The Passive Voice

A Comparison between English and German

Term Paper, 2012

17 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Contents

1 Introduction

2 General Background Information on the Passive Voice in English and German
2.1 Form and Functions
2.2 Long Passives versus Short Passives
2.3 Passive Auxiliaries
2.3.1 English
2.3.2 German

3 Different Types of Passives in English and German
3.1 Passives with Intransitive Verbs
3.2 Passives with Transitive Verbs
3.2.1 Monotransitive Verbs
3.2.2. Ditransitive Verbs with Indirect and Direct Object
3.2.3 Prepositional Passives

4 Conclusions


1 Introduction

Since English and German belong to the West Germanic family, both languages are - considered from a historical perspective – closely related. However, English and German have developed in entirely different ways over time. While English was strongly influenced by many foreign languages, such as French, German remained closer to the language group both originally derived from. Precisely these divergent developments make a contrastive analysis between the two major languages particularly interesting. Within this paper, English and German will be compared with regard to the passive voice, one form of the grammatical category voice that is, according to König & Gast (2009: 123), easy to identify in English and German and rather unproblematic to compare. In its general meaning, the term voice is used interchangeably with diathesis. In this sense, the concept of voice

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. (ibid.).

While diathesis appears to be a characteristic of any verb, voice - in the more restricted understanding of the word – “means the form of a [...] verb which shows whether the person or thing denoted by the subject acts or is acted upon” (Xavier 2008: 50). The narrower concept of voice, thus, differentiates between the active and the passive.

In the course of my studies, the grammatical phenomenon of voice has been used several times to exemplarily compare English with German. The system of voice in English and German has been (re-)introduced in the course of this semester´s seminar English in Contrast. Therefore, my interest in this topic was already raised before the seminar and I found it particularly interesting to learn more about the differences of English and German passives. As a future teacher of both of these major languages, I consider this an excellent opportunity to gain a detailed inside into this matter.

This term paper aims at figuring out in how far the passive voice is different in English and German. Despite both languages` very same origin, it is assumed that, due to language change, English and German show considerable differences in the passive voice. The work by König & Gast (2009) will be taken as the basis for a discussion on this question. Moreover in order to present the different perspectives on this topic, the term paper will refer to well-known linguists in this field, such as Quirk (1991) – as a rather traditional viewpoint - and Eisenberg (2004), who can be regarded as more modern.

A general overview of voice in English and German will be given, with a particular focus on basic structural and functional differences between active and passive, with a presentation of the two passive forms in both languages, namely short and long passives, and with a discussion on auxiliary verbs in English and German. The first section of this paper aims at providing general background information. In a second step, different types of passives will be discussed and compared, so as to obtain a detailed understanding for particular passive forms, as well as to be sensitised for differences and similarities between the two languages. Due to this work´s particular focus, not all passives in both languages can be discussed. Instead, the paper will concentrate on forms, in which a comparison appears to be useful. In a third step, the term paper will be concluded by a short summary of the findings and it is attempted to give an answer to the question initially raised.

2 General Background Information on the Passive Voice in English and German

2.1 Form and Functions

When changing a sentence from active to passive voice in both English and German, certain structural changes have to take place, cf. (1).

At the clause level, firstly, the active subject (here: The man/Der Mann) becomes the passive agent that is introduced by the preposition by in English and von / durch in German. In both languages, this “internalised complement” (Ward et al. 2002: 1428) is optional and can be deleted in most cases. Thus, in going from active to passive in English and German the former subject is demoted to a facultative prepositional complement, cf. brackets in (1b) and (2b).

Secondly, the active object (the woman/der Frau) becomes the subject of the passive sentence. Following Ward et al. (cf. ibid.: 1428), the active object, now promoted to subject status, becomes external to the passive´s verbal phrase. According to Eisenberg (2004: 127), in German passivisation, object promotion can also be called “Zweitschritt”, since subject demotion is also possible without any change of the active object. In contrast to English passivisation, German passives may also be formed with intransitive verbs, cf. (3.1). In going from active to passive, the verb valency is reduced by one argument, which means that with German active intransitive verb phrases subjectless passives may also be found.

Thirdly, within the verb phrase, both the English and German passive add the auxiliary verb, which is followed by the past participle of the main verb (here: helped / geholfen). The English passive auxiliary is positioned closest to the main verb, whereas the German auxiliary and the main verb form the "Verbalklammer", which is considered a typical phenomenon of German active sentences, cf. (2b) (cf., e.g., ibid.: 126; Quirk 1991: 159-60; Collins & Hollow 2000: 136-37; Ward et al. 2002: 1427ff.; König & Gast 2009: 123; Greenbaum & Quirk 2004: 44f.; Börjars & Burridge 2001: 164; Biber et al. 2002: 167).

