Passive in German – Vorgangspassiv vs Zustandspassiv

Written By: Emanuel Updated: June 14, 2024

Hello everyone,

and welcome back to the most epic German grammar course on the web.
Today, with the second part of our look at

Passive Voice in German

In part one, we laid quite a bit of groundwork. We learned what passive is and what it’s used for, we learned about passive in English and the colloquial get-passive, we learned that passive is more like a spectrum and we talked about how to actually spot one.
Because… you know, before we have to worry about how to build passive voice in German, we have to know when we need one.

Actually, that’s the most important part, so let’s recap that bit real quick.
Hooray.

Take this sentence:

  • I was disappointed a lot last year.

And now ask yourself: Is this passive?
If we’re just speaking English this matters exactly ZERO. No one cares. But it does matter if we want to translate the sentence to German.
And the best approach for us to figure out what we’re looking at is: using questions. Like… what question does a sentence or phrase answer to.
And the two questions that can help us clear things up with Passive are the following:

  1. What is/was being done to [X]?
  2. How is/was [X]?

If a phrase in a given context answers to question 1, it’s passive voice.
If it answers to question 2, we’ll just grade it “not passive”.
or actually, let me rephrase this:
If a phrase in a given context FEELS like an answer to question 1, it’s  passive voice.
If it feels like an answer to question two, then it’s not passive.
Because context makes all the difference.
Cool.

So now let’s see how this works with our example:

  • How was I last year?
    I was disappointed a lot.
  • What was done to me last year?
    I was disappointed a lot.

As you can see, BOTH make sense. To me, the second one feels more natural, but the first one could also work in the right context.
Context matters, and so the question test doesn’t always have “one” answer. The goal of it is rather to “amplify” how something feels.
Like… the questions help us get clarity about how WE perceive a phrase in a given context.
So, if  you  can “feel” passive voice then you won’t need them.

Anyway, if you want to read more about this I really recommend reading part one, especially if you haven’t read it yet.
So here’s the link.

Passive Voice in German – Part 1

And now, let’s jump in and find out how this actually helps us with passive voice in German.

When you learn about German passive voice in a course, textbook or a Youtube video you’ll almost certainly hear that there are two types of passive in German called Vorgangspassiv und Zustandspassiv.
Vorgangspassiv is built with werden and Zustandspassiv is built with sein, just like passive in English.
And trying to figure out the differences between these two types, and when to use which will be the main pain point for most of you.

I don’t think this approach is all that helpful, and I want to modify it a bit.
Here’s what we’ll do: we’ll take what the teaching mainstream calls Vorgangspassiv (the one with werden). So we’ll take that and we’ll call it:

Passive

And that other one, the Zustandspassiv, we’ll call “not passiv”.
Or wish.com-passive.

Because,here’s the thing: the “”””Zustandspassiv”””” is an absolutely useless concept. A non-cept if you will.
Because it’s not really about passive.

Why no one needs “Zustandspassiv”

We’ve seen in part one and also today’s intro, that the passive in English has a lot of overlap with descriptive statements, simply because both are formed with to be.
And we have established the question test as a way to get clarity about what we’re looking at, whenever we’re in the overlap area and our gut feeling doesn’t already tell us.

  • What is/was done to X? – Passive
  • How is/was X? – Not passive

The thing with the so called Zustandspassiv is simply that it only covers a portion of the NOT PASSIVE area.
Much easier as a visual so here it is:

This is a bit simplified of course, but that’s basically what’s going on.
Basically, if our gut or the question test say “That feels passive”, then we DO NOT NEED the Zustandspassiv. We need the Vorgangspassiv. Or Passiv as I like to call it. The one with werden.

Only if an example is NOT really passive voice based on our feeling or the question test, then it MAY OR MAY NOT actually be a Zustandspassiv in German.
Let me give you an example:

  • The window was closed.

This is an example that can go either way. So it can be about what was done to the window (passive) or it can be a simple description of the window’s state (How was the window?).
Let’s take it as a simple description. Then, we these two options in German:

  1. Das Fenster war zu. (adjective description) 
  2. Das Fenster war geschlossen. (“ZuStAnDsPaSsIv”)

Both sentences mean the exact same thing and have the exact same structure and yet, German grammar is making a distinction here and classifies the first one as a  description and the second one as Zustandspassiv. Or at least that’s how several grammar teaching websites classify it.
And the big question is: how is this useful?
The answer is, it isn’t. Not for a German learner, anyway.

