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.
German subordinate clauses 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 our 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 subordinate clauses in German. But the end, you'll feel more confident about your German grammar and your ability to express yourself in a more nuanced way.
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In the meantime, back to the subject at hand…
7 Steps to Mastering German Subordinate Clauses
I'll start by explaining what a subordinate clause actually is and why they matter so much in the German language.
#1 An Introduction To German Subordinate Clauses
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 in German (der Nebensatz) to build a compound sentence.
- Example: Ich will Deutsch lernen, weil es Spaß macht (I want to learn German because it's fun)
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 a German subordinate clause and a main clause.
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 German word order 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. You'll be building complex sentences in no time!
#2 Common Subordinate Conjunctions
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 like German subordinate clauses, 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:
- Translation: As/when
- Du hast oft getanzt, als du jung warst (You often danced when you were young)
- Translation: Before
- Ruf mich an, bevor du nach Hause gehst (Call me before you go home)
- Translation: Until
- Wir warten, bis du anfängst (We're waiting until you begin)
- Translation: That
- Wir hoffen, dass es sich lohnt (We're hoping that it's worth it)
- Translation: So that
- Ich arbeite, damit ich Geld habe (I work so that I'll have money)
- Translation: Whether/ if
- Weißt du, ob es im Angebot ist? ( Do you know if it's on sale?)
- Translation: Although
- Ich bin müde, obwohl es so früh ist (I'm tired although it's so early)
- Translation: Since
- Seit dem Sturm ist das Dach kaputt. (Since the storm the roof has been broken)
- Translation: As soon
- Schreibt mir, sobald ihr zu Hause seid (Write to me as soon as you're home)
- Translation: As far as
- Sie ist bei der Arbeit, soweit ich weiß (She is at work as far as I know)
- Translation: As well as, as soon as
- Ich liebe Erdnussbutter sowie Marmelade (I love peanut butter as well as jam)
- Translation: During
- Versuch es nochmal, während den Öffnungszeiten (Try again during the opening hours)
- Translation: Because
- Ich esse Salat, weil es gesund ist (I eat salad because it's healthy)
- Translation: If
- Sag uns Bescheid, wenn du gehst
- (Let us know when you go)
- Translation: How
- Ich weiß nicht, wie es passiert ist ( I don't know how it happened)
- Translation: Where
- Sagt er, wo wir uns treffen sollen? (Is he telling us where we should meeting?)
#3 Word Order (Main Clause Before Subordinate Clause)
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 conjugated verb is sent to the end.
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 the main clause and subordinate clause with obwohl (although) to create a compound sentence.
By adding a comma between the clauses and sending the verb ist to the end, you end up with the compound sentence: Ich bin müde, obwohl es so früh ist.
#4 Word Order (Subordinate Clause Before Main Clause)
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.
- Example: Seit dem Sturm ist das Dach kaputt (Since the storm, the roof has been broken)
- Example: Wenn du gehst, sag uns Bescheid (When you go, let us know)
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 German language 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 in German sentences. Let's examine a few more German sentences that follow the verb, comma, verb pattern.
- Example: Seitdem sie angekommen ist, hat sie nur Probleme gemacht (Since she's arrived she's only made problems)
- Example: Wenn du Zeit brauchst, kannst du eine Pause machen (If you need time you can take a break)
#5 Subordinate Clauses and Multiple Verbs In German
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 more than two verbs to contend with. However, the same rules apply, and the conjugated verb will come at the end of the sentence.
- Example: Ich habe keine Zeit. Ich muss noch meine Wohnung aufräumen (I don't have time. I still have to clean up my apartment)
In this example, there's the conjugated 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.
The result is, Ich habe keine Zeit, weil ich noch meine Wohnung aufräumen muss.
#6 Subordinate Clauses and Separable German Verbs
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.
- Example: Wenn du das Fenster aufmachst, wird es hell (If you open the window it'll be bright)
- Example: Wenn du nicht aufhörst, geht das Fenster kaputt (If you don't stop the window will break)
When you have an infinitive construction and a verb with a separable prefix, zu comes between the verb and its prefix.
- Example: Ich versuche das Fenster abzuschließen (I'm trying to lock the window)
- Example: Ist es so schwierig, aufzuräumen? (Is it so difficult to clean up?)
Notice that the verb with zu is always written as one word.
#7 Infinitive Sub-Clauses In German
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.
- Example: Ich versuche, die Tür zu öffnen (I'm trying to open the door)
In this example, the verb versuchen is acting upon the verb öffnen, which is why we use the infinitive form with zu.
- Example: Ich schlage vor, am Samstagmorgen frühstücken zu gehen (I suggest we go out to eat on Saturday morning)
Most of the time, we can substitute a dass clause for the infinitive and zu.
- Example: Ich schlage vor, dass wir am Samstagmorgen frühstücken gehen (I suggest that we go out for breakfast Saturday morning)
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:
- aufhören (to stop)
- stoppen (to stop)
- beginnen (to start)
- anfangen (to start)
- verbieten (to forbid)
- vergessen (to forget)
- versprechen (to promise)
- versuchen (to try)
- vorhaben (to have plans)
- warnen vor (to warn against)
- sich weigern (to refuse)
Subordinate Clauses In German Simplified
After you become familiar with the above rules about subordinate clauses, 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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Apart from the German subordinate clauses, which other aspects of German grammar do you find tricky? Let me know in the comments below.