Active and Passive Voice in English and German & L2 Learners’ Problems with Voice

Seminar Paper, 2008

6 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Active and Passive Voice in English and German & L2 Learners’ Problems with Voice

In how far are active and passive voice in English and German different from each other? What difficulties do learners of English as a second language have to face when they deal with “voice”, especially in academic writing? This paper intends to answer these questions by firstly dealing with the descriptions and comparisons of active and passive voice, and partly also middle voice, as far as they are presented in Understanding English-German Contrasts by Konig & Gast. In a second step, certain exemplary problems that L21 learners of English come across when dealing with active and passive voice will be picked from Hinkel’s Teaching Academic ESL Writing: Practical Techniques in Vocabulary and Grammar. These problems will then be examined by referring back to the text by Konig & Gast. As this paper covers a rather general and introductory understanding of “voice”, the text by Konig & Gast will be taken as the basis for the discussion of the topic. Differing linguistic opinions about any linguistic features or terms that were mentioned in the “Contrastive Syntax” seminar will be indicated, but cannot - due to the briefness of the paper - be considered any further.

The most important contrasts of “voice" between English and German can be found in the structures of active voice, passive voice and middle voice (cf. 124). In general, “voice”, is also called “diathesis” and “relates to the argument structure of predicates”, i.e. the relationship between thematic roles like Agent, Patient, Instrument and grammatical functions like subject and object, as well as to the alternations found between different argument structures” (cf. ibid.). However, Konig & Gast examine “voice” in its narrow sense and therefore focus on the three types of “voice” mentioned above. The active voice is described as “the basic voice in English and German” as it occurs more frequently and comprises less morphological material than the passive voice (cf. 125). The passive voice uses an auxiliary verb - be or get in English, werden or bekommen in German - and a participial form of the verb (cf. ibid.).2 According to “a cross linguistic definition based on syntactic criteria [,...] the term ‘middle voice’ [can be used] for those cases where [...] a transitive predicate is used rather intransitively” (135). An example for a middle voice construction is “This shirt washes well.”/”Dieses Hemd lasst sich gut waschen” (ibid.).3

Concerning the comparability of “voice” in English and German, Konig & Gast argue that “[t]he active voice and the passive voice are easily identifiable in both English and German and there is thus no problem of establishing comparability in this domain” (125).

In terms of the construction of a passive sentence from an active sentence, three grammatical changes have to occur in both languages. Firstly, “the subject of the active structure is demoted to the status of an adjunct (or oblique argument) that is introduced by von in German and with by in English” (ibid). “As all adjuncts these prepositional phrases are omissible [...]” (ibid.).

Secondly, “an object and sometimes also an adverbial noun phrase is promoted to subject status” (ibid.). According to Konig & Gast, this leads to “a valency reduction by one argument” by which e.g. monotransitive verbs (wash) become intransitive verbs (be washed) and ditransitive verbs (give s.o. sth.) become monotransitive verbs (be given sth.) (cf. ibid.). In German, intransitive predications can also be passivized and become subjectless

( Mir wird ubel.) (cf. 125 and 126).4 Thirdly, “[a]n auxiliary verb is introduced [...]”

(125), such as be/get in English, and werden/bekommen in German.

As for the use of the passive, Konig & Gast state that on the one hand it occurs in scholarly texts as a stylistic norm, and on the other hand is applied in cases where the identity of the agent is of no interest or not easily specifiable (cf. 125/126).5

In terms of the formation of English passive constructions the authors maintain that “only sentences with two arguments, typically sentences with transitive verbs, have a passive counterpart in English” (126). Furthermore, “the vast majority of passive sentences in English are based on monotransitive verbs” (ibid.). An important difference between English and German in this respect is that “English - unlike German - does not allow subjectless sentences” (ibid.): as a contrast to English, German intransitive verbs may be passivized in sentences that lack subjects, such as “Hier wird nicht geraucht” (cf. 133). In English, it is not possible to form passive sentences with intransitive verbs, as such verbs do not take objects. However, a passive construction in English requires an object in the active sentence that can be promoted to subject status in the passive sentence. Furthermore, there is a semantic restriction for the construction of the passive which applies to both English and German. Passive constructions “require a ‘true Patient’, i.e. the subjects of these constructions must have been affected (or even created) by the relevant event in some way” (126).