Making this distinction may have its place and use in linguistics, but for people who want to learn German it is absolutely useless.  Worse even – it actively complicates something that doesn’t need to be complicated. 

The forms of Zustandspassiv and normal description are the same and we do NOT need to tell them apart, especially since there is a LOT of ambiguity lurking there.

Literally the only distinction we need to make is this: is what we’re saying passive or not? Our gut is a great guide and if you’re uncertain, use the question test to get a better feel for the “essence” of the sentence.
And if you don’t really vibe with the questions, you can also try the get-passive that we talked about last time.

  • [context blah blah context context]   The window was/got closed. [blah blah some more context blah some really juicy details you only found because you read the entire blurb blah blah]

If you can swap in “got” here without the meaning changing too much, then you’re looking at passive voice.
The sentence is about what is done to something or someone.
Whenever that is the focus of the sentence we want to say or translate, then we use the Passive Voice in German – the one with werden,  which we’ll talk about in a second.
And if that is NOT the focus of the sentence, then we’ll just not use passive and instead just translate it as it is.

  • The window was closed for the entire morning, that’s why it’s so stinky in here.

This is pretty clearly not passive, but a statement about the state of the window. So we’ll just translate it with sein (to be).

  • Das Fenster war den ganzen Vormittag zu/geschlossen….

And it doesn’t matter whether this is thechnically a Zustandspassiv or a description. No one cares!
In fact, if you want to expose your teacher a bit, Zustandspassiv is a great way to achieve that.

  • Das Fenster war geschlossen.
  • Das Fenster war den ganzen Tag geschlossen.

Just ask them, which of these is a Zustandspassiv and why and watch them squirm before they say “That’s leading too far for today, we’ll do that some other time.”

Anyway… I hope you got to see why “Zustandspassiv” isn’t really helping anybody and no one needs it. Except the German Teaching Industrial complex and its lizard overlords who get to fill up textbooks and Youtube videos with useless “Content”.

All right.

So now that we have found that there’s only one passive for us in German, let’s learn how to build it.

The real Passive in German – “werden”

English and (trigger warning) other Latin based languages like Spanish or French build their passive voice with the verb to be, but that’s not the only way.
Some languages like Swedish or Japanese do it by adding something to the verb and Arabic does it by changing the vowels within a verb.

And German does it by using the helper verb werden.
Which might seem like a weird pick, considering werden is ALSO the helper verb for the future.
But that choice makes a lot of sense, actually.
I have explored werden in detail in an older article, so I’ll leave the links below, but let’s do a short version here as well.

As a standalone, werden means for to become and that actually makes a lot of sense once you know its origin. It comes from the unapologetically ancient Indo-European root *wer-, which is also the root of words like invert, divert, extrovert, worm or wrist and the core theme of the family is the idea of turning, bending.
Now you might be like “Wait, what does that have to do with to become?”
But just look at this example:

  • The day I became 30 was the best day ever.
  • The day I turned 30 was the best day ever.

The verb to turn is often used in English in a sense of evolving or growing and it makes perfectly sense of you think of a growing wine plant winding and bending its way upward and sideward.
Actually, the ending -ward with its sense of directionality might even be the closest relative to werden and its sense of to become.
They’re both about “where something is headed” in a way.

  • Ich werde wütend.
  • I’m becoming angry.
    “I’m headed “angry-ward”.”

That also helps understand why werden is used as a helper verb for the future tense, because the future is simply the “result” of where you’re headed in the present. Like… if you’re pubward bound now, you will be at the pub in the future.

  • Ich werde in der Bar sein.
  • I will be at the pub.
    “I’m headed “being in pub”-ward.”

And the passive also fits right in, because as we’ve learned, the passive is about what is being done to someone or something. So in essence, it’s also about the “trajectory” or “path” of an entity, only that in passive, the entity is “brought there” by someone else.

  • Das Buch wird geschrieben.
  • The book is being written.
    “The book is headed “written-ward”. “

Here, the book is headed toward the state of being written, but it doesn’t do so by itself, and instead is brought there.

So in its essence, werden always talks about where something or someone is “growing or going toward”, only with slightly different focusses – the process (to become),  the end result (future tense) or the fact of being “brought” there (passive voice).

And actually, English has a verb that unites two of those ideas as well: to get.

  • The unicorn is getting bored.
  • The unicorn is getting photographed for Men’s Health Magazine.

