Active and passive in German

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Active (form of activity) and passive (form of suffering) are the two "directions of action" or diatheses in German grammar. The passive voice in German is not marked by a word form of the verb (a genus verbi in the narrower sense), but usually by a combination of the verb with auxiliary verbs. In the broader sense, however, it is included under the conjugation of the verb. The active has no independent marking, but is understood as the absence of a passive marking.

The following article deals with the derivation and manifestations of the passive in German; for a general classification and linguistic comparative explanations see the article Diathesis (linguistics) .

Definition of the passive voice and examples

General information on the definition of active and passive

The active does not have a uniform description of the content, rather the active is a "normal form" of the verb, and therefore the types of active sentences are just as diverse as the verbs themselves. Verbs require additions - here (more clearly) also called “arguments” - in different types and numbers, and therefore no simple statement about the meaning of the functions subject or object is possible. The relative arrangement in the distribution of the arguments of a verb on subject and object positions obeys generally valid principles, see the article Semantic role .

The passive voice now causes a modification of the normal grammatical representation of the arguments (which in this general sense is called a diathesis ). The passive voice is therefore a derived form, the description of which starts with the description of the respective verb in the active. There are different aspects that are commonly cited to explain the passive category:

  • The passive form leads to the “concealment of the perpetrator” (the agent ) of an action, it is then also referred to as the verb form “turned away from the perpetrator”.
  • In the passive voice, the event is viewed from the point of view of the patient (i.e. from the point of view of the participant experiencing an influence or change). This leads to the traditional term “suffering form” for the passive voice.

The second point, however, cannot be used to define the passive, because not every passive clause contains such a patient. Above all, the impersonal passive does not have to contain any further participant, but it is undoubtedly also a passive (see its own section below ). On the other hand, it should be noted that the types of possible active sentences are so diverse that there are also active sentences in which the situation "is seen from the perspective of the sufferer" - but these verbs can sometimes still be passivated:

(a) Mehrere Mitarbeiter erlitten Gesundheitsschäden.
(b) Wenn keine Körperschäden erlitten wurden, ist das Formular „Antrag auf Sachschadenersatz“ zu verwenden.

Instead of referring to the content of "perpetrators / patients", a definition using grammatical terms is necessary:

  • The definition of the passive is that the highest-ranking argument of the verb, which would appear in the active as the subject, is no longer connected with the subject. It remains unexpressed in the sentence or is only optionally introduced with a preposition.
  • As a result, another argument can move up to the subject position in the passive voice (“personal passive”). This applies (in the usual, become- passive) but only for an accusative object of the active.

According to this description, the passive voice in its pure form does not change the meaning of a verb, but only a different grammatical representation of its arguments. The unexpressed argument is still accepted.

It is true, however, that there are restrictive conditions that can be captured with semantic roles such as agent: Many verbs whose subject is not an agent cannot actually be passivated ( see below for more on this ) - but, as just seen, some can . When using the passive voice, there are definitely effects of a change of perspective, depending on the choice of subject, word order, emphasis and other properties that occur in connection with the actual passive voice. These will only be dealt with later, in the last section on the text functions of the passive voice.

Example: Passive of transitive verbs

A typical example of the mechanism described above is the derivation of a passive sentence like The lawn is being mowed . The derivation begins with a representation of the active:

Aktivsatz: Der Vater mäht den Rasen.
Arguments of the verb
mow (x, y)
x = causer (agent) as subject,
y = changed object (topic) as a direct object
Passivierung: Der Rasen wird [vom Vater] gemäht.
Arguments of the passivated verb
mow ([x], y) ,
[x = agent suppressed]
y = topic as subject.

In the passivated form, the agent of “mow” is no longer placed in the subject position, but it can still be deduced from the word meaning of the verb (and is therefore referred to as an implicit argument, which is retained in the logical representation as a variable x).

Thus, the (unmarked) active form of the verb denotes the normal mapping of arguments to grammatical positions, the passive form denotes a modification of this mapping (a diathesis ) that reduces the syntactic valence of the verb.

Impersonal Passive: Passive of intransitive verbs

In German, the passive voice can also be formed from verbs that have no object. In this case, a so-called impersonal passive is created , in which the verb can appear without any addition, since the only argument of the verb has been suppressed by the passive:

Aktivsatz: Man darf hier nicht rauchen.
Passivierung: Hier darf nicht geraucht werden.
Arguments of the verb
smoking (x) (intransitive variant)
smoke ([x]) (the only argument is suppressed and does not have to appear in the sentence).

The different forms of passive sentences continue to show the difference between transitive variants of "smoking" (in the first example below) and intransitive (in the second example):

  1. "Cigars were smoked."
  2. "Smoking is not allowed here."


