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My Grammatiktrainer tells me that if you want to use the passive but still name the person you use "von" (and the dative) but if the action is caused by a thing you use "durch" (and the accusative).

This usually works as in:

Die Idee ist vom Chef abgelehnt worden.

and

Das Gebäude wurde durch einen Sturm beschädigt.

But one answer the Trainer gives is confusing me:

In der letzten Nacht wurde das Eingangtor der Firma von einem LKW gerammt

Now this sounds right to me and "durch einen LKW" would sound strange, but an LKW is a thing and not a person, so I think the "rule" about person = von and thing = durch is an oversimplification. Can someone explain this to me?

Edit:

The answer at When does one use “von” and when “durch” to form the passive? does not really answer my question because the LKW would be the instrument (used by its driver) with which the damage was caused and therefore according to that explanation "durch" should be used.

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    I suggest that you edit your question by adding an explanation of why the answer to the related question do not solve your question. It should then re-enter the review queue. – Tsundoku Feb 3 at 13:26
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    A question needs five non-moderator votes (or one moderator vote) to get closed or reopened. Your question currently has two reopen votes, but I don't know how fast reviews are on this site. Sometimes it's a matter of hours, sometimes it takes a few days. – Tsundoku Feb 3 at 16:13
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    Hi, I think your misunderstanding is that a thing MUST be an instrument. This is not always the case, you can also "personify" a thing to become an actor in itself. In your sentence, the LKW has become an actor and has the role which in other contexts a person would be assigned to, although it is not a living thing. – AGuyCalledGerald Feb 5 at 15:25
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    Does this answer your question? When does one use "von" and when "durch" to form the passive? – AGuyCalledGerald Feb 5 at 15:28
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Hmm, it does not necessarily depend on if it's a person or a thing. Easily explained, "von" is used, if you can see the originator. I think that is meant by "instrumental" as you can read in the other answers you mention.

For example, if you say "Es wurde durch äußere Umstände verursacht", the orginator is quite abstract, and that is why you use "durch" here. But in your case, you can see the lorry as it crashed the gate.

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  • The police is not "abstract" in "Am 9. Oktober 2020 ist das 1990 besetzte Wohnprojekt durch die Polizei geräumt worden." (RND, 10.10.2020). – Tsundoku Mar 7 at 21:19
  • @Tsundoku: No, "die Polizei" is just an abstract classification term here, no concrete policemen are meant – äüö Mar 7 at 21:30
  • So when do you use "durch die Polizei (geräumt)" and when do you use von der Polizei (geräumt)? – Tsundoku Mar 7 at 21:50
  • @Tsundoku: Again: If you mean it abstractly, use "durch", otherwise in case of real objects (really touchable) use "von". In your latest example one is abstract classification and the other is a group of real men. – äüö Mar 8 at 7:48
  • I think you're reading too much of a difference into the two examples. I'm not seeing much of that. – tofro Apr 16 at 12:44
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I don't think you necessarily have to use "durch" for things. "Es wurde von einem Sturm beschädigt" sounds fine to me as a native (but this might just be because I speak English all the time...).

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‚Durch‘ is rather used to indicate a cause which is usually something abstract in the sense of being intangible like a misfortune or physical force while ‚von‘ indicates a person or thing as an executant.

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After having thought about this question for a while, I came to the conclusion that in terms of usage there is little to no difference between von and durch. While some people go to great lenghts to describe the minute differences that may or may not exist, in application the difference is likely more one of style than of meaning. Any existing difference will be lost even on native speakers.

That being said, there is a difference in register, i.e. more formal texts, such as legal documents, will tend to use durch, because it sounds more official.

However, there is one particular set of cases, where this question becomes relevant. That is, if a passive sentence uses both an agent and another part of the sentence uses von. In these cases the acting party of the passive sentence will be marked using durch to avoid ambiguity. In English, this issue is solved by using by and from, while in German it would be grammatically correct to use von for both.

An example: The colour combination red, white, and blue was copied by Russia from the Netherlands.

In German: Die Farbkombination red, weiß und blau wurde von Russland von den Niederlanden kopiert.

As I mentioned, this is grammatically sound, but unlike in the english sentence, it is more or less impossible to tell, who did the copying and who it was copied from. Therefore, it would be more reasonable to say:

Die Farbkombination red, weiß und blau wurde durch Russland von den Niederlanden kopiert.

The ambiguity here partially returns, when the agent is removed and the sentence retains only the von information. In such cases, the only option is to guess the meaning from context.

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