14

I've learnt that, to form a passive sentence from an active one, one uses "von" and then one mentions the Subjekt of the aktiv sentence:

Hans isst den Apfel.Der Apfel wird von Hans gegessen.

(Stylistically not very nice, but grammatically OK, I hope). But one finds sentences like

Irgendwas wird durch das Gesetz geregelt.

which, presumably, is the passive voice of

Das Gesetz regelt irgendwas.

When should I use "von" and when "durch" to form the passive voice?

1
  • 1
    in order to relieve your words: while the distinction between "von" and "durch" is recommended, mixing it up is at least not totally wrong most times, although it may sound somehow awkward. – shuhalo Jul 2 '13 at 6:54
18

Both "von" and "durch" indicate the "Täter" in passive. That is, the agent of the passive action.

The Täter becomes the subject when you transform the passive into an active sentence.

The difference between "von" and "durch" is that you use durch when the agent takes an instrumental role.

So, in your two example sentences, Hans actively ate the apple, but the Gesetz was merely the instrument through which the government acted.

This is nicely explained here. (in German but hopefully it is clear).

To summarise that example they first have a mechanic who fixes a motor vs. a therapy which increases the rate of healing. The mechanic takes "von", since they are actively fixing the enginer, which the therapy takes "durch" because it is simple the instrument.

11
  • 3
    This can be an annoying distinction to grasp - I remember having many arguments with my German teacher about whether durch was correct, since I was certain something was instrumental. I think I remember him saying that von was never incorrect so safe to use when in doubt - but better get confirmation of that from a native speaker. – David Hall Jun 30 '13 at 17:44
  • 1
    Usually, one can use both von and durch, but mostly one is more common than the other. The distinction instrumental or not is a guideline, that doesn't do the job all the times. Positive Examples: Hans eating and apples and laws regulating something. Negative Example: Literal Instruments: Der Ton wird durch die Tuba erzeugt. and Der Ton wird von der Tuba erzeugt. Both are equally useable. I guess, it needs a lot of experience with the German language to always be sure about which one to use. – Toscho Jun 30 '13 at 22:42
  • 1
    "can't think of a better word" -> Because agent is the right term for this. – Em1 Jul 1 '13 at 7:01
  • 1
    Furthermore, if you say that durch indicates "the instrument through which someone acted", I'm not sure if this makes clear what preposition is to use for, e.g., "by the wind (storm)". Wind (storm) is actually not a instrument through someone acted. But you also cannot say that the wind (storm) "actively acts" as it is not a person. So, for what reason do we go with "durch" rather than "von"? – Em1 Jul 1 '13 at 7:15
  • 1
    Actually, upon further reflection it seems to be more complicated than I thought in the first place. Both "von" and "durch" can be used with wind. "Die Blätter wurden vom[durch den] Wind aufgewirbelt." I'm not sure if this is just a matter of style but the active voice is the same "Der Wind wirbelt die Blätter auf." At this point I realize that the question is very tricky. Are both correct? Is one of them just colloquial but wrong from a grammatical point of view? I don't know. – Em1 Jul 1 '13 at 19:27
3

The answer of David Hall - that durch is used in an instrumental way, and that von is merely naming the agent who does something - already has a point.

I just want to add two things:

Intention

durch is implying an intention, so that the agent named is actual just an instrumental means of someone.

So

Das Fenster wurde durch den Wind zerstört. [The window got destroyed by the wind.]

sounds a bit skewed, because it slightly implies, that someone used the wind in order to break the window.

A postive example of using durch:

Durch die flächendeckende Impfung sind die Masern zurückgedrängt worden. [By the means of comprehensive vaccination measles have been repelled.]

Here, die Impfung is just the instrument someone used in order to achieve something.

Impersonal Agent

The agent does not need to be a person. agent is a grammatical terminus technicus here and does not refer to a person. So

Das Fenster wurde vom Wind zerstört. [The window got destroyed by the wind.]

is totally fine.

1

To be honest, "das Fenster wurde durch den Wind zerstört" does sound correct to me. I do not fancy someone using the wind as an instrument when I hear the sentence. Pragmatically there seems just a very tiny difference here between "von" and "durch".

But after sleeping over it, I want to add: The distinction is most useful when you need to add both, 'von' and 'durch', to one sentence:

Das Haus wurde von den Angreifern durch Brandlstiftung zerstört.

The house was destroyed by the attackers with fire.

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.