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I've learnt that to form a passive sentence from an active one, one uses "von" and then one mentions the Subjekt of the aktiv sentence:

Hans isst den Apfel. ---> Der Apfel wird von Hans gegessen.

(stylistically not very nice, but grammatically ok, I hope). But one finds sentences like

Irgendwas wird durch das Gesetz geregelt.

which, presumably, is the passive voice of

Das Gesetz regelt irgendwas.

When should I use "von" and when "durch" to form the passive voice?

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in order to relieve your words: while the distinction between "von" and "durch" is recommended, mixing it up is at least not totally wrong most times, although it may sound somehow awkward. –  shuhalo Jul 2 '13 at 6:54

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up vote 12 down vote accepted

Both "von" and "durch" indicate the "Täter" in passive. That is, the agent of the passive action.

The Täter becomes the subject when you transform the passive into an active sentence.

The difference between "von" and "durch" is that you use durch when the agent takes an instrumental role.

So, in your two example sentences, Hans actively ate the apple, but the Gesetz was merely the instrument through which the government acted.

This is nicely explained here. (in German but hopefully it is clear) In their example, they have a mechanic who fixes a motor vs. a therapy which increases the rate of healing.

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This can be an annoying distinction to grasp - I remember having many arguments with my German teacher about whether durch was correct, since I was certain something was instrumental. I think I remember him saying that von was never incorrect so safe to use when in doubt - but better get confirmation of that from a native speaker. –  David Hall Jun 30 '13 at 17:44
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Usually, one can use both von and durch, but mostly one is more common than the other. The distinction instrumental or not is a guideline, that doesn't do the job all the times. Positive Examples: Hans eating and apples and laws regulating something. Negative Example: Literal Instruments: Der Ton wird durch die Tuba erzeugt. and Der Ton wird von der Tuba erzeugt. Both are equally useable. I guess, it needs a lot of experience with the German language to always be sure about which one to use. –  Toscho Jun 30 '13 at 22:42
    
"can't think of a better word" -> Because agent is the right term for this. –  Em1 Jul 1 '13 at 7:01
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Furthermore, if you say that durch indicates "the instrument through which someone acted", I'm not sure if this makes clear what preposition is to use for, e.g., "by the wind (storm)". Wind (storm) is actually not a instrument through someone acted. But you also cannot say that the wind (storm) "actively acts" as it is not a person. So, for what reason do we go with "durch" rather than "von"? –  Em1 Jul 1 '13 at 7:15
    
@Em1 would you say that in this case the wind takes durch since it is a Mittel? I will edit that into the answer if it is correct. And I'll also make it a bit clearer that these are just guidelines, and often a real Sprachgefühl is the only way to be certain what the right preposition is. –  David Hall Jul 1 '13 at 11:23

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