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11.12 "Werden" and the passive

ich werde I become
du wirst
Sie werden
You become
er/sie/es wird He/she/it becomes
wir werden We become
ihr werdet
Sie werden
You become
sie werden They become

The German irregular verb "werden" has a number of uses. Its basic meaning is "to become" and it can be combined with both adjectives and nouns:

  • Es wird kalt.
    (It's getting cold.)
  • Ich werde langsam verrückt!
    (I think I'm going mad!)
  • Britta will Lehrerin werden.
    (Britta wants to become a teacher.)
  • Es wird Winter.
    (Winter is coming.)

In addition to this "werden" is used as an auxiliary verb to form the future tense (which we shall look at in the next chapter) and the passive voice which we shall examine here.

The passive voice
What is the passive voice? The passive voice is where the subject of the verb experiences the action rather than performs it:

  • He was seen (= passive).
    (He saw (= active).)
  • You are being helped by us (= passive).
    (We are helping you (= active).)

How is the passive voice formed? As the examples above indicate, the passive in English is formed with parts of the verb "to be" and the past participle. This is only one of two possibilities in German, both of which however include the past participle.

As we shall not learn how to construct the past participle until a later chapter, it will suffice for the moment to be able to identify it in German passages:

  • For the vast number of verbs, the past participle will start with "ge-" and end with either "-t" or "-en" - e.g. "gemacht" (= done), "geschlossen" (= closed).
  • Verbs that end in "-ieren" or that have inseparable prefixes also end in "-t" or "-en" but do not start with "ge-". These include two of the past participles that we have encountered in this chapter - "akzeptiert" (= accepted) and "serviert" (= served).

What is the distinction between the two forms of the German passive? If a state is being described as opposed to an action, the present tense of the German passive - like its English equivalent - consists of the present tense of "sein" and the past participle.

  • Das Geschäft ist heute geschlossen.
    (The shop is closed today.)
  • Haustiere sind nicht erlaubt.
    (Pets are not allowed.)

But if an action is being described as opposed to a state, the present tense of the German passive consists of the present tense of "werden" and the past participle.

  • Das Geschäft wird jetzt geschlossen.
    (The shop is being closed now.)
  • Wann wird das Frühstück serviert?
    (When is breakfast served?)
  • Werden Kreditkarten akzeptiert? - Ja, wir akzeptieren alle großen Kreditkarten.
    (Are credit cards accepted? - Yes, we accept all major credit cards.)

Note the word order in all of the above clauses. The verbs "sein" and "werden" occur in the same position as a main verb would in a clause, whereas the past participle comes at the end of the sentence. There will be an extensive explanation of the passive, the past participle and the distinction between a state and an action in a subsequent chapter.

Weiter! Chapter 11.13: Compound nouns in lists

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