Mastering the passive voice in German

Mastering the passive voice in German

by Sandra Köktaş

Updated November 15, 2022

Sometimes in language, the doer is less important than the person or thing receiving the action. If you want to reduce the attention on the agent within a sentence and transfer it to the action and its object, you need to master the passive voice in German. This can be a difficult concept to master, but don’t worry:  If you speak English, you’ll recognize most of the rules. . And when it comes to putting a sentence together, there’s good news: You’ll only have to remember how to conjugate werden and sein. So, without further ado, let’s take a look at the German passive voice and make it easy.

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Switching between voices: active vs passive

Let’s start with an example sentence in the active voice: 

  • “Andreas isst das letzte Stück Kuchen.”
  • Andreas eats the last piece of cake.

As Andreas has been offered that last piece of cake and isn’t doing anything wrong eating it. To take the attention off Andreas and concentrate on the last piece of cake, we have to construct the sentence in the passive voice. To do so, the former object (the last piece of cake) becomes the subject, the former subject (Andreas) can be left out, and the verb (to eat) has to agree with the new subject and take the passive form:

  • “Das letzte Stück Kuchen wird gegessen.”
  • The last piece of cake is being eaten.

It is really quite similar to the passive voice in English. Andreas has gone, the last piece of cake has taken his position at the head of the sentence, changed its case from accusative to nominative and the verb has changed into the passive form in agreement with the new subject. We could also put Andreas back into the picture by adding him with the preposition von (by) which asks for the dative:

  • “Das letzte Stück Kuchen wird von Andreas gegessen.”
  • The last piece of cake is being eaten by Andreas.

Construction of the passive voice in German

We can put these observations into a three-step-rule for the passive construction in German:

  1. The accusative object becomes the subject.
  2. The subject is left out or added with von + dative (or durch + accusative in very rare cases)
  3. The verb changes to a conjugated form of werden in agreement with the subject + past participle (Partizip II)

Note: There is no passive voice for the following sentences: 

  1. Reflexive sentences
    “Ich wasche mich.” – I wash myself.
  1. Sentences that indicate a possession (look out for verbs such as haben (to have), bekommen (to get, receive, obtain), kriegen (to get)
    “Ich bekomme nächste Woche einen Hund.” – I will get a dog next week.
  1. Sentences with es gibt (there is)
    “Es gibt Tee und Kaffee.” – There is tea and coffee.
  1. Sentences where the accusative measures a quantity (look out of verbs like kosten (to cost): 
    “Das Haus kostet 200.000 Euro.” – The house costs 200.000 Euro.

The word order in the passive voice in German language is subject + werden + everything else + past participle.

Easy enough. But wait, there’s more! 

Passive voice x 2: processual and statal passive

The passive voice demonstrated above is only one of two passive voices in the German language. The one we learned above is called Vorgangspassiv (processual passive) and focuses on the action by which someone or something (the subject) is affected. The other one is called Zustandspassiv (statal passive) and focuses on the result of the action, i.e. the effect that can be seen on the subject after the action. Let’s look at some passive German examples so you can see the difference: 

  • “Das Fenster wurde geöffnet. Es ist geöffnet.”
  • The window has been opened. It is open.
  • “Die Suppe wurde gekocht. Sie ist gekocht.”
  • “The soup has been cooked. It is cooked.”
  • “Der Mann wurde von einem Auto angefahren. Er ist verletzt.”
  • The man has been hit by a car. He is injured.

Can you tell which example shows the processual passive and which shows the statal passive?

The processual passive is formed with werden + past participle.

The statal passive is formed with sein + past participle.

In the statal passive, the past participle is used as a predicative adjective. 

How to form the passive voice of the verb in German

Now that you know how to construct both passive voices in the German language, we need to look at how to form the passive voice of the verb. For both passive voices, we need the past participle (Partizip II). It’s best to memorize this form when learning German vocabulary. Once you have that down,o all you need to know is how to conjugate werden and sein. Most learners on an intermediate level will know this anyway. For a short guide, look at these tables for all six tenses: Präsens, Präteritum, Perfekt, Plusquamperfekt, Futur (I + II). 

Conjugation of werden for the processual passive voice

PräsensPräteritumPerfektPlusquamperfektFutur IFutur II
ichwerdewurdebin (ge)wordenwar (ge)wordenwerde werdenwerde (ge)worden sein
duwirstwurdestbist (ge)wordenwarst (ge)wordenwirst werdenwirst (ge)worden sein
er/sie/eswirdwurdeist (ge)wordenwar (ge)wordenwird werdenwird (ge)worden sein
wirwerdenwurdensind (ge)wordenwaren (ge)wordenwerden werdenwerden (ge)worden sein
ihrwerdetwurdetseid (ge)wordenwart (ge)wordenwerdet werdenwerdet (ge)worden sein
siewerdenwurdensind (ge)wordenwaren (ge)wordenwerden werdenwerden (ge)worden sein
Siewerdenwurdensind (ge)wordenwaren (ge)wordenwerden werdenwerden (ge)worden sein

Note 1: The past participle of werden is geworden. But if we use werden to form the passive voice and the tense asks for the past participle of werden, the ge-, though correct, is usually left out: 

  • “Ich bin abgeholt worden,” – I have been picked up.
  • “Ich war abgeholt worden.” – I had been picked up.
  • “Ich werde abgeholt worden sein.” – I will have been picked up.

