Passive Voice in German – A New Approach

Written By: Emanuel Updated: May 21, 2024

Hello everyone,

And welcome to a new episode of the epic online Grammar Course. And today, we’ll talk about a topic you’ve been asking for years and that’s especially for relationships, be they personal or professional.

Passive-Aggressive Voice in German

And here’s an example:

  • “Kannst du dein Geschirr in die Spülmaschine räumen?”
    “Oh… klar du, kein Problem. Natürlich kann ich diese kleine Schale in den Geschirrspüler räumen, wenn die dich in dieser großen Küche stört. Soll ich auch noch Fenster putzen und die Oberflächen desinfizieren? Wie sauber brauchst du es denn? OP-Level?”
  • “Can you put your dirty dishes into the diswasher?”
    “Oh… sure, no problem. Of course I can put this tiny bowl into the dishwasher if it bothers you so much in this huge kitchen. Should I also clean the windows and desinfect the surfaces? How clean do you need it? Surgery room grade?”

As you can see, it works pretty much the same in German and in English so you’re well prepared for the next argument with your partner or flatmate.
Tune in next week when we talk about how to gaslight in German.

Nah, I’m kidding of course.
The real topic of today is:

Passive Voice in German

A long requested topic and one that many people find confusing.
And after checking out what the Youtube teacho-sphere has to offer on the topic, I understand why.
Most of the videos were, well, not so good and there was also some legit garbage – full of contradictions and misleading simplications and downright falsehoods.

But Passive doesn’t have to be super complex and confusing.
I think the main thing people struggle with is the difference between Vorgangspassiv and Zustandspassiv and when to use which.

And I think I have found a great solution for it.

At first, it might feel confusing, too. But it’s confusing in a different way. A wholesome way. A Zen way. A confusion that feels like bathing in warm milk.
And then, it’ll click and you’ll be like “Wow, this is really easy.”
Well, that’s the plan at least.

Now, this whole thing is most likely going to be a three part series.
Part one will be a general look at passive, part two will be all about Vorganspassiv and Zustandspassiv and in part three, we’ll look into all the nooks and crannies and dirty back alleys of passive. You know… where the critters called Passiversatzformen live. Gross!

And I know that many of you are now wishing that we could start with part two right away.
But for this topic, I believe it’s really helpful to have “the bigger picture”.
Because if you just have “the small picture”, you’ll soon hit the frame and you have no clue what’s beyond it.
I’m quite sure, you’ll learn something new today, even if you already have a good handle on Passive in German.

Anyway, enough with the intro.
Are you ready to jump in?
Then let’s go.

And as promised, we’ll start with a really general look at what the concept of Passive actually is.

What is “Passive” in language

In very general terms, Passive is a specific angle to express something about the world.
Let’s say some entity – and by entity I mean person or thing. I’m just too lazy to write it out all the time.
So yeah, there’s entity A and it is doing something, and this doing involves some other entity – entity B.

  • I’m ordering a beer.

The entity doing something me, the action I am doing is ordering and this action involves another entity – the beer.
These are the roles in reality. And in the example above these roles are reflected in the grammatical roles the elements have in the sentence.  The entity doing something is the grammatical subject (here: I) and the entity involved in the action is the grammatical object (here: a beer).

This is a pretty natural way to describe reality, but it’s not the only one. We can also switch the roles.

  • A beer is being ordered by me.

The event described is the same as in the first sentence. But the beer is the the grammatical subject now, and I am a prepositional object. And this is essentially passive voice.
Putting an object of an action into the role of the grammatical subject.

Now, why would we want to do this and use Passive?
Youtubers usually say that in active, the person doing something has the focus while in Passive, the act is in focus and the entity doing it doesn’t matter.
But that’s not really true. The entity CAN matter!

  • “Wait, the project is finished already?!”
    “Yeah, it was finished by Maria yesterday.”

