Die Vase ist zerbrochen

I sometimes get confused by such constructions. I can interpret the previous sentence in three different ways.

  1. Sein + adjective. Past participles can be used like normal adjectives, and zerbrochen here is merely an adjective acting as a predicate complement of the verb sein.

  2. Zerbrechen in the present perfect tense, since zerbrechen can take sein as an auxiliary verb in such context.

  3. Sein-passive. Sein here acts as an auxiliary verb (in the present tense) to form the sein-passive with the past participle zerbrochen.

Which of my previous interpretations are correct and why? If more than one interpretation is correct, how does the meaning change?

To me, I have 3 possible correct interpretations for one meaning.

  • The perfect tense of zerbrechen is built with haben, not sein. But for e.g. Die Bombe ist geplatzt. you are correct. – Janka Sep 21 '18 at 11:51
  • 1
    @Janka It's mentioned in PONS 'hat/ist zerbrochen'.. and as an example from the same dictionary Der Teller ist zerbrochen – user34346 Sep 21 '18 at 11:54
  • That's a bad example because it's exactly the loose interpretation you are talking about. In Er hat den Teller zerbrochen. it's always hat, while it's Er hat die Bombe platzen lassen. Platzen cannot take hat as a perfect auxiliary. Those particular verbs which use ist as the auxiliary for perfect tense do it by purpose. They are generic "static passive". – Janka Sep 21 '18 at 11:56
  • 2
    In my example, zerbrechen is considered an intransitive verb. – user34346 Sep 21 '18 at 11:58
  • @SomeGuy: "Die Vase zerbrach" --> "die Vase ist zerbrochen" seems valid (in the intransitive meaning of e.g. "auseinanderbrechen"). The latter would indeed be present perfect. And for that meaning, "Die Vase hat zerbrochen" would be wrong. But: "Er hat die Vase zerbrochen" (transitive). – Rudy Velthuis Sep 21 '18 at 17:03

Very generally, to understand the role of the sein passive (Zustandspassiv), it seems helpful to differentiate between transformative and non-transformative verbs (from my experience, the sein passive is usually tought with respect to transformative verbs only, so I will focus on that case here). With transformative verbs (such as zerbrechen), the sein passive expresses the state that is the result of the - dynamic - process that is denoted in the verb. In your example, first you break the vase, then, as a result, it is broken. The speaker is focused on expressing the (at least semi-)permanent state that follows from the action denoted in the verb. This sets apart the sein passive from the werden (and bekommen) passive (Vorgangspassiv), which focus on the action.

You will readily notice that the description of the sein passive sounds less like that of a verbal use than that of an adjectival one. Indeed, many are of the view that the sein passive is actually just a copula construction. While this is controversial, the reasons why people differ on that interpretation generally have nothing to do with semantics, so to the extent that you ask about differences in meaning, irrespective of whether you treat (3) as an adjectival phenomenon or not, you would not expect any differences. That makes this a formal issue rather than one relevant for a speaker.

As far as (2) is concerned, you should keep in mind that your example is somewhat special in that zerbrechen, like English break up, can refer both to the process that causes something else to be separated into pieces, or the process of being separated into pieces (causative-inchoastic alternation). Er zerbrach die Vase. Die Vase zerbrach. That gives rise to an extra layer of ambiguity. I'm just pointing this out as I'm not sure if that was intended. If it weren't for that semantic ambiguity, it would pose no problem to tell (2) and (3) apart - the perfect always refers back to the present tense. Compare:

  • [Causative:] Die Vase ist repariert. (*Die Vase repariert. Die Vase ist repariert worden.) -> sein passive
  • [Inchoastic:] Die Vase ist explodiert. (Die Vase explodiert. *Die Vase ist explodiert worden.) -> perfect active
  • [Causative/Inchoastic:] Die Vase ist zerbrochen. (Die Vase zerbricht. Die Vase ist zerbrochen worden.) -> ambiguous

I would leave it as an exercise to the reader to determine potential differences in meaning ... In theory, one would not expect a sein passive and a present perfect active to necessarily have the same meaning, and it is clear that, in the abstract, the present perfect active does not come with a focus on the resulting state. However, we are looking at a transformative verb and the tense indicates that the transformation has already occurred, so I don't see any meaningful remaining semantic difference. Of course, and as you are probably aware, once you start qualifying the verbal action, interpretations can become barred. E.g., oberserve that Die Vase ist mit einem lauten Knall zerbrochen bars any interpretation as a sein passive.


I am not sure, if this is what you want to know, but all your interpretations are correct. Normaly the meaning of this sentence is, that the vase is broken now. You don't know exactly when it happens. I think that would be your first suggestion. But yes it is also possible, that the sentence want to tell you, that the something happend and the vase is borken because of that. You have to read the exactly meaning from the content of the whole conversation.

  • This is my opinion too. All interpretations are correct and all convey the same idea which is simply that the vase is broken. – user34346 Sep 21 '18 at 10:34
  • @SomeGuy: Congrats, you are thinking in German. – Janka Sep 21 '18 at 11:48

Support for interpretations 1 and 3 both being correct (for anyone that might need the reference) from Anthony Fox, The Structure of German, 2nd ed. (Oxford, 2005), pg 211:

Since ... the "Zustandspassiv" expresses a state rather than an action, it would be possible to regard such forms not as complex verb forms at all, but simply as the combination of sein with an adjective, the participles ... being used adjectivally.

(hoping this might be helpful for someone; consult the source for the full discussion)

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy