When and why would you use the "impersonal passive voice" in a German sentence? One example given on Wikipedia is "Es wird gespielt," which apparently translates as "Someone is playing." Why wouldn't you use "jemand" here?

Another example is "Heute wird gespielt. Dort wird gespielt." This translates as "Someone is playing today. Someone is playing there." Can someone explain the intuition/reasoning behind the format of these German sentences (and the lack of even an "es")?

Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Impersonal_passive_voice

  • 5
    Hm. I would translate etwas wird gespielt rather to something is being played. Mar 2 '19 at 21:07
  • 5
  • 1
    Could the close voters please explain, why this is a duplicate? Yes, both questions deal with impersonal passive constructions - but while the other question specifically asks about omitted "es", the first example here a sentences with "es". The current question rather seems to be based on wrong assumptions regarding the proper translation, as @BjörnFriedrich already pointed out.
    – Arsak
    Mar 4 '19 at 16:19
  • Another possibility to express "es wird gespielt" in English would be "a playing takes place" Mar 7 '19 at 9:06

I find your example a bit ambiguous, since gespielt may refer to a game, a concert, a cinema and a theatre.

But it may help to see it from that perspective: Someone along with German jemand/man is a fully synthetic subject, required due to lack of knowledge, what to put there. (At least lack of knowledge is one meaning, another would be I don't care, who.)

The impersonal passive allows exactly to leave that position empty, a quite elegant construction, which automatically avoids putting an accidental stress here, as in

Da spielt doch jemand!? (Isn't somebody playing there?)

  • Even better example would be without doch: Da spielt jemand? (Who'd play in such a shitty place, among other interpretations)
    – Armin
    Mar 3 '19 at 5:18

Impersonal passives are used for the same reasons passives are used in general. They allow for the agent to be omitted. If you don't know who did something, it seems quite natural to use a passive.

Federer was beaten.
Someone beat Federer, but I can't think of his name right now.

As guidot rightly pointed out, omitting the agent prevents focussing the listener's attention on the question Who did it? This is why the following passive seems infelicitous.

#My cookies were eaten!
Someone ate my cookies!

If the agent is omitted, attention is shifted to the events that are occuring.

There was singing and dancing.
Es wurde gesungen und getanzt.

One nice example from a newspaper.

Im Burgbachkeller rollen Köpfe, es fliessen Blut und Branntwein, es wird erobert und wortwörtlich in die Kiste gestiegen, es wird gegeizt, gestorben, geprahlt und gesungen. (source)

Es in the above example is a special kind of expletive (known as Platzhalter) that only occurs in first position. If you rephrase the sentences in such a manner that another element occupies first position it disappears, from which it follows that this es is not a subject or an object. (Note how fließen is plural in the above example because Blut und Branntwein is the subject.)

Dort fließen Blut und Branntwein, dort wird gegeizt, gestorben, geprahlt und gesungen.

This creates some ambiguity with verbs that allow their object to be elided.

Das Essen schmeckte komisch, aber es (subj., =das Essen) wurde gegessen.
Die Tische waren besetzt und es (expletive) wurde (Kuchen) gegessen.

Omitting the agent gives more leeway in interpreting who did something than any impersonal subject (man, jemand, irgendwer) could. To requote a part of the newspaper example:

Es wird gestorben, geprahlt und gesungen.

This sentence allows for the interpretation that some people die and some people boast and some people sing, but the three sets are not required to be identical and they can be overlapping. The impersonal passive is completely non-specific here.

Your Answer

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

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.