Passive and non-finite verb forms

Some other constructions also mean that the highest argument does not appear in the sentence, although the verb would still require it from its meaning. This is e.g. B. in the infinitive like this. The difference, however, is that a grammatical subject position still exists in the passive voice, which may only be filled differently. In the infinitive, on the other hand, the grammatical position for a nominative subject is completely absent, and this alone is the reason why the corresponding argument of the verb is missing (and also the subject congruence of the verb). Compare:

Der Vater hat den Rasen gemäht.
Der RasenNom ist gemäht worden. (Passiv)
– den RasenAkk mähen (Infinitiv)

Passive and infinitive are therefore completely different appearances. Therefore they can also be combined:

Das Heu wurde aufgehäuft, ohne abtransportiert zu werden.

The infinitive construction after without is based on the transitive verb abtransportieren (x, y) . The above verb form no longer has any visible addition, as on the one hand the agent x was removed through passivation (result: "y was transported away"), and on the other hand the new passive subject (y = "the hay") is omitted when the passivated verb is placed in the infinitive.

Passive and anti-causative

The passivation of a verb, in which an argument is only suppressed in the grammatical representation, must be distinguished from cases in which a verb also occurs in meaning variants that have one less argument. Verbs such as to break open form z. B. two variants that are superficially similar to passivation:

Das Kind zerbrach die Tasse.  (Transitives Verb: zerbrechen (x,y))
Die Tasse zerbrach.         (Intransitives Verb: zerbrechen (y))
Peter öffnete die Tür.    (Transitives Verb: öffnen (x,y))
Die Tür öffnete sich.    (Intransitives Verb: sich öffnen (y))

The intransitive variants break and open up are also known as anti-causative . Some anticausatives carry a label, such as the Germans supervening reflexive himself . However, in no case is it a passivation, because the verbs do not have the same meaning (whereas with a passivation, the verb meaning remains unchanged). The intransitive variants break and open represent a process without any causation, so the semantic role of the agent is not grammatically suppressed, as with the passive voice, but can optionally be added with a preposition, but it is also semantically absent and not optionally addable. In other words, a passive can be recognized by the fact that a causer is still implied, even if he no longer needs to be mentioned in the sentence. The passivated verb is still recognizable as a basically transitive verb, only in a different grammatical construction.

Formation of active and passive in German: process passive

In German grammar, passive forms are referred to as "process passive" if they typically designate processes in exactly the same way as the active verb (among other possibilities, however). The term “process passive” stands in contrast to “state passive”, which is dealt with in the next section below.

Passive with "become"

The most common passive form of German is the formation with the auxiliary verb werden . In contrast to werden as an auxiliary verb of the future tense , the passive werden is combined with a verb form that is called a participle , i.e. with the prefix ge (unless there is another prefix on the verb) and the ending -t / -n , e.g. B. was mowed , was broken up .

The auxiliary verb werden itself is closest to the main verb in the hierarchy of auxiliary verbs:

…dass die Wiese gemäht + werden + soll.
…dass die Wiese gemäht + worden + sein + könnte.

The passive auxiliary verb werden therefore also forms all inflected forms of the German verb (again, different from that used to mark the future tense), i.e. H. all tenses, as well as subjunctive and all infinitive forms.

The auxiliary passive verb can be embedded in any other auxiliary verb constructions. The perfect form of a werden- passive is always formed with the auxiliary verb sein . The participle form, which the auxiliary passive verb itself assumes in the perfect perfect, is irregular because it is formed without a ge prefix.

Tense active passive
Present She is calling me. I am called by her.
preterite She called me. I was called by her.
Perfect She called me. I 'm called by her was .
past continuous She called me. I was called by her was .
Future tense She will call me. I 'm going to (future) caused by it are (passive) .

Passive with "get"

A passive can also be formed with the auxiliary verbs get and (more colloquially) get . This variant of the passive is called getting- passive, "recipient passive ", "beneficiary passive " or "dative passive". Just as the passive with will it lead to the eradication of the highest ranking argument, however, its special feature is that the direct object remains unchanged and instead an indirect object in the subject position aufrückt:

Aktivsatz: Der Lehrer nahm dem Schüler das Handy ab.
Arguments of the verb decrease (x, y, z)
• x = causer (agent) as subject,
• y = owner or negatively affected person as dative object,
• z = transferred object (topic) as accusative object
Passivierung: Der Schüler bekam das Handy [vom Lehrer] abgenommen.
Arguments of the passivated verb: decrease ([x], y, z) ,
• Agent suppressed
• y = owner / negatively affected person as nominative subject
• z as above

Especially in the combination it gets taken away is visible that get here serves as an auxiliary verb and not in its normal meaning as a main verb.

