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.

Future

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.