3

Okay, perhaps a stupid question but every guide I look on the internet only tells how to construct the passive voice. The impression I get is that passive is the exception and active is the norm. Am I correct? Or is there a specific way to construct the active voice?

5
  • I’m voting to close this question because this question is about linguistics, not specifically the German language. Aug 9, 2022 at 6:46
  • Active voice: I or someone else (or something else) is doing something, e.g. Ich fahre das Auto. Passive: Something is done to/with the object: Das Auto wird gefahren. Aug 9, 2022 at 6:46
  • 1
    @infinitezero: I agree that active vs. passive is more a question for linguistics since it applies to many languages, and there is a Linguistics SE in case anyone was wondering. I doubt the passive voice as a verb form is universal. Both English and German have a number of ways to "hide" the subject, so I imagine there are languages that get along fine without a passive voice. There could be similar confusion arising about what "indicative" means, being more or less just a way of saying "not subjunctive".
    – RDBury
    Aug 9, 2022 at 18:54
  • Please clarify, whether this question specifically concerns German. If so, there should be some reflection of it in the text.
    – guidot
    Aug 10, 2022 at 8:02
  • I am not sure how to reflect it honestlyh. I think if someone did similar searching effort they'd find more or less the same conclusion @guidot Aug 10, 2022 at 8:39

2 Answers 2

1

Yes, you are right: Active voice is the norm and passive voice is an exceptional way of constructing sentences. It is like in English. A "normal" statement is always in active voice.

You need to do some extra trick (i.e. special grammatical constructions) to create a sentence in passive voice, and that's why you only find descriptions of these tricks. You start from a sentence in active voice and turn it into a sentence in passive voice. You also can turn a passive voice sentence back into active voice, but you don't do it with "special tricks". You just undo what has lead to the passive voice sentence and turn it back to the "normal" and grammatically easier form.


Syntax: subject and object

(Syntax: How to order and link elements to get wellformed bigger units. Grammart is a part of syntax.)

There are grammatical functions of words or groups of words. In a full sentence you always have a verb. And this verb needs companions. One companion, that always exists in a proper sentence (with some very rare exceptions) is the subject, of which there is exactly one. Other companions are objects. Their number ranges from 0 to as many as you want.

The subject in a German sentence is always in nominative case, and it has the highest hierarchy (its the mot important companion) among all companions of the verb. The verb inherits number (singular or plural) and person (1st, 2nd or 3rd person) from the subject.

Objects and other form of companions appear always in other cases than nominative case (with one exception: Gleichsetzungsnominativ) and are less closely bound to the verb, so number or person of objects don't need to match with the verb.

Semantics: agent and patient

(Semantics: This is about meaning. What do that parts mean? What does the whole thing mean?)

Besides the grammatical functions there are also semantic roles:

The agent of a sentence is that part that performs the action. It is the motor and the part that makes sure that happens what is happening in the sentence.

The patient is the goal of the action. The patient is not doing anything, but what ever happens in the sentence happens on it.


Active

Ich esse. (I eat.)
Ich esse die Äpfel. (I eat the apples.)

In this sentence the syntactic role of the agent is realized in the subject: Ich (I). This is the only word in nominative case in this sentence and from it the verb inherits its number and person. So it's the subject. And on the semantic layer it describes the person who performs the action. The word ich (I) decribes who is eating, so this must be the agent.

The group »die Äpfel« is in accusative case. And it does not match with the verb in number and person. So it can't be the subject. It is an object. And semantically it describes the thing that is eaten, so it describes the thing on which the action is performed. So it is the patiens.

The pairing subject = agent ist the usual and normal pairing. And when ever you have this pairing, it is a sentence in active voice. The patient is optional, and if it is contained in the sentence, it appears anywhere else, but not not in the subject.


Passive

Die Äpfel werden gegessen. (The apples are eaten.)
Die Äpfel werden von mir gegessen. (The apples are eaten by me.)

The finite Verb (the auxiliary verb werden) matches with "die Äpfel" in number and person, and "die Äpfel is in nominative case, so it's the subject. But the apples are not the agent. They do nothing. Instead the action of the sentence is performed on them. So, they are not the agent but the patient.

If you have subject = patient, then it is a sentence in passive voice. And to create such a sentence, you can't use the usual verb forms, but must use some special constructions (add an auxiliary verb, use a participle instead of "normal" verb). Having subject = patient is not the usual pattern you find in sentences.

2
  • One more side question, is voice a property of verb or sentence? I have seen both description on the Internet but imo I think it is second,correct? Aug 9, 2022 at 13:42
  • The voice is a property that is defined by the semantic role of the subject. So the verb(s) don't play any role in the definition. And to be able to talk about semantic roles, you need full sentences. So, it is a property of a sentence. But the voice influences the verbs in the sentence. So verbs in passive sentences look different than in active sentences, and this is why the verbs are that part of the sentence that you need to analyze when you want to know if the sentence is active or passive. Aug 9, 2022 at 13:54
2

The impression I get is that passive is the exception and active is the norm. Am I correct? Or is there a specific way to construct the active voice?

Pretty much. Active is when some person/object is actively doing something. "I'm writing this answer" (Ich schreibe diese Antwort), while passive is happening to a person or object passively "He's being pushed" (Er wird geschubst). So yes active is most likely what you would consider the norm because you'd usually describe people and things acting.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

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