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Active vs Passive Voice

Review: Verb Tenses; Indicative vs Subjunctive Mood Two Voices
German vs. English "Converting" Active to Passive

Note: This page focuses on the distinction between the Active and Passive Voice. For a detailed explanation of the Passive, please refer to the main Passive page.

Review: Verb Tenses; Indicative vs Subjunctive Mood

Verbs can be in multiple tenses: In the Indicative Mood, verbs can be in the Present (er sagt alles; sie geht schnell), Narrative Past (one-word past tense, typically more formal: er sagte alles; sie ging schnell), Conversational Past (two-word past tense, typically more informal: er hat alles gesagt; sie ist schnell gegangen), Future (er wird alles sagen; sie wird schnell gehen), Past Perfect (emphasizing that an action HAD happened before another past action: er hatte alles gesagt, bevor sie ging; sie war gegangen, bevor er etwas sagen konnte), etc. The verb tenses are summarized here.

Verbs can also be in two main moods, indicative (factual: what you do, what you did, what you will do etc.) and subjunctive (counterfactual: what you would do, could do, would have done, should have done etc.), each existing in various tenses. This is summarized on the page on verb moods.

  • In the first three semesters of German at the University of Michigan, we cover only Subjunctive II, the version of the subjunctive used to state what you would do, could do, would have done, should have done etc.). There is actually another important form of the Subjunctive mood, Subjunctive I, used for reporting speech. Click here for more information on Subjunctive I, which is quite easy to learn, and good to be aware of especially in the context of news reporting.
  • There is also a third mood: the imperative, used for giving commands ("Iss den SPAM!"; "Stehen Sie auf!"; "Gehen wir ins Museum!" etc.).

We will now see that there are also two possible "voices," active and passive. In principle, the passive voice exists in all of the above tenses and moods. Even an imperative form of the passive is thinkable: Werde geliebt! - Be loved!

Two Voices

1. Active Voice: this is the "normal" voice, in which the subject of the verb (i.e. what the verb "agrees" with) is really the person or thing carrying it out:

  • Wir essen den SPAM (subject: wir. We are doing the eating)
  • Das Kind streichelt [=pets] den Hund (subject: das Kind. The child is doing the petting)
  • Ich vergesse die Katze in der Waschmaschine (subject: I. I forget the cat in the washing machine: I'm doing the forgetting)
  • Es regnet (subject: es. This example is more abstract. We don't know what "it" is, but "it" is doing the raining)

Most active sentences include a direct object in the accusative:

  • Wir essen den SPAM (The SPAM is the direct object: we are eating it)
  • Das Kind streichelt [=pets] den Hund (The dog is the direct object: the child is petting it)
  • Ich vergesse die Katze in der Waschmaschine (The cat is the direct object: I am forgetting it)
  • BUT: Es regnet ("It rains": here, there is no direct object. All we know is that it's raining.)

2. Passive Voice: The passive voice turns the above state of affairs on its head. The direct object of the action becomes the subject (Nominative) of the passive sentence. Notice that the passive sentence may or may not mention the person or thing actually performing the action. The first three examples from the preceding section could be expressed as follows in the Passive voice:

  • Der SPAM wird gegessen (not stating who is doing the eating: "the SPAM is being eaten") OR Der SPAM wird von uns gegessen (specifying that the eating is being done by us: "the SPAM is being eaten by us")
  • Der Hund wird gestreichelt (not stating who is doing the petting: "the dog is being petted") OR Der Hund wird von dem Kind gestreichelt (specifying that the petting is being done by the child: "the dog is being petted by the child")
  • Die Katze wird in der Waschmaschine vergessen (not stating who is doing the forgetting: "the cat is being forgotten in the washing machine") OR Die Katze wird von mir in der Waschmaschine vergessen (specifying that the forgetting is being done by me: "the cat is being forgotten in the washing machine by me")

Note that ***not all active sentences have a passive counterpart***. In particular, the fourth example above, "Es regnet," cannot be rendered in the Passive. "Es wird geregnet" would mean something like "It is being rained," which makes no sense. Similarly, an attempt to render a sentence like "Ich schlafe" in the Passive would produce something like "Ich werde geschlafen," "I am being slept," which makes no sense. In general, it is better to think in terms of actively (haha) constructing passive sentences than to think of converting active sentences to passive ones. Although overuse of the Passive voice (in this sentence, for example smiley) is not disparaged quite as much in German as it is in English, the Passive should only be used for a good reason, e.g.:

  • the subject performing the action is unknown (for example, when a crime is committed)
  • the speaker wants to de-emphasize the subject who performed the action (e.g. politicians might prefer to say "Die Steuern wurden erhöht" ("Taxes were raised") to "Wir haben die Steuern erhöht" ("We raised taxes")
  • The Passive can also be used to emphasize (or create an illusion of) objectivity, e.g. in scientific writing.

