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Consider this sentence,

Die Waffe muss mir aus der Tasche gefallen sein.

I concluded that it is in the following tense the sein-passive present perfect voice with modal verb. User @Rha had commented here that this incorrect with the following comment:

No, this is wrong. For example: Ich bin gelaufen - no passive here, it's just the perfect. Perfect and Zustandspassiv may look the same, it depends on the verb which is which. For example, Das Auto ist zerstört is Zustandspassiv becaue zerstören, unlike laufen, is transitive.

Could someone explain in simple words how exactly to identify the difference between Zustanndpassive and perfect in more details?

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  • I'm not sure what you're asking: They can look the same, but the difference in meaning should be clear, shouldn't it?
    – DonHolgo
    Apr 10, 2022 at 11:26

1 Answer 1

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The basic grammatical form seems the same, both are built with the verb "sein" plus participle:

Sie ist gefallen. (Past perfect tense)
Er ist gefesselt. (Passive voice)

So they look like they could be easy to confuse, while in fact, there is almost never any confusion about which of them is meant.

The reason: Only a very special fraction of verbs in German use "sein" to build the perfect tense, most use "haben". The ones that use "sein" are almost all verbs of motion, and, most importantly for this topic, they are intransitive, which means they cannot take an accusative ("direct") object.

Ich bin gegangen. (I went. It's not possible to "go something" or to "go someone", which means that the verb "to go" is intransitive.)
Du bist gelaufen. (You ran.)
Er ist geschwommen. (He swam.)
Sie ist nach Köln gefahren. (She went to Cologne [on something that has wheels].)[1]
Es ist auf dem Wasser getrieben. (It floated on the water.)
Wir sind auf den Berg gestiegen. (We climbed [on] the mountain.)
Sie sind vom Stuhl gefallen. (They fell from the chair.)

Why is it important that they are all intransitive? Because that means they cannot be set into passive voice. When setting a verb into passive voice, the accusative object becomes the subject:

Anne hat Boris zu ihrer Party eingeladen. (Anne invited Boris to her party.)
=> Boris wurde von Anne zu ihrer Party eingeladen. (Boris was invited to her party by Anne.)
or => Boris ist zu Annes Party eingeladen. (Zustandspassiv) (Boris is invited to Anne's party [because he has been invited].)

It's not possible to say "Ich bin gegangen" and mean it as a passive. It's always past tense, because there is no passive of "to go."

There's a similarity with "to go" in English here. When you say "She is gone.", that's not passive voice. And there's no way to confuse it with passive voice, because there is no passive of "to go".

Similarly, in German, although both forms look the same on first glance, it's never really possible to confuse them. Most of the time, you will have no problem if you understand the meaning of the sentence. If you need to go the analytical road, you can just check if the verb builds its past perfect with "sein", and if so, it's the past perfect.

[1] "Fahren" is a bit special in that it has a transitive variant: "Sie fährt ihn nach Köln." (She drives him to Cologne.) However, the perfect tense of the transitive form is built with "haben": "Sie hat ihn nach Köln gefahren.", so it's not an exception to the rule here.

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  • Actually it is possible to form a passive of most intransitive verbs, but only the impersonal passive (Es wird gegangen). But this is the only way to form a passive, because with an intransitive verb there is no accusative object that could become the subject in passive voice.
    – RHa
    Apr 10, 2022 at 16:29
  • @RHa: thanks, that's true. I should probably have explained why these verbs specifically have no Zustandspassiv, which would have been another detour here.
    – HalvarF
    Apr 10, 2022 at 16:40
  • There are a number of non-movement related verbs whose auxiliary is sein, but these usually relate to a change of state, for example: scheitern and sterben. Then there's bleiben which only counts as movement if you consider staying where you are as movement. The "sein only for intransitive" rule does seem very reliable though, except some dative verbs (such as folgen) have auxiliary sein. There are also verbs with both transitive and intransitive meanings where the auxiliary changes accordingly. There are many intransitive verbs (such as leben) with auxiliary haben.
    – RDBury
    Apr 10, 2022 at 20:23
  • And then, to make things a little more complex there is the edge case of Er wurde gegangen ("he got fired"), transporting a different meaning exactly by breaking the rule of "intransitive verbs don't form a passive". Sep 16, 2022 at 7:34

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