Note 2: If the form of werden consists of more than one word, the past participle of the verb that is put into the passive voice comes second last:

  • “Ich bin geboren worden.” – I have been born.
  • “Ich war geboren worden.” – I had been born.
  • “Ich werde geboren werden.” – I will be born.
  • “Ich werde geboren worden sein.” – I will have been born.

Conjugation of sein for the statal passive voice:

PräsensPräteritumPerfektPlusquamperfektFutur IFutur II
ichbinwarbin gewesenwar gewesenwerde seinwerde gewesen sein
dubistwarstbist gewesenwarst gewesenwirst seinwirst gewesen sein
er/sie/esistwarist gewesenwar gewesenwird seinwird gewesen sein
wirsindwarensind gewesenwaren gewesenwerden seinwerden gewesen sein
ihrseidwartseid gewesenwart gewesenwerdet seinwerdet gewesen sein
siesindwarensind gewesenwaren gewesenwerden seinwerden gewesen sein
Siesindwarensind gewesenwaren gewesenwerden seinwerden gewesen sein

Note: If the form of sein consists of more than one word, the past participle of the verb that is put into the passive voice comes second last:

  • “Ich bin besiegt gewesen.” – I have been defeated.
  • “Ich war besiegt gewesen.” – I had been defeated.
  • “Ich werde besiegt sein.” – I will be defeated.
  • “I werde besiegt gewesen sein.” – I will have been defeated.

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Passive voice with modal verbs

The modal verbs dürfen (may), müssen (must), können (can), sollen (should), wollen (want), mögen (like) have no passive voice, but if they are accompanied by a full verb, they can be used in a passive construction like this:

  • “Ich darf gefragt werden.” – I may be asked.
  • “Ich muss abgeholt werden.” – I must/have to be picked up.
  • “Ich kann gewählt werden.” – I can be elected.
  • “Ich sollte befördert werden.” – I should be promoted.
  • “Ich will bezahlt werden.” – I want to be paid.
  • “Ich mag verwöhnt werden.” – I like to be pampered.

To use this construction in every tense, of course you will have to learn how to conjugate the modal verbs.

Alternative constructions

As some of the passive German examples demonstrate, the passive voice can be quite long and complicated. In spoken language, Germans usually try to use the active voice. Even in written texts, the grammar checker will warn you not to overuse the passive voice. So if you want a short and easy solution but still need to focus on the action and the object affected by it (maybe you don’t even know the agent), you could try one of the following alternatives:

Man (one/they)

You can leave out the agent and still construct a sentence in the active voice using man (one/they) as the subject:

  • “Man spricht Deutsch.” – They speak German.
  • “Was spricht man in England?” – What does one speak in England?

Bekommen (get)

As we mentioned above, sentences indicating a possession can’t be constructed in the passive voice. Instead, you can use the Adressatenpassiv. If someone is providing someone else (the indirect object) with something, the indirect object can become the subject of the sentence with a word such as kriegen or bekommen (to get, obtain, receive etc.) acting as an auxiliary verb:

  • “Das Restaurant liefert uns die Pizza”. – The restaurant delivers the pizza to us.
  • “Wir bekommen die Pizza vom Restaurant geliefert.”   –  We get the pizza (delivered to us) by the restaurant.

German passive voice in a nutshell

Much can be said about the German passive voice. At the end of the day, it all comes down to this: The object becomes the subject, the verb is formed by a conjugated form of werden (processual passive) or sein (statal passive) + past participle. Add the agent with von (person or animal) or durch (thing), and you are good to go. With the tables above, this should be easy enough. In any case, you don’t need to use the passive voice in abundance. Even Germans will choose an alternative construction like a sentence with man (one/they) most of the time. 

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Sandra lives in Istanbul, together with her kids, cat and dog. As a historian she thrives exploring this ancient city with her two- and four-legged loved ones. Together, they also love to go on adventures through all of Turkey and its neighboring countries. The perfect opportunity to put all the language learning into practice. If she’s not on the road, Sandra is busy putting her experiences into writing as a freelance copywriter for the travel industry and everything related to language, culture and family. Her particular interest lies in providing information on animal welfare with her website

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