Both voices exist in all tenses and moods. In the first three semesters of German at the University of Michigan, you will only be expected to know how to form the five main indicative passive tenses listed below (and how to use the Passive with modal verbs). Forming the passive subjunctive is quite easy, however: it works entirely analogously to the passive indicative.

German vs. English

German uses the verb "werden" to form the passive; English uses the verb "to be." So where English says "The dog is petted," German literally says "The dog becomes petted." This extends to all the tenses. Here is a dog being petted (streicheln = to pet) in the 5 main tenses of the passive voice, and also in the Present and Narrative Past tense with a modal verb:
Present Der Hund wird gestreichelt The dog is petted
Narrative Past (Präteritum) Der Hund wurde gestreichelt The dog was petted
Perfect (Conversational Past) Der Hund ist gestreichelt worden The dog was petted
Past Perfect Der Hund war gestreichelt worden The dog had been petted
Future Der Hund wird gestreichelt werden The dog will be petted
Modal--Present tense Der Hund muss gestreichelt werden The dog must be petted
Modal--Narrative Past tense Der Hund musste gestreichelt werden The dog had to be petted

Note how both German and English always insert the past participle of the main verb (here: petted/gestreichelt) in all passive tenses. In English, the various tenses are indicated by the various tenses of the verb "to be"; in German, by the various tenses of "werden."

Note: The use of "werden" to form the Passive actually allows German to make a distinction between the "true" passive and the "statal passive." The "true" passive describes an action that is (or was, or will be etc.) being performed. The statal passive is used to describe the state that something is in (hence the name "statal"), as opposed to the action that is being performed on it. Here are two examples:

Die Tür wird geöffnet. [true passive] The door is (being) opened. When you read this, you picture the door in motion: a closed door is being opened.
Die Tür ist geöffnet. [statal passive] The door is open. When you read this, you picture a door that is in the "state" of being open.
Der Computer wird repariert. [true passive] The computer is (being) repaired. When you read this, you picture the computer in the shop, being worked on in order to make it work again. The owner is nervous and hoping for the best.
Der Computer ist repariert. [statal passive] The computer has been repaired/is fixed. This sentence tells you that the computer is now fixed and works again. The owner is relieved, though the bill may be high.

English explanations of the German "statal passive" tend not to emphasize this form - and here, too, it is relegated to a note. The reason is that, for an English speaker, the "statal passive" comes naturally: it is formed using the verb "sein," analogous to its English counterpart: The door is open - Die Tür ist geöffnet; The computer is fixed - Der Computer ist repariert. On the other hand, when forming sentences in the "true" passive, the challenge for English speakers is to remember to use a form of the verb "werden" to form the German passive, instead of a form of the verb "sein," which would be analogous to English: Die Tür wird geöffnet - The door is being opened (at the moment); Der Computer wird repariert - The computer is being repaired. However, once an English speaker has begun to master the Passive, s/he may occasionally be tempted to use the verb "werden" in cases where the statal passive with "sein" would be appropriate. When this happens, it becomes important to understand and remember the distinction between the "true" and the "statal" passive.

"Converting" Active to Passive

As emphasized above, ***not all active sentences have a passive counterpart***. As also mentioned above, it is best to construct Passive sentences directly (as described on the main Passive page), rather than trying to convert active voice sentences into sentences in the passive voice. Nevertheless, the question of how to "convert" active to passive sometimes arises, and attempting to do so can be instructive, so it is discussed here.

1a. The direct (Accusative) object of the active sentence becomes the subject (Nominative) of the passive sentence (with which the verb werden agrees). The subject of the active sentence can be omitted in the passive version (often, that's the point of using the passive voice), but if you want, you can state it by inserting "von + ____ [in the Dative]" (equivalent to English "by ____"). All other nouns and pronouns remain unchanged; in particular, dative objects remain dative (see 1b below).

Er isst das Ei ==> Das Ei wird (von ihm) gegessen.  Er isst die Eier ==> Die Eier werden (von ihm) gegessen.
He eats the egg ==> The egg is eaten (by him). He eats the eggs ==> The eggs are eaten (by him).
Sie gibt uns das Buch ==> Das Buch wird uns (von ihr) gegeben. [Note that we could start this sentence with Uns, but the subject would still be "das Buch" and so the verb would remain singular: Uns wird das Buch gegeben.] Sie gibt uns die Bücher ==> Die Bücher werden uns (von ihr) gegeben. [Hier, "werden" is plural because "die Bücher" are plural. The fact that "uns" is plural is irrelevant: it is in the Dative, so it is not the subject of the verb, i.e. the verb does not agree with it.]
She gives us the book ==> The book is given to us (by her). [Note that in English, the conversion from active to passive changes "us" to "to us." No such change happens in German.] She gives us the books ==> The books are given to us (by her). [Note that in English, the conversion from active to passive changes "us" to "to us." No such change happens in German.]

