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Using German Clauses Correctly

By Peter Boysen

Once your German gets better, you will want to speak and write using complex and compound sentences. Here's how!

Simple Sentence Review

In all simple sentences in German, the conjugated verb goes in the second position -- unless the sentence is a question. For example, Germany the English sentence "We saw a film today" is translated: Wir sahen einen Film heute. In the perfect tense, it's Wir haben einen Film heute gesehen.

If there's an element in the sentence you want to emphasize, that goes first, and the subject goes after the conjugated verb. If someone asks you what you did today, you might say the sentence from above like this:

Einen Film haben wir heute gesehen.

Note the switch of the direct object (film) and subject.

Coordinating Conjunctions

Just like in English, German has two types of conjunctions: coordinating and subordinating. Here's the list of German coordinating conjunctions: und (and), oder (or), aber (but), denn (because), and sondern (but -- in the sense of "not this, but that"). If you're writing a German sentence and using one of these conjunctions, the word order is the same in both clauses.

Example in English: You may go to the movies tonight, but you must clear out your room tomorrow.

German: Du darfst heute Abend ins Kino gehen, aber du muβt morgen dein Zimmer räumen.

English: We can buy a new bed, or we can get a new kitchen table.

German: Wir können ein neues Bett kaufen, oder wir können einen neuen Küchentisch bekommen.

No matter which of the coordinating conjunctions you're using, combining clauses works the same way.

Subordinating Conjunctions

As with English, there are a whole bunch of subordinating conjunctions in German. The most commonly used are als (when, used with the past tenses only), bevor (before), daß (that), ob (whether), solang (so long as), weil (because), and wenn (if).

A clause that begins with a subordinating conjunction is not the main, or independent, clause in a sentence -- it's a dependent clause. To show this, the word order is different in German. The conjugated verb goes to the very end of the clause. Here's an example of a sentence where the independent clause precedes the dependent one.

English: I should brush my teeth before I go to bed.

German: Ich soll mir die Zähne putzen, bevor ich ins Bett gehe.

But what if the dependent clause comes first? Remember, in German, the conjugated verb is the second element, or idea, in the sentence. So you write the whole dependent clause, add a comma, and then add the conjugated verb. The subject goes after the conjugated verb.

English: Before I go to bed, I should brush my teeth.

German: Bevor ich ins Bett gehe, soll ich mir die Zähne putzen.

As with English, if you want to add more clauses, adjust the word order according to the type of clause you're adding.