What passive REALLY is, is a different angle of looking at a situation. Like a camera angle.
And the angle we choose contributes to the overall message we convey, the story we tell.
Take these two sentences:

  • The unicorn is watching the hiker. (active)
  • The hiker is being watched by the unicorn. (passive)

The “plot” is the same in both sentences, but the angle is different.
The first sentence centers the scene around the unicorn. In movie terms, it could for example be an over-the-wither shot of the unicorn in the bush, with the hiker in the background.
The second sentence on the other hand centers around the hiker. The camera could be on the hiker and then slowly pan to the side to a bush where the tip of a pink blood stained horn is sticking out.

And yes, a side effect of the passive angle is that we CAN skip the acting entity. Either because we don’t know it or because we don’t want to specify it.

  • Someone slashed the tires of the hiker.  (Active)
  • The tires of the hiker’s car were slashed (by someone).
    (Passive… “by someone” is skipped because it’s not helping anyway.)

Or if we just don’t want to specify it.

  • Someone needs to empty the dishwasher. (active)
  • The dishwasher needs to be emptied. (passive)

So… in general terms, Passive is about changing the angle you use to describe an event, and on a more structural level, it is about putting something into the role of grammatical subject that is in reality an “object” of the ongoing action.

And I think most, if not all languages have SOME way to express such an angle change.
How this done varies from language to language of course. Some use helper verbs, some use suffixes or other markings.

But languages also vary in what you can actually DO with the Passive Voice.
English for instance has quite a few surprising ways with the Passive that other languages don’t have.
We’ll talk more about this in part 3, but to give you an example, in English you can form put the indirect object into the role of a subject.

  • I (subject) give a book (direct object)  to you (indirect object).
  • You  (subject) are given a book (direct object)  by me.

This would not work in German and German in turn also has some passive phrasings that are downright absurd.
But look at that in detail in part threee.
First, we need to know the normal passive. And before we get to the German side, let’s now take a quick look at English.
Trust me!!
I’m going somewhere with that!

“Passive Voice” in English

The main way to form a Passive in English is by using the helper to be combined with the past participle of the actual verb.

  • The hiker is watched by the unicorn.

This can of course come in all kinds of tenses and modes, but at the core, it’s always to be plus that participle.

  • The hiker is being watched….
  • The hiker has been watched….
  • The hiker was watched….
  • The hiker would be watched

Now, besides this be-passive, there’s actually a second important way to form a passive and that using the verb to get; again combined with that same participle. .

  • The kitchen gets cleaned by Thomas.
  • The kitchen is getting cleaned
  • The kitchen would get cleaned
  • ….

This get-passive originates from the idea of “reaching a destination” that to get has.

  • How did you get here?
  • I‘m getting fit.

And we see the same logic in the get-passive. If the kitchen “gets cleaned” it is reaching the state of “clean(ed)”.  So this phrasing makes perfect sense and it’s actually going to be really helpful for German passive.

But what’s the difference between the be-passive and the get-passive?

Well, one difference is certainly the more colloquial tone of the get-passive.
But there’s also at least a potential difference in meaning, because the get-passive is by nature about “development toward a goal” while the be-passive has more of a focus on a state.

There is huge overlap between the two, of course, especially once you include the aspects and tenses, like here:

  • Your order was being processed.
  • Your order was getting processed.**

**multiple people in the comments have since told me that this example in particular is not idiomatic with “get”. I am leaving it anyway, so the discussion in the comments makes more sense, but here’s another one:

  • In the second half, the team was virtually being/getting destroyed.

I don’t think there’s a significant difference here.
But in other contexts, there can be.
Take these two sentences:

  1. The park was filled with trash.
  2. The park got filled with trash.

Can you feel the difference here?
The second example is clearly about the act of trashing. Like… we can visualize groups of people dropping cans, plastic bags and Youtube videos on Passive there.
This visual would also fit with the first version, but the first version can ALSO be just us describing what we saw when we entered the park.