[illustration not visible in this excerpt]

a) The man helped the woman.

b) The woman was helped (by the man).

(2) a) Der Mann half der Frau.

[illustration not visible in this excerpt]

As has been shown in (1) and (2), active and passive voice in both English and German, although structurally different on two levels, encode the very same semantic roles. Concerning this, Quirk (1991: 160) says that “the relations of meaning between their [active and passive sentence] elements remain the same”.

A different structure between passives and actives, however, may also have effects on the meaning. Quirk (cf. ibid.:166) and Börjars & Burridge (cf. 2001: 257) say that, by going from active to passive a change in emphasis and style, i.e., may be noticed. Beyond this, Eisenberg (2004: 129) says that the passive voice helps to neutralise the meaning of the active sentence: “Das Passiv als syntaktisch markierte Kategorie dient – anders als die übrigen formal markierten Verbkategorien – der Neutralisierung.“. This, of course, primarily applies to short passives that are, due to the missing passive agent, “täterabgewandt” (ibid.) and thus appear to be more focussed on the message of the sentence itself.[1] As can be seen, passives often serve different functions than their active counterparts. Yet, the active voice is generally used more frequently than the passive voice, with German outranking the English. According to the statistics, only 10 per cent of all German sentences are in the passive voice, whereas 90 per cent are active sentences (cf. ibid.). Quirk (1991: 166) adds that “there is a considerable variation among individual text types”. While passive sentences are rather uncommon in conversation in English and German, they are frequently used in academic prose and in news, only to name a few areas (cf., e.g., Biber et al. 2002: 166-167; König & Gast 2009: 123; Greenbaum & Quirk 2004: 45).

2.2 Long Passives versus Short Passives

As has already been mentioned, English and German passives can be subdivided into two different forms, namely short passives, which occur without the prepositional phrase, and long passives, in which the demoted agent phrase is added. Passive sentences without internalised complements are common in both English and German. Following Biber et al. (2002: 167), “[English] [s]hort passives are six times as frequent as long passives. There are several reasons to delete the agent in passive sentences in English and German:

1. The identity of the agent of the action may be unknown:

- (

[…] was broken into the club house next to the stadium [...].

2. The agent may be irrelevant or obvious from the context:

Für jedes Lebensjahr Henri Nannes wurde ein Werk ausgewählt.“

(Büsing 2011: 18)

A piece of work was selected for every year of Henry Nannes´ age.

3. The agent must not be mentioned, i.e. for legal reasons:

Die Frau wurde letzte Nacht gewalttätig bedroht.

The woman was threatened with violence last night.

Beyond this, the passive agent might also be omitted, in order to avoid redundancy or for simplicity reasons. Moreover, short passives can be used to put emphasis on the content of the utterance, so as to convey are more neutral and objective meaning (cf. 2.1). With reference to the latter function, agentless passives can often be found in scientific or technical writings, domains in which objectivity is crucial. Furthermore, Biber et al. (cf. 2002: 168) say that short passives are also very common in newspaper articles, since information conveyed through the news should also be objective and impersonal. Such as all English and German passives in general, the short passive is rarely used in conversation. The long passive voice used less frequently than the active voice, certainly attributable to the fact that, “[i]n principle, the long passive can be replaced by an active clause with the same meaning.” (ibid.: 169). Nevertheless, it is assumed that long passive sentences are used for stylistic or formal reasons, which is why they are most commonly found in academic writing. (cf., e.g., Ward et al. 2002: 1446; T4:358; Collins & Hollo 2000: 137).

2.3 Passive Auxiliaries

2.3.1 English

In going from active to passive, the auxiliary verb is introduced in both English and German (see above). But since each language uses different auxiliaries, in order to form the passive voice, the term paper will discuss both of them individually.

English passives contain either the auxiliary be or get. According to Ward et al. (2002: 1430) these verbs can be considered “catenative verbs”, which are “verbs taking non-finite complements”. For this particular reason, the authors classify be - and get -passives as “expanded passives” [ibid.; emphasis added by the author], irrespective of whether the passive is short or long. Ward et al. (ibid.: 1443) further say that get and be, serving a syntactic function only, are implied to be “dummy verbs with no identifiable meaning of their own [...]”. Concerning this, it needs to be mentioned that German auxiliaries also have a pure grammatical role in passive sentences, since they need a main verb (here: küssen), to become a full predicate (cf. (3c) wurde geküsst).


[1] The differences in meaning between English and German passives will be further discussed in section 2.2, when dealing with short passives in particular.

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The Passive Voice
A Comparison between English and German
Humboldt-University of Berlin
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passive, voice, comparison, english, german
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Babette Treptow (Author), 2012, The Passive Voice, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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