In German, passive formation is case-dependent so that “only sentences with accusative objects have a regular passive form with “werden” and a subject that corresponds to the direct object in the corresponding active sentence” (132). Sentences with a dative object can form passives with the auxiliaries “bekommen” and “kriegen””, whereas “kriegen” is very informal and mostly occurs in spoken language (cf. ibid.). As has been partly mentioned, the restrictions for English concerning transitivity and affectedness of the patient do also apply to German (cf. ibid.).

Apart from the English passive formation with a combination of the copula be and the past participle of monotransitive verbs, English passives can also be formed with get, with be and ditransitive or phrasal verbs, and also with directional complements and locative adjuncts as well as with multi-word predicates.

Concerning passive constructions with be it has to be noted that this auxiliary verb is most frequently used in English, and that it has a rather neutral meaning in passive sentences (cf. ibid. 127/128). In contrast, the passive with get can imply “a partial responsibility of the patient for the action in question” (cf. ibid.). This can be underlined with the help of “passive imperatives, which are only possible with the auxiliary get’ (ibid.). In contrast to English, German passives do not occur in the imperative, but they can be constructed with “werden”, e.g. “Werde ja nicht krank!/ Don’t get ill! “ (cf. 133). The English get-passive can “express a certain emotional involvement of the speaker or an unfavourable attitude towards the relevant action”(128). So, get can express a critical comment whereas the passive with be sounds more neutral.

The formation of English passive constructions with ditransitive verbs is e.g. possible in double object constructions and prepositional object constructions. In such constructions, it is usually the object immediately following the verb in the active sentence that is promoted to the status of subject” (ibid.)

In terms of the passivization of prepositional verbs, English passive sentences can be constructed with phrasal verbs, a special type of transitive verbs, e.g. make up, carry out, take away, to push around etc. (ibid. 129). From a German perspective it can be considered remarkable that in English there “is the possibility of passive counterparts for verbs with prepositional objects like refer to, rely on, to lie to, to laugh at, etc” (ibid.). Such constructions are generally only admissible with simple prepositions, but there are also ones with complex prepositions (cf. ibid.). However,

“[l]ike for all passive constructions in English the subject must be a real patient in such passives, i.e. the referent of the subject must be clearly affected by the action in question” (130).

As a further contrast to German, passive constructions in English are not dependent on direct objects. They “can also be derived from sentences with directional complements and locative adjuncts [...]”, which can also be promoted to subjects in passive constructions[...]” (130). Another contrast to German “is the fact that prepositions are separated from the NPs they occur with in the relevant active sentences, i.e. they are stranded behind the verb”. Such kind of “Preposition Stranding” is wide-spread in English, but only marginal in German (ibid.)


1 Author’s note (A/N): L2 learners = second language learners

2 A/N: As has been argued in our seminar, get, werden, and bekommen cannot be called “auxiliaries”. However, due to the briefness of the paper, this will not be further examined.

3 A/N: Due to the briefness of this paper and the fact that “middle voice” will not be relevant for the topic discussed on page 5 and 6, nothing more will be examined here about this kind of “voice”.

4 A/N: Concerning this statement, it was argued in the seminar that there would not be any valency reduction by one argument in the formation of the passive. Again, this problem cannot be further discussed.

5 A/N: More detailed information about the use of the passive can be found on page 5.

Excerpt out of 6 pages


Active and Passive Voice in English and German & L2 Learners’ Problems with Voice
University of Wuppertal  (Anglistik/Amerikanistik)
Contrastive Syntax
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ISBN (Book)
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6 seitiges Short Term Paper mit Verwendung von 2 Quellen über das Thema "Gebrauch des Passivs beim Englischen Zweitspracherwerb"
Active, Passive, Voice, English, German, Learners’, Problems, Voice
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Christina Gieseler (Author), 2008, Active and Passive Voice in English and German & L2 Learners’ Problems with Voice, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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