Icelandic Language Blog

The Passive Voice: As Straightforward As It Seems? Posted by on Jul 18, 2017 in Icelandic grammar

That’s a resounding nei, but you can get used to it. You can’t be passive if you want to learn to use the passive voice (þolmynd) in Icelandic. From the beginning of my education in English grammar, my teachers taught me to avoid the passive voice at all costs. In university lectures, the passive was reserved for the sciences – it’s proper place, couched in the unbiased voice of microbiology, pharmacology. (Though everyone knows that not using the passive in English is like fitting a square peg into a round hole). But in Icelandic…

It’s come in handy quite a lot, and it’s used very frequently. For reference, the Icelandic term for passive form of the verb is þolmynd and the Icelandic term for active (voice) is germynd.

In case you don’t know, or aren’t sure, the passive voice is used when the subject of the sentence either isn’t known or isn’t important – or at the very least, isn’t emphasized. In its stead, the recipient of the action becomes the emphasized component (look at how packed full of passive those sentences are!). In English, you’d say, e.g., “the car was bought” (bíllinn var keyptur) as opposed to “I bought the car” (Ég keypti bílinn).

So the car is the important part – maybe it was a Mustang! Or the speaker is the car salesman – and the buyer is of little or no consequence in the specific context.

Stríðið var unnið. vs. Við unnum stríðið.

The war was won. vs. We won the war.




So how do we properly form the passive?

Well. There are a few components to pay attention to.


  1. The recipient of the action. You’ll notice that, above, when we switched from ég keypti bílinn to bíllinn var keyptur, two things happened.
    1. The case of bíll shifted to the nominative when the bíll took the first position in the sentence. In þolmynd, the object becomes the subject. It’s then in nominative case and comes first in the sentence/clause.
    2. The verb “to be” (vera) comes next in the sentence, after the subject.
    3. The verb transformed into an adjectival form, which you can see in the –ur ending. This is called lýsingarháttur þátiðar (past participle).

      IF THERE IS NOT EVIDENT SUBJECT, use það + the neuter adjective ending. (e.g., það var hjólað í bæinn X hjólaði í bæinn. –It was ridden in the town vs. X biked in the town). Það is sort of the default subject with passive when you just don’t know.


I’m going to give a few more examples, and then I’d like to continue this explanation in my next entry – if only because it gets quite sticky and I’d rather take baby steps (side note: I’m going to be writing this blog more frequently henceforth. I’ve been traveling this month). There are additional nuances: e.g., the subject of the passive phrase is not always in nominative. It is sometimes in the dative case. And when the past participle of the verb is employed in this very specific instance– i.e., it becomes a sort of adjective – it has two potential forms (and one “mixed” form for special verbs). A commenter suggested that I specify that by “forms,” I mean the adjectival form will be either “strong/weak,” depending on the type of verb, or a “mixed” version that takes the appearance of both. It is also possible to use an –st verb to express the passive.


So let’s do a couple of practices. I’ll list the questions, and in the dropdown below, I’ll give the solutions.

Here are the phrases. Transform them into the passive voice! Remember to go to if you aren´t sure what form to use, or how the verb conjugates. (check the “leita að beygingarmynd” box).

  • X reif blöðin. (að rífa)
  • X hjólaði í bæinn. (að hjóla)
  • X eldaði matinn á gaseldavél. (að elda)
  • X svaf út um helgina. (að sofa út)   
  • X valdi þig í stjórn. (að velja)



–Blöðin voru rifin
–Það var hjólað í bæinn.
–Maturinn var eldaður á gaseldavél.
–Það var sofið út um helgina.
–Þú varst valin(n) í stjórn.


Question for you: is there anything you’d like to read more about? I’d like to plan future entries around my readers. 🙂 

And, just in case you didn’t know, you can watch the Icelandic miniseries Hraunið (The Lava Field) on Netflix in the U.S.!

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About the Author: Meg

Hi, I'm Meg! I'm here to help you learn Icelandic, the language more than anything else in the world. I'm a former Fulbright scholar, with an MFA from Columbia, and I've published many translations into English from Icelandic and German. I currently study Icelandic, and translate poetry by trade. (If you have questions or comments on my entries, you can write them to me in the comments in either English, German, or Icelandic.)


  1. Ken Doran:

    I checked Bín and could not find REIF under the verb að rífa

    • Alex:

      @Ken Doran Tick “Leita að beygingarmynd” when you search.

      • Meg:

        @Alex Thanks for your extensive comments, Alex. I’ve added clarification in a few spots. And, as I said, I’m going to walk through the passive voice over the next few entries, so I don’t want to go into excessive detail here.
        Warmest best from not-so-warm-Rvk,

    • Meg:

      @Ken Doran Hi Ken, thanks for reading! It’s the past tense form of the verb, at the top.

  2. Alex:

    Hi Meg 🙂

    It’s lýsingarháttur þátiðAR 🙂 The latter part should be in the genitive. I am not sure it’s good advice to invite the use of the impersonal passive in all opportunities, when there is no evident subject. But hey, maybe it works as a pedagogical tool!

    *the SUBJECT of the passive phrase is not always in nominative. It is sometimes in the dative case.

    ^ I think you picked a semantically related word in the above sentence, but you meant subject. I make that mistake all the time 🙂 NB. I think you should also include the fact it can be genitive, too.

    The other comment I have is on this sentence:

    “And when the past participle of the verb is employed – i.e., it becomes a sort of adjective – it has two potential forms (and one “mixed” form for special verbs).”

    That sentence just invites confusion, IMO. You make it seem like the form of a past participle for any verb can exist in two forms, but it is not that at all. It is that strong / weak verbs have two patterns that you need to consider (as well as the mixed case). I think it would be easier to state that strong and weak verbs have different patterns, as well as the mixed case and therefore you need to know whether the verb you are dealing with is strong / weak / mixed.

  3. Helen:

    Thank you. This is very useful and the exercise at the end is very good practice!
    I would like more about weak and strong verb forms, when and how to use them. Maybe also weak and strong adjectives could follow. More exercises or tests would be very welcome too. 🙂 Takk fyrir!!