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Grammar: Passive Voice

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The passive voice is used to describe actions from the point of view of the object of the verb: "I am being seen." or "The book has been read". This way, the subject (the person who is seeing me, or who has read the book) is eliminated from the sentence.

In Dutch the passive is constructed using the past participle (also used in the present perfect) and an auxiliary verb. There are two different auxiliary verbs used in the Dutch passive: worden for the dynamical passive voice and zijn for the stative passive voice. This distinction does not really exist in English, but it roughly corresponds to the different tenses, as explained below.


The dynamical passive voice is constructed with the auxiliary verb worden, to describe ongoing actions. In the present tense, this refers to things that are going on right now, that will happen in the near future, or that happen repeatedly. In English this often translates to the continuous aspect. For example:

  • Het boek wordt gelezen. - "The book is being read."
  • Ik word gezien. - "I am being seen."
  • De maaltijd wordt gekookt. - "The meal is being cooked."

But in some cases, especially recurring events or general truths, the present simple works as well:

  • Het boek wordt vaak gelezen. - "The book is read often."

In English one can also use the informal "get"-construction for the dynamical passive voice:

  • Het boek wordt gelezen. - "The book gets/is getting read."

Note: The subject, who performs the action, can still be added to the sentence using the preposition door. This is very common in Dutch, but not so much in English.

  • Het boek wordt door mij gelezen. - "The book is being read by me."


The stative passive voice is constructed with the auxiliary verb zijn, to describe the state of things after something has been done to them. This corresponds to the perfect aspect: the action has been completed, it lies in the past. There are several ways to translate this to English, the most natural one being the present perfect passive:

  • Het boek is gelezen. - "The book has been read."
  • Ik ben gezien. - "I have been seen."
  • De maaltijd is gekookt. - "The meal has been cooked."

However, it is also possible to use the past simple, or in some cases, the present:

  • Het boek is gelezen. - "The book was read."
  • Het is gedaan. - "It is done."


Whereas the perfect perfect in the passive voice is constructed with zijn, the past simple uses werden (i.e. the past tense of worden). A lot of the time, this conveys a *continuous aspect.

  • Het boek werd gelezen. - "The book was (being) read."
  • Ik werd gezien. - "I was seen."
  • De maaltijd werd gekookt. - "The meal was (being) cooked.


And last, but not least, the past perfect is constructed with waren (i.e. the past tense of zijn).

  • Het boek was gelezen. - “The book had been read.”
  • Ik was gezien. - “I had been seen.”
  • De maaltijd was gekookt. - “The meal had been cooked.”

The Impersonal Passive Voice

Unlike English, Dutch can also use the passive voice with intransitive verbs: verbs that do not have an object. In this case, the place of the object is taken by that versatile and infuriating little word, er. The advantage is that one can use a verb to describe an action without any subject or object. The disadvantage is that there is simply no good way to translate this construction literally into English. For example:

  • Er wordt gelopen.

This means that someone, somewhere, is walking. Who and where should be derived from context, the sentence only states that walking is what is happening. The best we can do in English is to use the gerund (a noun created from a verb with the suffix "-ing"):

  • Er wordt gelopen. - "There is walking (going on)."

Another option is to introduce an undetermined subject:

  • "Somebody is walking."
  • "People are walking."

In other cases, it might be best to completely change the structure of the sentence.

The impersonal passive voice is used a lot in Dutch, and finding an English translation is always awkward. It can be used both with worden and with zijn as an auxiliary. If you are confused, do not be afraid to use the hints.


All these tenses can be very confusing, especially because the Dutch perfect tense is not used in the passive voice (unlike in English)! So to summarise the four different passive voices:

External sources

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10 months ago


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Great summary, thanks for making the effort. And please accept a lingot for your troubles.

Regarding the impersonal passive, does it also take the other conjugations mentioned? eg:

Er wordt gelopen There is walking (going on) Er werd gelopen There was walking (going on) Er is gelopen There has been walking (going on) Er was gelopen There had been walking (going on)

4 months ago

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Yes, absolutely.

4 months ago


i recall the key is "there was/has been a search" for the exercise "Er wordt gezocht", which, according to the content here, should be translated into "there is a search (going on)/people are searching"?

3 weeks ago