This variant of the passive is formed by many verbs that have both the dative and the accusative object. Verbs that have a dative as their only object take part in this construction to varying degrees (there are also fluctuating assessments of individual examples):

Die Leute applaudierten ihm –– Er bekam applaudiert.
Die Leute widersprachen ihm –– ? Er bekam widersprochen.
Der Mann glich ihm –– (NICHT) * Er bekam geglichen.

The state passive

In addition to the process passive with become, there is a construction that is referred to as state or being passive:

Die Tür wird geöffnet. (Vorgangspassiv)
Die Tür ist geöffnet.  (Zustandspassiv)

The meaning of the passive state is mostly that of a result state , which is derived from the underlying verb. In the example The door is open is z. B. denotes the state that was brought about by opening, thus as in The door is open , only that the open is presented as a result of a previous event.

In the linguistic literature it is pointed out that the two constructions are not parallel, but that the state passive is to be understood as a construction that contains the verb sein in the function of the copula , and the participle form in the function of a predicative adjective (whereas it is the process passive is an infinite verb form ). Evidence for this is z. B. the negative prefix typical for adjectives un-:

Das Paket ist noch ungeöffnet.

The analysis as a construction of copula + adjective together with the special resultative meaning makes it possible that there is no passivation in the narrower sense of the "state passive", but the case that the adjectival participle is a product of a word formation process that changes meaning and valence ( similar to how it was shown above for the anti-causative).

On the other hand, the state passive also has some verbal properties. For example, as in the passive voice, an agent can sometimes be introduced, even if this possibility is only limited:

Der Kuchen ist von Mutter gebacken.
Das Projekt war von der DFG gefördert.
Allerdings nicht: ??Die Tür ist vom Lehrer geöffnet.

This leads to the fact that some authors would like to connect the state passive after the verbal passivation (e.g. Eisenberg 2006).

(See the main article for details .)

Verbs without passive voice

In German, in addition to transitive verbs , many intransitive verbs can also form a passive (namely an impersonal passive); however, there are different subclasses in both groups which, for reasons related to their importance, do not allow passivation. (Mind you, the mentioned restrictions only apply to the process passive, not necessarily always for constructions in the form of the state passive).

With transitive verbs

Verbs that have a high degree of transitivity, e.g. B. describe a dynamic situation and contain a typical agent can usually be passivated. Among the transitive verbs that cannot be passivated include a. the following types:

  • Verbs that denote static relations, e.g. B. contain .
Die Flasche enthält Wasser.
(PASSIV NICHT:)  * Von der Flasche wird Wasser enthalten.
Viele Leute haben Schnupfen.
(PASSIV NICHT:)  * Von vielen Leuten wird Schnupfen gehabt.
  • Verbs whose nominative subject denotes the trigger of a perception and whose accusative or dative object denotes the perceiver ( experiencer ), e.g. B. please, annoy :
Die Schuhe gefallen mir.
(PASSIV NICHT:)  * Mir wird von den Schuhen gefallen.
Dieser Fehlschlag ärgert mich.
(PASSIV NICHT:)  * Ich werde von diesem Fehlschlag geärgert.

(However, a verb like anger can be passivated if the subject is an active person, e.g .: His big brother always annoys him. - He is always annoyed by his big brother. )

  • Furthermore, reflexive verbs can not be passivated (with the reflexive as accusative object). A passivated verb can therefore never have a reflexive interpretation. Example: The child has been combed refers to someone other than an unnamed agent; the sentence cannot be interpreted as a passivation of the child combed himself.

For intransitive verbs

Intransitive verbs that cannot form a passive voice are, in addition to unsystematic individual cases, the class of "unaccusative verbs" , which often stand out because their subject has a non-agentive semantic role and that they form the perfect with the auxiliary verb sein instead of have . (See the linked article for an explanation of the term "unaccusativity")

Text functions of the active and passive

Information structure and cohesion

Passivation can be a means of manipulating the structure of the information in a sentence so that it fits better into the context of the text. Since an underlying object can be brought into the subject position through passivation, the roles of subject and sentence object can be brought into congruence through passivation , where they would otherwise be divided between subject and object. In languages ​​such as English, which has a relatively rigid word order compared to German, many passivations can be explained by the fact that the underlying object arrives at the beginning of the sentence as a subject, where it can serve as a topic or sentence object . The German example sentence with a preceding accusative object would therefore best be translated as a passive sentence in English:

Deutsch: Diesen Text kann man ohne Brille gar nicht lesen.
Englisch: This text can’t be read without glasses.

Since in German both an accusative and a dative object can become a subject through passivation, this makes it easy to form sentence series in which statements with different verbs can be attached to the same subject:

Eri fuhr zu schnell, i wurde von der Polizei angehalten und i bekam den Führerschein entzogen.


