Grammar can be a sore point when you learn German, right?
The thing is, as you master more difficult German grammar concepts, you can express yourself in a more complex and native-like way. So it's worth persevering with even the trickiest aspects of the language.
Subordinate or sub-clauses are a good example. They may be one of the harder to understand aspects of German grammar. But they don't have to be difficult to wrap your head around.
With this straightforward and simple explanation, you can start building complex sentences in German using the correct word-order.
In this post, you'll learn 7 must-know concepts to master German sub-clauses. But the end, you'll feel more confident about your German grammar and your ability to express yourself in a more nuanced way.
If you want to master German sub-clauses and learn to use them correctly in conversation my top recommendation is Grammar Hero, my story-based programme that helps you master German grammar naturally through reading.
Grammar Hero includes a number of short stories dedicated exclusively to learning German sub-clauses. So if you want to get your head around the sub-clauses in German once and for all, it really is exactly what you need.
In the meantime, back to the subject at hand…
I'll start by explaining what clauses actually are and why they matter so much.
Typically, a sub-clause tells us more information about the main clause in a sentence. You need a main clause (der Hauptsatz) and a subordinate clause (der Nebensatz) to build a compound sentence.
In this example, Ich will Deutsch lernen is the main clause. Es macht spaß is the subordinate clause. The word weil is the subordinating conjunction and connects the two clauses.
The result is a compound, or complex sentence composed of two clauses. A comma always separates subordinate clauses and main clauses in German.
As a native English speaker, you may be asking yourself how you should make sense of German verb position in subordinate clauses. At first sight, German verbs seem to shuffle their way around in sentences. But there's a reasoning behind this madness.
Typically, the verb of the subordinate clause is sent to the end of the sentence. I'll walk you through verb order later on. But first, let's look at the subordinate conjunctions that connect two clauses into a sentence.
German has a large number of subordinate conjunctions to choose from. Unfortunately, they have to be learned by heart. The good news is, once you become familiar with subordinate conjunctions, you'll recognise them immediately.
And, as a smart language learner though, you know that the best way to pick up and reinforce core grammar, is to immerse yourself in the language, by reading in German for example.
Following are some of the most common and essential subordinate conjunctions to add to your vocabulary:
In all the examples above, the main clause comes before the subordinate clause. The main clause maintains its usual word order.
After the comma comes our subordinate conjunction, and the verb is sent to the end of the sentence.
Example: Ich bin müde. Es ist so früh. (I'm tired. It's so early.)
The main clause is Ich bin müde. The subordinate clause is Es ist so früh. Let's combine both clauses with obwohl (although) to create a compound sentence.
By adding a comma between the clauses and sending the verb ist to the end of the sentence, you end up with the compound sentence: Ich bin müde, obwohl es so früh ist.
In all the previous examples, the subordinate clause is in the second half of the sentence. However, German allows you to switch things up and place the subordinate clause in the first half of the sentence if you choose to do so.
In these examples, the subordinate clauses' verb still gets sent to the end of the clause. That said, you might have noticed some changes in the main clause as well. The verb that should normally be in the second or last position now comes directly after the comma.
You invert the subject and verb after a comma. Remembering the pattern verb, comma, verb, can make it easier to follow this rule. This rule may seem confusing at first since the word order is entirely different from the English language.
But, the key is practice and becoming familiar with the word placement. Let's examine a few more sentences that follow the verb, comma, verb pattern.
Sometimes you'll have more than one verb in a sentence. When you're dealing with modal verbs, perfect tense, and passive, you often have multiple verbs. However, the same rules apply, and the conjugated verb will come at the end of the sentence.
In this example, there's the conjugated modal verb muss, and the unconjugated verb aufräumen. You can combine these two clauses with a comma and the subordinate conjunction weil (because) by sending muss to the end of the sentence.
The result is, Ich habe keine Zeit, weil ich noch meine Wohnung aufräumen muss.
Separable verbs follow the same rules as other types of subordinate clauses. The conjugated verb still comes at the end of the sentence. As a result, the separable prefix is no longer separated.
When you have an infinitive construction and a verb with a separable prefix, zu comes between the verb and its prefix.
Notice that the verb with zu is always written as one word.
Infinitive clauses are a type of subordinate clause. Usually, this sentence construction contains the infinitive form of a verb and the preposition zu or um zu.
You use infinitive clauses when the verb of the main clause is directly related to the verb of the subordinate clause. Usually, the verbs relating to the second verb don't have a second subject complement.
In this example, the verb versuchen is acting upon the verb öffnen, which is why we use the infinitive form with zu.
Most of the time, we can substitute a dass clause for the infinitive and zu.
When the subject of the subordinate clause is irrelevant, or identical to the main clause, you can always use the infinitive + zu construction. But, if you have to mention the subject because multiple people and objects are involved, then you can only use the dass construction.
Some verbs always require a second action, so they always take the infinitive + zu form.
Some of these verbs are:
After you become familiar with the above rules, they'll start to become more evident and easy to recognise. With practice, you'll start to get a feeling for how subordinate clauses are constructed. Here's a quick recap of what you've learned in this post.
Remember that subordinating clauses start with subordinate conjunctions such as:
When the main clause comes before the subordinate clause, the conjugated verb goes to the end of the sentence. The same is true if you have multiple verbs in a sentence or verbs with separable prefixes.
However, if you invert the sentence order, you have to follow the pattern verb, comma, verb.
Remember that infinitive clauses with zu and infinitive constructions (um/anstatt/ohne … zu) are also subordinate clauses. In many cases, you can substitute the infinitive + zu for a clause containing dass.
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Which other aspects of German grammar do you find tricky? Let me know in the comments below.
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