Icelandic Language Blog

Passive Voice Part II: Dative v. Accusative/Additional Cases Mingling With Passive Posted by on Jul 27, 2017 in Icelandic grammar

Last time, we went over the basics of the passive voice. That concept – when the object of the sentence becomes the subject of the sentence and takes the nominative case– is called nefnifallsþolmynd. As the name implies, it is the “nominative” passive. Today, we’ll take it a step farther. Then, in my next blog, we’ll conclude this chapter, talking about stem-changes in the participle and the use of –st verbs to make a passive.


Nominative passive, to recap:


  • In some sentences, the ‘actor’ or ‘agent’ isn’t known, or doesn’t matter, so we use the passive to convey information (it was done vs. I did it; Það var gert Ég gerði það)
  • The object takes the subject position, generally coming first in the sentence (in the above, this word is það). When that happens, it takes the nominative case (nefnifall).
  • If the object isn’t possible to locate and move to the subject position, as with certain verbs like hjóla (to bicycle) or mála (to paint), use ‘það’ as the subject (Hún hjólaði í bæinn Það var hjólað í bæinn)
  • Always use “vera” between the subject and the past participle, in agreement with the (nominative) subject’s number and case.


Jessica ate the chocolate vs. The chocolate was eaten

Jessica borðaði súkkulaðið v. Súkkulaðið var borðað


Courtesy of





– passive voice that includes a case other than nominative – can be brought about by the case that the verb itself governs. So when the object moves to the beginning of the sentence, it doesn’t always take the nominative. [Disclaimer: I don’t know the term for this, as my graduate degree is in language and literature, not linguistics].


Að stela (Kennimynd: stelur; stal, stálu, stolið) takes the dative (þágufall) case. If you steal something, you have stolen it in the dative case.


  • Orri stal bílnum –> Bílnum var stolið

(Orri stole a car –> a car was stolen)


As you can see, in addition to a vowel shift taking place in the participle (trusty kennimynd!), ‘bíllinn’ is also in the dative case, even though it moved to the beginning of the phrase. That is because að stela governs the dative case. The case of bíllinn doesn’t, therefore, change, even though the phrase is now in the passive voice. The reason is simply that it is in a case other than the accusative.


You may also note that stolið isn’t in agreement with the gender/number of ‘bíllinn’. The past participle (lýsingarháttur þátiðar) is always in the neuter-singular when the subject of the sentence is not in the nominative in this instance. However, there is another way of constructing the passive in which the participle does change, which I explain below.



  • Meg saknaði barnanna–> Barnanna var saknað

(Meg missed the kids–> The kids were [literally, ‘was’] missed)


Að sakna (kennimynd: -aði), takes the genitive (eignarfall) case, and so ‘barnanna’ does not change when the phrase becomes passive. Note also that ‘barnanna’ is plural, but ‘vera’ is third-person singular. It doesn’t agree, nor does it have to. This type of passive is passive aggressive and hates to argue :). #cheesyoneliners


Ingimar kastaði flöskunum–> Flöskunum var kastað

(Ingimar threw the bottles)–> (The bottles were thrown)


This is sometimes called the impersonal passive (ópersónuleg þolmynd).

Finally, when there is more than one object in the sentence (Bowie loaned her money), the indirect object (dative), moves to the first position in the sentence; the second object, or direct object (of the verb), follows immediately after the verb phrase. So the transformation will look like this:


  • Bowie lánaði henni (INDIRECT) peninga (DIRECT)–> Henni (INDIRECT) voru lánaðir peningar (DIRECT)

(Bowie loaned (to) her money–> To her was [literally, ‘were’] loaned money)


Note that ‘vera’ is suddenly and inexplicably in the third person plural past (þeir). That’s because it is responding to the pluralness of ‘peningar,’ which is now in nominative and serves as the ´guide´for the sentence. It doesn’t matter where the nominative noun in the sentence is located; the sentence grammatically follows it anyway, in this case. Think of the nominative as the Official Leader of Icelandic Sentences. Further, lánaður is in agreement with peningar [we will discuss this participle construction in the next blog].


The paradigm for case changes when working, as above, a “tvígild áhrifssögn” l (a distransitive verb, or a verb with both a direct object and an indirect object) into passive voice is as follows:


Þolfall (accu)            –>      nefnifall (nom)

Þágufall (dative)        –>      þágufall (dative)

Eignarfall (genitive)   –>     eignarfall (genitive)


Ég gaf henni bókina–> Henni var gefin bókin

(I gave (to) her the book–>To her was given the book)


  • Where bókina becomes nominative (I always think of this as ‘shifting’ up one case), henni stays in the dative (indirect object’s case doesn’t change), ‘vera’ agrees with ‘bókin’ (those books are always exerting their influence…) and ‘gefin’ agrees with ‘bókin’. Rule of thumb: accu à nom, as in last week’s entry; dative stays dative, genitive stays genitive.


  • If something in a passive sentence is in nefnifall (nominative), then vera and the lýsingarháttur þátiðar/past participle follow/agree with the nominative component of the sentence. Dative exists, doesn’t try to influence things…


If that was unclear, please feel free to ask questions below. I know it is a little bit dense.



Happy to be home after a three week hiatus in the States!

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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. Helen:

    Takk fyrir!