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Phrases like: "he is surrounded by..." always seem to be translated as: "er ist von .... umgeben". Does a passive construction like : "Er wird von Bäumen umgeben" sound strange (Or wrong) to native speakers?

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A sentence like

Das Haus ist von Bäumen umgeben.

is passive, but Zustandspassiv.

Zustandspassiv is used to describe a state, whereas Vorgangspassiv (with werden) is used to describe an action.

Because umgeben describes a state rather than an action, Vorgangspassiv doesn't fit well, so Zustandspassiv is preferred.

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  • How about 'Nach den Vorstelllungen des Architekten sollen Haus und Garten von einer Hainbuchenhecke umgeben werden'? – Ralf Joerres Jun 8 '19 at 16:31
  • This sentence sounds strange to me. I think it should be 'Nach den Vorstelllungen des Architekten sollen Haus und Garten mit einer Hainbuchenhecke umgeben werden'. With umgeben mit the Vorgangspassiv makes sense. – RHa Jun 8 '19 at 18:59
  • In my opinion, "von" is more fitting than "mit" in your examples. For me "mit" would emphasize some sort of activity here (e.g. the moment when people plant them instead of the persued state). And there is the reason why "umgeben" is rarely used in "Vorgangspassiv": It just isn't natural for something to actively surround (at least as in "umgeben") something else. "Umzingeln", "einkreisen" and so on have similar meanings but unlike "umgeben", it is possible to actively do these things. Even if the river surrounds an island, it is more of a state than an action (, though this might still work). – hajef Jun 8 '19 at 19:53
  • @RHa: Sorry for writing in German - Es gibt einige (nicht viele) Beispiele in Google mit "wird von ... umgeben". Erstaunlicherweise haben etliche von ihnen eine zustandspassivische Bedeutung, z.B.: Der Irrgarten "ist achteckig und wird von einem breiten Kiesweg umgeben", oder "Die Koutoubia-Moschee befindet sich unweit des Djemma el Fna ... und wird von einem kleinen Palmengarten umgeben." Es scheint, dass über das Passiv noch nicht alles gesagt ist. – Ralf Joerres Jun 9 '19 at 19:32
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There are two ways to form a passive construction; these are exactly the two you use in your question. However, the meaning and implication is different. Because your example using trees does not fit absolutely perfectly semantically (it is still possible but somewhat less likely) let me use a slightly different example where the surrounding thing are troops (Truppen)—something generally considered to be mobile.

Er wird von Truppen umgeben.

This perfectly normal and idiomatic German sentence does not mean that he is surrounded by troops. Instead, it means he is being or he will be surrounded by troops. It is called the Vorgangspassive (dynamic passive). A typical situation could be the generals sitting together and planning their siege that will start tonight (‘will be’) or an observer watching the troops slowly and silently surround him, wherever he is. The key element is the movement: there is a before and an after; there are no troops surrounding him before but there are afterwards.

Er ist von Truppen umgeben.

This perfectly normal and idiomatic German sentence does mean that he currently is surrounded by troops. It is called the Zustandspassiv (stative passive). A typical situation would be an observer coming to the scene of the siege when all troops are already in their positions and waiting for their next order. There is no implication of how long this situation has been going on for—it could be seconds or months—but the fact is that they are there. This is also the key element: the static presence. There is no before or after, just a now.

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  • Problems with this theory: 1) Vorgangspassiv allows the state reading as well, e.g. Südlich der Kirche fällt die Glöck auf den Ausläufern des berühmten Roten Hangs zum Ort hin ab, umgeben wird sie von einer Jahrhunderte alten Mauer. 2) The active Truppen umgeben ihn is itself ambiguous between a state and a process reading. – David Vogt Jun 9 '19 at 15:44

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