‘The Passive Voice’ is a name that originates in Latin grammar and it’s one of two ‘voices’. The other is ‘Active Voice’. Many of my students in both English and German find it difficult to understand, even though it’s used all the time in both languages. In fact I used it in the previous sentence, did you notice “It is used”?
I wanted to try to help my students to understand the Passive Voice, so I decided to write this post. I have colour coded the three parts that make up the Passive Voice using red, green and blue.
We’ll start with some examples in English. I’ve taken them from a source where the Passive Voice is used a lot, the news.
Another area where you’ll find the passive voice is in the history of buildings.
The passive voice consists of the three parts: subject – verb ‘to be’ and the past participle –
We were delayed.
I was stopped.
They were caught
He was taken.
The past participle is used in the present perfect tense. ‘The police have arrested.
But there’s more to the Passive Voice than meets the eye. If we look more closely, we can see interesting shades of meaning.
In colloquial English, got is often used instead of the verb ‘to be’.
The parcel was damaged in the post.
The painting got stolen
The painting was stolen.
The word get expresses the idea of receiving an action and also becoming, changing from one state to another. These examples are not colour-coded as they do not use the passive voice.
I am getting tired. = I am becoming tired.
It gets easier. = It becomes easier.
Let’s look at some more examples of the Passive Voice.
The concept was developed by Maurice Koechlin.
It was constructed from 1887-89.
At first it was hated by many Parisians.
It was intended as a temporary exhibit.
The Eiffel Tower was almost torn down and scrapped in 1909.
It was saved when its value for radio broadcasts was recognised.
It was renovated in 1986 and is repainted every seven years.
It is considered to be one of the most striking pieces of architecture in the world.
It is visited by around 7 million people per year.
The passive voice can also be used in the present continuous for an action that is going on at the moment.
The man is currently being questioned by the police.
You would hear this in a shop and it’s also the name of a famous TV comedy:
Now let’s look at some examples of the Passive Voice in German
Der Nissan Leaf wird in Sunderland montiert.
Jeden Tag werden 900 Minis gebaut.
Die Autos werden auch in Österreich gefertigt.
Autos werden in China hergestellt.
Dieses Modell wird auch nach Japan geliefert.
German uses the verb werden (to become) to form the Passive Voice.
is assembledwird gebaut
is builtwerden gefertigt
are producedwerden hergestellt
Werden is similar to ‘get’ in its meaning of ‘become’.
Now let’s look at a translation into German of the original example in English.
Note that the Passive Voice describes an action, a change of state, for instance from closed to open. If you are describing a continuous state, you use the verb sein – to be – Die Autobahn war zwei Stunden lang gesperrt.
One very interesting feature of German is when the Passive Voice is used without a subject. It’s often used to describe an activity
From 9pm ‘is danced’.
From 9pm there is dancing, or people dance.
Here (something) is being built.
Here a building is being built.
Construction work is going on.
Es wird gegessen und getrunken.
‘It is eaten and drunk.’
There is eating and drinking.
People eat and drink.This is one of the most interesting – and common uses of the Passive Voice without a subject. You can hear it on the radio news in Germany and it also appears on road signs.
Es wird geblitzt
It is flashed.
Speed cameras flashed
The police are flashing speed cameras.
Speed checks using flash cameras are in operation.
This speed camera sign proves that the Germans do have a sense of humour!
Grammar is about the patterns and structures in the language. In my opinion, the best way to learn is by using the language – listening and reading and understanding. Look carefully at plenty of examples in context. As you move forward, grammar points – such as the Passive Voice – will become clearer and clearer.