1b. In general, an active sentence needs to include a direct object so that it can be "converted" into a passive "equivalent":

  • Ich schlafe (I sleep): There is no direct (Accusative) object in the active sentence, and so there is no Passive equivalent. "Ich werde geschlafen" would mean something like "I am being slept," which makes no sense.
  • Es regnet (it rains): Again, there is no direct (Accusative) object in the active sentence, and so there is no Passive equivalent. As discussed above, "Es wird geregnet" would mean something like "It is being rained," which makes no sense.

BUT: It is usually possible to "convert" active sentences with Dative (indirect) objects (and no Accusative objects) into logical Passive "equivalents." The resulting sentences are technically examples of the impersonal passive, a form of the Passive without a "proper" subject. The standard examples of the impersonal passive are simple sentences like "Es wird getanzt" ("People are dancing," "There is dancing going on") or "Es wird gelacht" ("People are laughing") (see the main Passive page), but impersonal passive statements can also include Dative objects, and in these cases it is important to remember that the Dative object is NOT the subject of the verb, i.e. the verb "werden" in the Passive sentence will not agree with it. The subject of an impersonal passive sentence is always "es" (i.e. 3rd person singular), even in cases where the word "es" does not appear in the sentence (e.g. "Heute wird getanzt": "There is (will be) dancing today"). Again, see the main Passive page for more details. Here are some examples in the current context of converting active statements with Dative objects (and no Accusative objects) into Passive "equivalents." Note the contrast to English, where the verb changes depending on whether the German Dative object is singular or plural:

Du antwortest mir ==> Mir wird (von dir) geantwortet.  Du antwortest uns ==> Uns wird (von dir) geantwortet. 
You answer me ==> I am answered (by you). You answer us ==> We are answered (by you).
Sie dankt ihrem Vater ==> Ihrem Vater wird (von ihr) gedankt.  Sie dankt ihren Eltern ==> Ihren Eltern wird (von ihr) gedankt. 
She thanks her father ==> Her father is thanked (by her). She thanks her parents ==> Her parents are thanked (by her).

The singular verb "wird" in the right-hand column feels quite unintuitive to English speakers, but is a consequence of the fact that these sentences are all impersonal Passive sentences, with no noun or pronoun in the Nominative for the verb to agree with. As a result, the 3rd person singular is chosen as a default. Note also that whereas in English, word order may determine what the verb agrees with, in German, the only determinant is whether there is an Accusative object, and what that object is:

I am given the book. Mir wird das Buch gegeben.
I am given the books. Mir werden die Bücher gegeben.
The book is given to me. Das Buch wird mir gegeben.
The books are given to me. Die Bücher werden mir gegeben
We are given the book. Uns wird das Buch gegeben.
We are given the books. Uns werden die Bücher gegeben.
The book is given to us. Das Buch wird uns gegeben.
The books are given to us. Die Bücher werden uns gegeben

In all of the above examples, there IS a direct (Accusative) object in the corresponding active sentences: Someone gives me/us das Buch/die Bücher. So, das Buch/die Bücher become(s) the subject (Nominative) of the corresponding German passive sentences and the verb "werden" in these German passive sentences invariably agrees with das Buch/die Bücher, whereas the verb "to be" in the English equivalents agrees with whichever object is named first. Again, these examples may feel quite unintuitive at first. You may find it helpful to read the German sentences above repeatedly, and to try to "feel" why the indicated verb forms are correct.

2. Always remember the past participle of the main verb: note how past participles (gegessen, gestreichelt, vergessen, geöffnet, repariert, gegeben, etc.) occur in every Passive example on this page!

3. Choose the appropriate tense of werden.

Übung mit Antworten

Now practice this by finding passive equivalents for the active sentences given, AND CHECK YOUR ANSWERS BELOW. You can include the agent ("von uns" etc.) or not, as you prefer. Note that some of the active sentences below do not have passive equivalents!!