So, I hope you can see how werden makes total sense for the passive voice.
And now, the only thing missing are a few examples of how this actually looks in practice, so let’s do that.

Using the werden-passive

And there really isn’t all that much new stuff if you already know your way around modal verbs and the past tense.
To build the passive, you just use werden and the ge-form of the verb.

  • Die Pizza wird gegessen.
  • The pizza is being eaten.
  • Ich werde auf Arbeit “Captain Pause” genannt.
  • I‘m called “Captain Break” at work.
  • Die Wanderer haben das Gefühl, dass sie beobachtet werden.
  • The hikers have the feeling that they’re being watched.
  • Das Gaslight® – ein Restaurant mit revolutionärem Konzept. Du wirst so behandelt, wie in einer toxischen Beziehung.
  • The Gaslight® –  a restaurant with a revolutionary concept. You are/get/are being treated in the way you are treated in a toxic relationship.

That’s my new business idea, by the way.
Imagine – the wait staff lovebombs you as you walk in, then criticizes your order, then brings you something different and gaslights you about it, then gives you the silent treatment, throws a random fit over nothing, and maybe, if you’re lucky, ghosts you for an hour. Like… the guests would say they want to leave, but they just wouldn’t leave and instead keep ordering. Or if they do leave, they’d be back after a few days.
I think that’s a guaranteed success, especially in big cities. And it could be fun to work there, as well. Like, some people could really make a living off of being themselves. Let me know if you want to invest, or franchise it.

But anyway, I’m starting to lose focus, so let’s finish this real quick.
If you want to add the “agent”  to the passive, which English does with by, in German this is done with von.

  • Thomas wird von Maria fotografiert.
  • Thomas is being photographed by Maria.
  • Der Wanderer wird von dem Einhorn verfolgt.
  • The hiker is followed/pursued by the unicorn.

And of course, we need to look at the past tense as well. For which we have two options.
The first one is with the “proper” past form of werden, wurde:

  • Thomas wurde von Maria fotografiert.
  • Thomas was photographed by Maria.

And the other one is with the spoken past, using the helper sein.

  • Thomas ist von Maria fotografiert worden.
  • Thomas was photographed by Maria.

The one important “oddity” here is that the ge- that we usually have is missing.

  • Ich bin müde geworden.
  • I became/got tired.
  • Ich bin angerufen worden.
  • I was/got called.

Why is it missing?
Because flow, I guess. It fits in with a broader pattern that has the absolutely not fun name “Ersatzinfinitiv” and the core of that pattern is basically that German doesn’t like using ge-forms if there are two verbs in a row. But that’s a bit too off topic for today.
Here’s another example for past:

  • I wasn’t asked.
  • Ich wurde nicht gefragt.
  • Ich bin nicht gefragt worden.

As usual with the two types of past, there isn’t really a difference in meaning between the two. I mean, there can be, if you dig deep enough in the right contexts, but for all intents and purposes, you can think of the two examples above as the same.
Both types are in use and idiomatic. The one with worden sounds a bit more “high register” and formal, but that might also just be my personal bias.
Either way, worrying about the differences is really not worth your time as a learner, so I’d recommend picking the one with wurde and just go with that.

Now, those weren’t too many examples and we actually had nothing on the passive future and passive conditional, but I think we’ll actually call it a day here and instead do the rest as part of a big exercise.

Like… the basic structures of the werden-passive really aren’t anything new, as you’ve seen, so it’s not really all that useful if I dump more examples on you.
Instead, I think I’ll prepare one of these speaking exercises, and we’ll go over all the important phrasings and build up from simple to hard together, so you get to actually practise this a bit.

So the next episode will be that exercise and then, in part 4 of this three-part series, we’ll talk about all the fringe stuff and the various differences between German passive and English passive.

But for today, we’re done :)
As usual, if you want to check how much you remember, you can take the little quiz I have prepared for you – two quizzes actually.
The first one are some general recap questions, so you can check if you remember the key takeaways.
And the second one is a little quiz on spotting passive in English, with some tricky examples. So enjoy!!
And of course, if you have any questions or thoughts about anything we talked about today, just leave me a comment and I’ll do my best to clear it up.
I really hope you enjoyed this, have a great week and I’ll see you next time.

General Recap Quiz:

Can you Spot Passive:

In this quiz, I’ll give you a few sentences in English and ask you whether you need werden or not.

Please do let me know if you had trouble with this one and which questions, so I can try and clear things up.

further reading: 

 

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