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Reading a book recently, I find myself wondering often about the usage of "werden" in many contexts, such as in these examples:

(talking about a group of people smoking from a common pipe): Sam wurde übergangen, denn die Pfeife wäre nie wieder an den Mund eines Indianers gekommen, wenn ein Schwarzer daraus geraucht hätte."

Why "wurde" and not "war übergangen"?

Another example, not sure if this is the same thing, but also involves "werden" and got me wondering:

(...) so war zu vermuten, daß sie von ihrem jetzigen Besitzer den von ihm besiegten Indiandern abgenommen worden waren.

Again, why not just "abgenommen waren"?

And yet another:

Aber ich kalkuliere, daß es ihm sehr, sehr schwer geworden sein wird, über den Rio Grande zu kommen.

Why not just "sehr schwer wird"?

Do these forms have anything in common except the usage of "werden", why have they been used in these examples, and what is their particular shade of meaning?

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3 Answers

up vote 7 down vote accepted

That is just how the tenses are done in German... What you try is simply not grammatically correct. I think you are getting confused by the combination of past and passive. You can say

Sam wird übergangen

which is present tense and passive voice. If you want to put it into past tense, "wird" becomes "wurde". Same with

Sie waren ihm abgenommen worden

is just the past perfect form of

Sie werden ihm abgenommen.

You see, you need the forms of "werden" to have the passive voice.

Your last suggestion, however, is possible because present tense is often used to indicate things in the future that are completed.

schwer geworden sein wird

is future perfect, which is only used in writing. When speaking, you would say "dass es ihm schwer wird" or maybe "schwer werden wird" to indicate future tense.

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'Werden' actually has quite a few uses. The subtlety is that unlike English, German actually has two distinct forms of passive, normal passive and what we call 'Zustandspassiv' (state or simply static passive).

  1. "Das wird gemacht" translates to "it is being done". The action is not finished yet and is still ongoing.
  2. "Das wurde gemacht" translates to "it was done". The action is finished. Emphasis on the action itself.
  3. "Das ist gemacht" translates to "it is done". The action is finished. Emphasis on the result (thus this stipulates 1 or 2).
  4. "Das war gemacht" also translates to "it was done". The action was finished (... at a point in time when something else happened). Emphasis on the result (thus this stipulates 2). "Das war schon gemacht, da kam er und verlangte noch was." translates to "It was/had been already done when he came and asked for another thing."

You could view 3 and 4 actually as shortcut forms for the full (present/past) perfect passive forms, "das ist gemacht worden" and "das war gemacht worden", it'll help you understand the example sentence (as I indicated in the translation by adding 'had been') but you don't have to. It all boils down to the same meaning.

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In those cases 'werden' indicates passiveness. Someone else does something.

If you change it to your alternatives, the meaning of the sentences changes.

Similar to English:

Sam was disregarded by someone. - Sam disregards someone.

Something was taken over by someone. - Something took over someone.

Your final example is different. 'Werden' also might indicate which time is used (like 'be' in English). This specific example is called future 2 (it will have been very hard for him...) (also hint: ich kalkuliere / ich sage voraus), and 'werden' is just a part of it.

Your alternative is called future 1, and would probably be accepted, but again, it kinda changes the meaning. (like "he will suffer" vs "he will have suffered" (finished, future 2 simple) vs "he will have been suffering (future 2 progressive)).

So, 'werden' has many uses, and might be confusing, but "sein" and "haben" is used similar to "be" or "have".

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