As usual with functional analysis, really great way to capture distinctions is by expressing them as questions.
And here, the two questions that represent the concepts are:

  1. How was the park? (A description)
  2. What was done to the park? (Question for event)

The sentence “It was filled with trash.” works as an answer for both.
The sentence “It got filled with trash” only really works for the second question. And that’s because the get-passive has this innate notion of an “development”. Or we could say “becoming”.

Are you still with me?
You’re probably wondering where I am going with this.
Well… what we just did will actually help us to spot a passive.
Because before we can worry about how to build it in German, we first need to know when we’re actually dealing with one.

How to spot a passive

Take this sentence:

  • The park is huge.

I think you’d all intuitively say that this is not a passive.
It’s just a normal description of the park. And as such it is a fine answer to How is the  park?” but it’s not really a fitting answer to What is done to the park.”

Now take this one:

  • The park is full of trash.

Same thing, pretty much, right? Sure, neither the park nor the trash are the reason why it’s there, but that’s not the point here. The sentence doesn’t “feel” like a passive. It’s just a description and it a great answer to “How?” but not so much to “What is done”
And now what about this one:

  • The park is filled with trash.

This is awefully similar to the one before and I think intuitively, we’d all hear it as a description, an answer to “How’s the park?”.
But if we test the other question, it also works.

“What is done to the park?”
“It is filled with trash.”

You might have trouble “feeling” it, but all we need is a proper contexts. Like a guide on how to get rid of the inner city unicorns.

First, all people are evacuated from the park.
Then, the park is filled with trash, which will attract the unicorns.
Once they show up, they’re caught in big nets.

And now this DOES feel more like a passive, right? When you want to visualize it, you picture dump trucks pouring garbage all over the lawn.

The key point I want to make here is this:

If we have a Passive or not depends on the CONTEXT.

You can NOT always tell by the phrasing. And the line is blurry.

  1. The picture was blue.
  2. The picture was not finished.
  3. The picture was finished.
  4. The picture was being finished.

The first one is 100% not a passive, the last one feels a lot like it is one.
But the ones in the middle … well… you might have some doubts there and that’s because IT DEPENDS. They can go either way.
And a good test is to find out is the question test we already had.

  • How is/was [entity]? 
  • What is/was done to [entity]?

If your sentence answers the first one, then we can consider it not a passive.
If it answers the second one, then it IS a passive.
And if it works for both, then you need to look at the context.

  1. The picture was blue.
    (Only answers to “how?” – NO passive)
  2. The picture was not finished.
    (Leans toward “How?” but we can make the other one work, too)
  3. The picture was finished.
    (Works for both questions, so we need context.)
  4. The picture was being finished.
    (Sounds weird as an answer to “How?” but well for the other one, so …. Passive)

We can even simplify it and just check if the question “What is done to [ ]?” works and if yes, then it’s a passive.
That’ll then also cover the get-passive.

  1. The bike is getting rusty.
  2. The bike is getting repaired.

Only the second sentence answers to “What is done to the bike?” so that’s a passive, the first one is not.
Works really quite well, but beyond this question, I think the ultimate best guide to spotting a passive is… your gut!!

Trust your gut.

If something feels like a passive, it probably is one.
And if it doesn’t, then it probably isn’t.

This is not a linguistically sound analysis of course, but that’s not what we’re here for.
We just want to learn the Passive in German.

And for that, all we just did will be REALLY helpful, and it allows us to take a really elegant solution for the Vorgangspassive vs Zustandspassiv stuff. You’ll love it!

And what that solution is, is what we’ll find out in the second part in a few weeks.
Yeah, cliffhangers suck :)

But seriously, we’ve done enough for today and I think we need some time to let it settle.
And discuss it in the comments, of course.
Seriously, if you have any questions or thoughts about what we’ve done so far, or if you want to speculate a bit how that relates to passive in German, leave me a comment.

I hope you liked it, have a great week and I’ll see you next time!

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