1. Wir lieben unser Baby.
2. Wir lieben unsere Babys.
3. Unser Baby schläft.
4. Unsere Babys schlafen.
5. Es regnet Babys.
6. Unser Baby verschwindet.
7. Du findest unser Baby.
8. Du findest unsere Babys.
9. Du fandest unser Baby.
10. Du fandest unsere Babys.
11. Du hast unser Baby gefunden.
12. Du hast unsere Babys gefunden.
13. Wir helfen dem Baby. [careful: note there's no accusative object in this sentence ==> nothing to become the subject of the passive sentence ==> by default, the passive sentence uses third person singular]
14. Wir helfen den Babys. [all the warnings above still apply!]
15. Ich gebe dem Baby eine Dose SPAM.
16. Ich gebe dem Baby viele Dosen SPAM.
17. Ich gebe den Babys eine Dose SPAM.
18. Ich gebe den Babys viele Dosen SPAM.
19. Wir müssen das Baby waschen.
20. Wir müssen die Babys waschen.
21. Wir mussten das Baby waschen.
22. Wir mussten die Babys waschen.
23. Wir müssen dem Baby helfen.
24. Wir müssen den Babys helfen.
25. Wir mussten dem Baby helfen.
26. Wir mussten den Babys helfen.

ANTWORTEN
1. Unser Baby wird (von uns) geliebt.
2. Unsere Babys werden (von uns) geliebt.
3. No Passive equivalent! The active sentence has no direct (or Dative) object and does not lend itself to forming an equivalent passive sentence. An attempt like "Unsere Babys werden geschlafen" would mean something like "Our babies are slept," which makes no sense.
4. No Passive equivalent! [Same reason as (3) above]
5. No Passive equivalent! The active sentence has no direct (or Dative) object and does not lend itself to forming an equivalent passive sentence. An attempt like "Es werden Babys geregnet" would mean something like "Babies are being rained," which makes no sense.
6. No Passive equivalent! The active sentence has no direct (or Dative) object and does not lend itself to forming an equivalent passive sentence. An attempt like "Unser Babys wird verschwunden" would mean something like "Our baby is being disappeared," which makes no sense.
7. Unser Baby wird (von dir) gefunden.
8. Unsere Babys werden (von dir) gefunden.
9. Unser Baby wurde (von dir) gefunden.
10. Unsere Babys wurden (von dir) gefunden.
11. Unser Baby ist (von dir) gefunden worden.
12. Unsere Babys sind (von dir) gefunden worden.
13. Dem Baby wird (von uns) geholfen. [dative "dem Baby" stays dative]
14. Den Babys wird (von uns) geholfen. [dative "euch" stays dative]
15. Dem Baby wird (von mir) eine Dose SPAM gegeben. [The can of SPAM is in the Nominative in the Passive sentence (it was the direct (Accusative) object of the original active sentence). Hence the verb agrees with it, regardless of whether it is given to one baby, or to several.]
16. Dem Baby werden (von mir) viele Dosen SPAM gegeben. [The cans of SPAM are in the Nominative in the Passive sentence (they were the direct (Accusative) object of the original active sentence). Hence the verb agrees with them, regardless of whether they are given to one baby, or to several.]
17. Den Babys wird (von mir) eine Dose SPAM gegeben. [The can of SPAM is in the Nominative in the Passive sentence (it was the direct (Accusative) object of the original active sentence). Hence the verb agrees with it, regardless of whether it is given to one baby, or to several.]
18. Den Babys werden (von mir) viele Dosen SPAM gegeben. [The cans of SPAM are in the Nominative in the Passive sentence (they were the direct (Accusative) object of the original active sentence). Hence the verb agrees with them, regardless of whether they are given to one baby, or to several.]
19. Das Baby muss (von uns) gewaschen werden. [Remember to use the "Passive infinitive" with modal verbs, in any tense. The passive equivalent to the "regular" infinitive is "past participle + werden," so in this case "gewaschen werden."]
20. Die Babys müssen (von uns) gewaschen werden. [See 19]
21. Das Baby musste (von uns) gewaschen werden. [See 19]
22. Die Babys mussten (von uns) gewaschen werden. [See 19]
23. Dem Baby muss (von uns) geholfen werden. [the baby remains in the Dative ==> this sentence has no subject (subjects are Nominative!) ==> by default, the passive sentence uses third person singular] [Also see 19]
24. Den Babys muss (von uns) geholfen werden. [the babys remain in the Dative ==> this sentence has no subject (subjects are Nominative!) ==> by default, the passive sentence uses third person singular, even though the babies are plural] [Also see 19]
25. Dem Baby musste (von uns) geholfen werden. [the baby remains in the Dative ==> this sentence has no subject (subjects are Nominative!) ==> by default, the passive sentence uses third person singular] [Also see 19]
26. Den Babys musste (von uns) geholfen werden. [the babys remain in the Dative ==> this sentence has no subject (subjects are Nominative!) ==> by default, the passive sentence uses third person singular, even though the babies are plural] [Also see 19]



   
 

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