Stylistically speaking, the stronger liveliness and presence of the statement and the fact that the reader learns who the characters are speaks in favor of active sentences . The journalist Wilfried Seifert pointed out the difference between active and passive as follows: “‹ You will be informed ›, that is paper. ‹But I tell you›, that is the Sermon on the Mount . "

Hans-Werner Eroms, on the other hand, sees an increased variety of expressions in some passive clauses, which means that the stylistics requirement for variation can be met:

„Im Herbst zieht man sich ins Haus zurück. Die Hochstammrosen sind eingepackt und zur Erde hinuntergebogen, und die Veranda ist zugeschlossen. Vor die Fenster werden Decken gehängt, damit es nicht durch die Ritzen zieht. (Walter Kempowski, Aus großer Zeit, S. 222)“

Here a combination of state and process passive as well as other passive (substitute) forms ( man construction, it as nominative offset) enables the representation of different perspectives: At a certain time of the year one generally retreats into the house; Preparations that have already been completed in the garden illustrate the state passive, while the process passive emphasizes the measures taking place in the house as ongoing.

The agent (the acting person, the concrete actor) can remain anonymous by using the passive. This can make a statement appear more objective, neutral or significant. According to Wolf Schneider , the passive voice is often "the escape route of a scribe who could not find out about the people involved."

Passive sentences were in office German and are still common in official language , but also in academic language . In the spoken colloquial language , the active sentences predominate by far.

In other languages


  • Elke Diedrichsen: The German 'haben-passive' and RRG . In: Linguistic theory and practice: description, implementation and processing . No. 49 , 2004.
  • DUDEN. The grammar. 8th edition. Dudenverlag, Mannheim 2009, ISBN 978-3-41104-048-3 .
  • Oddleif Leirbukt: Investigations into the 'get' passive in today's German . Niemeyer, Tübingen 1997.
  • Claudia Maienborn: The state passive. Grammatical classification - educational restrictions - scope for interpretation . In: Journal for German Linguistics . No. 35 (1-2) , 2007, pp. 83-114 .
  • Karin Pittner, Judith Berman: German Syntax. A work book . Narr Verlag, Tübingen 2004, Chapter 5 “Passive”.
  • Irene Rapp: Participles and Semantic Structure. Tübingen: Stauffenburg publishing house . 1997.
  • Marga Reis: Mona Lisa gets too much - from the so-called 'passive recipient' in German . In: Linguistic Reports . No. 96 , 1985, pp. 140-155 .
  • Paul Valentin: On the history of the German passive voice . In: CRLG (ed.): The Passive in German (=  Linguistic work . No. 183 ). Niemeyer, Tübingen 1987, p. 3-15 .
  • Heide Wegener: He is contradicted. - Arguments for the existence of a passive dative case in German . In: Linguistic Reports . No. 96 , 1985, pp. 127-139 .
  • Magnus Frisch: Why “Passive” when (it) also works “Active”? Comparative linguistic reflections on the genus verbi in Latin and German. In: Der Altsprachliche Studium. 52, No. 1, 2009, ISSN  0002-6670 , pp. 22-33.

Web links

Wiktionary: Active  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations
Wiktionary: Passive  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

Individual evidence

(Short references refer to the above literature list)

  1. Dudengrammatik 2009, p. 1117.
  2. Pittner & Berman (2010), p. 69
  3. So even Duden grammar 2009, p 544
  4. As in Dudengrammatik 2009, p. 544 and Pittner & Berman 2010, p. 69 actually carried out, albeit using the example of an agentive verb
  5. Duden. The grammar . 8th edition. Dudenverlag, Mannheim, Vienna, Zurich 2009, ISBN 978-3-411-04048-3 , pp. 550 f .
  6. z. B. Duden - The grammar. 8th edition. Dudenverlag, Mannheim 2009, p. 552ff.
  7. Detailed study with a literature summary: Rapp (1997); more recent study confirming this analysis: Maienborn (2007)
  8. Duden - The grammar. 8th edition. 2009, p. 554.
  9. The state liability , canoonet
  10. ^ Peter Eisenberg: Outline of the German grammar. Volume 2: The Sentence . 4th edition. JB Metzler, Stuttgart 2013, p. 126.
  11. Example from Diedrichsen (2004), p. 59.
  12. Quoted from Wolf Schneider: Deutsch fürs Leben. What the school forgot to teach. Reinbek 1994, p. 57
  13. See Hans-Werner Eroms: Style and Stylistics. An introduction . 2nd Edition. Erich Schmidt, Berlin 2014, p. 179.
  14. Quoted in: Hans-Werner Eroms: Stil und Stilistik. An introduction . 2nd Edition. Erich Schmidt, Berlin 2014, p. 180.
  15. See Hans-Werner Eroms: Style and Stylistics. An introduction . 2nd Edition. Erich Schmidt, Berlin 2014, p. 180.
  16. ^ Wolf Schneider: German for life. What the school forgot to teach. Reinbek 1994, p. 57