What does the grammar nerd call Santa’s elves?
To become fluent in German, you’ll have to jump over quite a few grammar hurdles.
It can be really fun using movies or books to help perfect these grammar sore points but, at the end of the day, you might find you just need to sit down and go through some of the basic points on a step-by-step basis. It may be a boring way to learn German, but unfortunately sometimes it just needs to be done.
Here’s my back to basics guide for a grammar topic which even the most advanced German speakers can still struggle with: subordinate conjunctions.
What Is a Subordinate Clause?
Before we get to subordinate conjunctions, we need to clear something else up—what exactly is a subordinate clause?
A subordinate clause is, simply put, one of the building blocks of a compound sentence. You can see how it works with the following formula:
Complex sentence = main clause + subordinate clause
So what does that look like in a real sentence? Something like this…
Ich muss schlafen, weil ich krank bin.
I need to sleep because I am ill.
So in the above example we have a main clause: Ich muss schlafen (I need to sleep). The addition of the second clause—or, subordinate clause—weil ich krank bin (because I am ill) lengthens the sentence and creates a long, complex sentence made up of two clauses.
One thing which always stumps beginners is the position of the verb in the subordinate clause. if we use the example weil ich krank bin we can see that the verb—in this case ist (is)—is at the end of the clause. This means, if we were to translate the sentence literally, the English would read as “I need to sleep because I ill am.” But of course this isn’t how we would translate it.
So why does the German language shuffle words around? I’m afraid that’s something that is quite difficult to answer as no one really knows why the language sends its verbs to the ends of subordinate clauses—it’s just something you have to accept happens without any real justification.
Admittedly, it is one of the more difficult grammar topics you will cover. It can be really tricky to remember to send your verbs to the end at first but, after plenty of practice, you’ll eventually find it comes naturally and will be easy to remember.
How to Merrily Deal with German Subordinating Conjunctions
In the example above—Ich muss schlafen, weil ich krank bin—the use of weil (because) plays a really big part in the sentence. It’s the main reason why the verb is sent to the end of the clause. The grammatical term for the word is a “subordinate conjunction” as it conjoins the two clauses.
Subordinate conjunctions are words which send the verb to the end, whether in a subordinate clause or not. If you start your sentence off with a subordinate conjunction, you’re going to need to remember to alter the word order of the following clause.
Unfortunately, there’s no rule you can learn to help you spot a subordinate conjunction. This list of words is an arbitrary one which you need to really work on to commit to heart. What makes it harder is that there are quite a few subordinate clauses out there. To start you off, I’ve come up with the following useful list of ones you should add to your vocabulary…
Wir haben oft gespielt, als wir jung waren.
We played often when we were young.
Ruf mich an, bevor wir in die Stadt gehen.
Give me a call before we go to town.
Ich warte, bis du wieder da bist.
I’ll wait until you’re back again.
Ich hoffe, dass du uns noch lange erhalten bleibst.
I hope that you stay with us for a long time yet.
Meaning: So that
Ich nehme einen Tag frei, damit wir uns treffen können.
I’ll take the day off so that we can meet up.
Weißt du, ob er noch kommt?
Do you know whether he is still coming?
Ich habe kein Haustier, obwohl ich eine Katze möchte.
I don’t have a pet although I would like a cat.
Seit ich hier lebe, bin ich nicht gefahren.
I haven’t driven since I have lived here.
Meaning: As soon
Können Sie mich bitte anrufen, sobald es Ihnen möglich ist.
Can you please call me at your earliest convenience.
Meaning: In case, provided that
Sofern nicht anders vereinbart.
Except when it’s been agreed upon differently.
Meaning: Insofar as
Soweit ich weiß.
As far as I know.
Meaning: As well, as soon
Ich gebe dir Bescheid, sowie ich kenne.
I’ll let you know as soon as I know.
Während der Stunde haben wir viel geredet.
We talked a lot during the lesson.
Ich bin verspätet, weil ich verschlafen habe.
I am late because I slept in.
Wenn wir ins Kino gehen, können wir viel Popcorn essen.
If we go to the cinema we can eat a lot of popcorn.
Lass mich morgen wissen, wie es dir geht.
Let me know tomorrow how you’re doing.
Sag mir bitte am Mittwoch, wo wir uns treffen.
Please tell me on Wednesday where we’re meeting.
So, the main point to remember is after a subordinate clause (one of the above words), the verb is always sent to the end.
But wait, did you notice another pattern emerging in some of the above examples? You can see another curious quirk of the German language that doesn’t occur English. Can you see it in the examples for seit and wenn?
In both sentences the subordinate clause comes first. Nothing really changes—the verb is sent to the end as standard. But then after that, in the main clause, some of the words swap their positions. Yep, the verb moves around again. Let’s take another look:
Wenn wir ins Kino gehen, können wir viel Popcorn essen.
What should—by English logic—read wir können viel Popcorn essen doesn’t, as the verb moves up to come after the verb in the subordinate clause.
So that’s one other rule you need to remember with subordinate clauses—you need to invert your subject and your verb after a comma. Put simply, the word order when two clauses come together is usually: verb comma verb. If you write a verb with a comma after it, more often than not you will also need another verb right after the comma.
Still awake after reading all that grammar?
This is one grammar topic you really need to be able to nail if you’re going to ace your German. Both your speaking and writing will depend on it!
If it all seems a bit too much at first, don’t worry. It is difficult to native English speakers as our verbs like to stay in one place! The key is—as with all things German—practice, practice and even more practice!
After studying German and Philosophy at The University of Nottingham, Laura Harker relocated to Berlin in 2012. She now works as a freelance writer and is also assistant editor at Slow Travel Berlin.
And One More Thing…
FluentU’s collection of German videos are a great resource for all aspects of learning German. You can hover over any word for contextual definitions and multiple examples.
After learning the rules above, you’ll start to recognize them more often in their natural environment, and it’s going to start feeling more natural for you to follow them yourself.
In the meantime, you can start enjoying the same content that native speakers actually watch, right now. We’ve got everything from Volkswagen commercials to funny YouTube videos, scenes from “Guardians of the Galaxy” to the hit song “Let it Go” from “Frozen.”
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