it immediately follows an object, then it’s emphasizing that object, just like in English when you place a "-self" word immediately after an object:

Die Lehrerin selber hat das Buch geschrieben.
The teacher herself wrote the book. (This emphasizes that the teacher wrote it).

Die Lehrerin hat das Buch selber geschrieben.
The teacher wrote the book herself. (This emphasizes that the teacher wrote it herself.)

Den Kuchen habe ich selbst gebacken.
I baked the cake myself.

Last revised on September 11, 2014.

5. Compound Nouns with Shared Parts

You will sometimes encounter a peculiar efficiency when a German sentence contains two or more compound nouns which share a word part. The clue to watch for is a hanging hyphen at the beginning or end of a word. Examples:

Dabei werden Ursachen von Kinderarmut in Ost- und Westdeutschland verglichen.
In the process, causes of child poverty in East and West Germany are compared.

The above example saves the writer or speaker from the tedious phrase Ostdeutschland und Westdeutschland.

Vorgang zum Richten insbesondere der Bandanfänge und -enden von gewalzten Metallbändern.
Procedure for straightening especially the ribbon beginnings and ends of rolled metal ribbons.

This example uses a shorter way of writing Bandanfänge und Bandenden. (You were introduced to this practice previously at the end of Unit 3, section 5.) Just make sure your English translation clearly communicates the intended compound meaning, given that English lacks the clarity of that hyphen. You may need to write out each compound in English.

Last revised on August 31, 2016.

6. Pronoun es Referring to Clauses

Both German and English sometimes use the neuter pronoun "it" or es without referring to any specific noun in the surrounding text, but German expands that usage beyond the needs of English. In particular, German will use es to refer to an entire clause, particularly as a way to tie together clauses within a complex sentence, and especially when German syntax "inconveniently" wants a verbal subject or object. In the next example, es is referring forward to the entire daß clause, as a way of satisfying the German desire to have a properly located direct object for the verb ansehen:

Ich sehe es als unser Versagen an, daß diese alten Leute so arm sind.
I see the fact that these old people are so poor as our failure.

In the next sentence, es refers forward to the daß clause, so that the verb stören can have a grammatical subject, and to obey the German rule that the verb must be in second position (as covered in Unit 1, section 9):

Es störte Ingrid, daß er sein Zimmer nicht zuerst aufräumte.
It bothered Ingrid that he didn’t first tidy up his room.
[or:] The fact that he didn’t first tidy up his room bothered Ingrid.

How you translate such uses of es may vary: first you must understand its function in the German sentence, and that should guide you to an English expression of the same meaning.

Last revised on March 7, 2017.

7. More Prefixes and Suffixes

Word Formation

These sections of the textbook help improve your speed during the skimming phase of reading and help you gradually build vocabulary.

Adjectival Suffixes

A large number of adjectives/adverbs can be quickly recognized as the addition of a certain suffix to a noun or to the root of a verb, like in English. Some of the most common such German suffixes are:

bar as in eßbar (edible), from essen (to eat); sichtbar (visible, seeable), from Sicht(sight)

haft as in lebhaft (lively), from leben (to live); zweifelhaft (doubtful) from Zweifel (doubt)

ig as in mächtig (mighty, powerful) from Macht (power); krustig (crusty) from Kruste (crust)

isch as in künstlerisch (artistic) from Künstler (artist); politisch (political) from Politik (politics); kindisch (childish) from Kind (child)

lich as in tödlich (deadly) from Tod (death) or kindlich (childlike) from Kind (child)

los as in endlos (endless) from Ende (end); erfolglos (unsuccessful, “successless”) from Erfolg (success)

reich as in erfolgreich (successful, “rich in success”) from Erfolg (success); ergebnisreich (fruitful, “rich in results”) from Ergebnis (result)

voll as in kraftvoll (powerful) from Kraft (power); geheimnisvoll (mysterious, “full of secret”) from Geheimnis (secret)

The Noun Prefix Ge


Gebäck (baked goods) from backen (to bake)
Gebirge (mountain chain) from Berg (mountain)
Gedanke (thought) from denken (to think)
Gepäck (luggage) from packen (to pack)
Gespräch (conversation) from sprechen (to speak)

This prefix gives a collective sense to a word root.

Last revised on March 8, 2017.