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Passive Voice

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active                    The mayor attacked an alderman’s reputation.
passive
                 An alderman’s reputation was attacked by the mayor.

It is possible to omit the active subject from a passive sentence, thus relieving anyone of the responsibility of the action of the verb. For example:

active                  The mayor attacked an alderman’s reputation.
passive              
An alderman’s reputation was attacked.

The German passive voice functions in a similar manner. The basic components of the structure are the conjugation of the verb werden plus a past participle of a transitive verb. Intransitive verbs do not form a passive structure. The subject of the German active sentence becomes the object of the preposition von (by) in the passive sentence. Let’s compare an active sentence that is changed into a passive sentence.

active       Die Schneiderin näht einen Anzug.          The seamstress is sewing a suit.
passive
    Ein Anzug wird von der Schneiderin
genäht.  A suit is being sewn by the seamstress.

Note carefully that the direct object einen Anzug in the active sentence changes to the nominative case (Ein Anzug) in the passive sentence, because it is the subject of that sentence.

Where in English the preposition by occurs in the passive sentence (It was sewn by a seamstress.), in German the dative preposition von is used to indicate the person or force of nature that carried out the action of the verb.

Das Dorf wurde von den Soldaten zerstört.       The village was destroyed by the soldiers.
Das Dorf wurde vom Erdbeben zerstört.           The village was destroyed by the earthquake.

But use durch in place of von to indicate by what means the action of the verb was carried out.

Sie ist durch einen Schuss getötet worden.                She was killed by a shot.
Sie ist durch einen Unfall getötet worden.                She was killed in an accident.

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When an active sentence is made passive, the tense remains the same. The conjugation of werden in the various tenses determines the passive tenses. The main verb becomes a past participle, which remains constant throughout the tenses. For example:

present                  Sie wird von ihm geküsst.              She is being kissed by him.
past                     
Sie wurde von ihm geküsst.            She was kissed by him.
present perfect    
Sie ist von ihm geküsst worden.     She has been kissed by him.
past perfect
         Sie war von ihm geküsst worden.   She had been kissed by him.
future                 
Sie wird von ihm geküsst werden.   She will be kissed by him.
future perfect
      Sie wird von ihm geküsst worden
sein.   She will have been kissed by him.

Be careful! The past participle of werden in the passive voice is worden. Use geworden only when werden means to become or get. Compare the following pairs of active and passive sentences and the tenses used in them.

Er kaufte den VW. (past tense)                                    He bought the VW.
Der VW wurde von ihm gekauft. (past tense)           The VW was bought by him.
Karl hat das Gedicht gelernt. (present perfect)          Karl has learned the poem.
Das Gedicht ist von Karl gelernt worden.
(present perfect) The poem has been learned by Karl.

The passive voice occurs with transitive verbs—that is, verbs that have a direct object, which is in the accusative case. But dative verbs that require a dative object can also be made passive. Compare the following pairs of sentences.

active           Sie glaubten dem Mann nicht.                 They didn’t believe the man.
passive
        Dem Mann wurde nicht geglaubt.           The man wasn’t believed.
active
          Man hilft ihr nicht.                                      No one helps her.
passive
        Ihr wird nicht geholfen.                            She isn’t being helped.

Notice that the dative objects of the active sentences (dem Mann and ihr) remain in the dative case in the passive sentences. The new subject in the passive sentences is the elliptical word es, the reason for the third-person singular conjugation of werden.

Modal auxiliaries

The modal auxiliaries are frequently combined with an infinitive that is located at the end of a sentence.

Sie kann dich gar nicht verstehen.                    She can’t understand you at all.
Warum musstet ihr warten?                              Why did you have to wait?

In the same way, modal auxiliaries can combine with a passive infinitive. Passive infinitives consist of a past participle followed by werden: geschlagen werden, gesagt werden, gefunden werden (to be hit, to be said, to be found). When modals are followed by passive infinitives, it is only the modal auxiliary that is conjugated. For example:

Warum soll der Hund geschlagen werden?                 Why should the dog be beaten?
Es durfte nicht gesagt werden.                                      It wasn’t permitted to be said.
Die Kinder müssen sofort gefunden werden.             The children must be found immediately.

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