Braces and brackets in German syntax – a guideline on word order with modal verbs and subordinate clauses

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Braces and brackets in German syntax – a guideline on word order with modal verbs and subordinate clauses

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A question asked made me realize that the topic of word order is something that confuses language learners. Although this subject matter doesn't have very high priority, it can help learners understand and remember the structures of German grammar better.

You find braces in the simplest structures like the Perfekt:

Er hat den Wagen gewaschen.

Do you see the box containing the direct object? It's the yellow one in-between the two turquoise boxes, establishing the frame. Inside this frame or these syntactic brackets, if you like, you can put all kinds of syntactical units, for example time aderbials:

Er hat den Wagen gestern gewaschen.

When you add modal verbs, the infinitive is appended at the far end of the sentence in the Präsens. This position is not opposed to the initial position of a sentence (concerning statements), where the subject (in our example er) is located. See that this position at the far end has great impact on the meaning, just like the first position in a sentence. If you take these two words you get the wireframe of the sentence (er waschen, er lassen, er können).

Er lässt den Wagen jetzt waschen.

To understand syntax the second and the last position are important, they are connected in terms of tense, creating tense and time relationship. This is of course only relevant for tenses composed of auxiliary verb and Partizip, not for Präsens and Präteritum, which are "single entity tenses". The two constituents have a fundamental connection in their establishing time: hätte können, ist worden, war worden, hat lassen etc. For example this:

Er hat den Wagen gestern waschen lassen.

"He got the car washed yesterday."

See that the frame "hat lassen" is Perfekt and that "lassen" is a Partizip. This is really freaky, but the truth. Lassen looks as if it were an infinitive, but it is not.

Er hat den Wagen gestern waschen wollen.

Er hat den Wagen gestern waschen können.

Er hat den Wagen gestern waschen müssen.

If the sentence is not in the Perfekt tense, for example in the Präsens, the frame is made up of modal verb and affixed infinitive:

Er kann den Wagen jetzt waschen.

Er soll den Wagen jetzt waschen.

Er will den Wagen jetzt waschen.

Er muss den Wagen jetzt waschen.

Er darf den Wagen jetzt waschen.

Seeing "werden" as a modal verb and not as Futur I makes life easier:

Er wird den Wagen jetzt waschen.

Er würde den Wagen jetzt waschen.

Of course "würde" is still a substitute form of the Konjunktiv II der Gegenwart and "werden" can signify the future tense.

The passive voice, too, has "brackets":

Der Wagen wird jetzt von ihm gewaschen.

Der Wagen wurde gestern von ihm gewaschen.

Der Wagen ist heute von ihm gewaschen worden.

You can't omit the direct object, but you can omit the von-phrase.

Der Wagen ist gewaschen worden.

And the Konjunktiv II der Vergangenheit? (Past subjunctive)

Der Wagen wäre heute von ihm gewaschen worden.

With modal verb:

Der Wagen hätte heute von ihm gewaschen werden können.

Again, "können" is a Partizip.

But what about subordinate clauses?

Ok, let's dig a little deeper and look at the word order in subordinate clauses. We first have to add a main clause:

Das Wetter ist schön, so dass...

  • er den Wagen waschen will.
  • er den Wagen wäscht.
  • er den Wagen gewaschen hat.
  • er den Wagen waschen wird.
  • er den Wagen fast gewaschen hätte.
  • der Wagen jetzt gewaschen wird.
  • der Wagen gerade gewaschen worden ist.
  • der Wagen fast gewaschen worden wäre.
  • der Wagen heute hätte gewaschen werden können.

Don't get bogged down with the tense system, I am not trying to confuse you, just take note of the fact that the main verb (the finite verb, meaning that which is conjugated according to number and tense) is appended at the end of the sentence. "Hätte" is not appended at the end. This is happening with the Konjunktiv II der Vergangenheit in the passive voice in conjunction with a modal verb (können). The sentence is too long to put the main verb at the end because by the time the end is reached the listener will have forgotten where the speaker had started off, unraveling all the braces seems to much for the brain. In this the German language is capable of quite some contortions:

Er hätte heute den Wagen waschen lassen können.

Das Wetter war heute sehr schön, so dass er heute den Wagen hätte waschen lassen können.

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