A man throwing papers to the air.

The passive voice is used far less often in German than in English, but it still finds its place. While as a beginner, you might not come across it frequently, if you want to become fluent in the German language and be able to communicate with the native speakers freely, learning the rules regarding the passive voice in German is a must.

The passive voice is used when the verb’s subject is a person or a thing influenced by something. You will most likely see it in writing rather than in spoken German – so, if you want to read books or newspapers written in the German language, it would be highly helpful if you understood how the passive voice functions.

It’s important to recognize the distinction between using tenses and using the passive voice in German. Both active and passive voice may occur in various tenses, including the present, present perfect, past, past perfect, or future.

What Is the Passive?

Unlike the active voice, when the subject of the sentence performs an action, the passive is the form of the verb that is used when the subject is affected by the action.

For example:

I was asked; we were carried; it had been made, and so on.

Passive vs. Active Voice in a Sentence

In a regular sentence written in the active voice, the grammatical subject of the sentence is the person or thing that carries out the action described by the verb. The object of the sentence is the person or thing that receives the action.

  • Bobby (subject) kissed (active verb) me (object).

In English, as in German, you can turn an active sentence round to make a passive sentence.

  • I (subject) was kissed (passive verb) by Bobby (agent).
A man and a woman kissing

Very often, however, you cannot identify who is carrying out the action indicated by the verb:

  • The shoes got wet in the rain.
  • The dogs will be trained.
  • I have been asked to organize the party.

In German, just like in English, passive sentences may or may not have an agent.

Forming A Passive Sentence

In English, we use the verb “to be” with the past participle (was kissed, was asked) to form the passive, and the word “by'”usually introduces the agent. In German, the passive voice is created using the auxiliary verb werden and the past participle, while the agent is introduced by

  • von


  • durch

An agent can be represented by a person, an organization, or a thing:

  • Der Hund wurde von dem Arzt gerettet. – The dog was saved by the vet.
  • Das Fenster wurde durch die Katze geöffnet. – The window was opened by the cat.
A cat looking above.

Here is the present tense of the verb lieben (meaning to love) in its passive form:

ich werde geliebt – I am loved.

du wirst geliebt – you are loved.

er/sie/es wird geliebt – he/she/it is loved.

wir werden geliebt – we are loved.

ihr werdet geliebt – you (plural) are loved.

sie/Sie werden geliebt – they/you (formal) are loved.

Transitive Verbs and Intransitive Verbs in German

Just like in English, in German, there are two types of verbs when it comes to the topic of passive and active voices: transitive and intransitive. In German-English dictionaries, you can find the letters v.t. or v.i. written after the verb, where v.t. stands for the transitive verbs, and v.i. – for the intransitive verbs.

Most of the German verbs are transitive, which means they need to be used together with a direct object (or an accusative object) to make sense. For example, “I (subject) bought (transitive verb) a present (object).” These verbs will always take the accusative case when used in a sentence. They also can be used with passive voice – for example, “the present was bought.”

On the other hand, intransitive verbs can be used only with an indirect, dative object. For example, “she is helping him.” These verbs can’t be used to construct passive sentences.

Passive Voice and Indirect Objects

It is important to remember that there is a difference between German and English when it comes to sentences containing an indirect object. In English, we can quite easily turn a regular (active) sentence with an indirect object into a passive sentence. The active ‘someone (subject) gave (active verb) me (indirect object) a flower (direct object)” will then be transformed to the passive “I (subject) was given (passive verb) a flower (direct object).”

In German, an indirect object can never become the subject of a passive verb, and that is the issue of the German case system. The indirect object must remain in the dative case, so either the direct object can be the subject of the passive sentence, or you can use an impersonal passive construction: Mir wurde eine Blume (subject) geschenkt.

Another interesting point is that the English form “there is/there are” can be translated with a verb in the passive voice in German:

  • Es gibt viel zu essen im Kühlschrank. – There is a lot of food in the fridge.

Passive Voice in Different Tenses

You can form other tenses of the passive by changing the tense of the verb werden, for example, the imperfect passive:

Ich wurde geliebt (I was loved).

Note here that a passive construction in the simple past can yield a weird construction in German. This is something that is often called a “false passive” or a statal passive. For example:

Das Haus war zerstört (The building was destroyed).

As you can see, the statal passive emphasizes a condition a certain object is in. Here, the past participle is not used to construct a passive sentence – instead, it describes the subject, so it is really a predicate adjective. In the statal passive, we also use the verb sein.

On the other hand, the regular passive voice that we have covered above is called the processual passive – it is conjugated with the verb werden and emphasizes an action.

Avoiding the Passive Voice

There are three main ways that German speakers can go to express the same idea.

  • using the construction with a pronoun man (meaning they or someone) and a regular active verb:

Man hatte sie schon informiert. – She was already told/given this information.

  • using the construction with a word sich plus verb machen plus a verb in the infinitive:

Das kann man machen. – That can be done / that’s possible.

  • using an active voice where the agent of the action is known:

Peter schenkte Anna einen Computer zum Geburtstag. – Peter gave Anna a computer for her birthday.

Instead of the passive form:

Anna hat zum Geburtstag von Peter einen Computer geschenkt bekommen.

Let’s Sum Up

  • The present tense of the passive is formed by using the present tense of the verb werden with the past participle.
  • The passive voice is primarily used to describe situations where the activity or process is emphasized.
  • In German, an indirect object can never become the subject of a passive sentence.
  • You can often avoid a passive construction by using the pronoun man or sich lassen / sich machen plus an infinitive or by using active voice when the agent is known. 

Learn To Read The Signs

Practice as much as possible. Simply determine the message you want to bring across and then play around with the active and passive voice. The more you use different voices in different sentences, the more fluently you will use it with time.

However, the ultimate way to train yourself and master German sentence construction is, of course, by practicing and seeing them being put into reality with the Readle – Learn German App. Beginners and advanced learners can all benefit from it. Check it out today, practice for only 7 minutes every day – and you’ll see the effects in no time.