German Subordinate Clauses: How to Make Complex Sentences

german subordinate clauses

German subordinate clauses are used to give additional information about the main part of the sentence. While the ‘main clause’ can stand on it’s own, a subordinate clause always has to pair with a main clause.

After reading this post you will know:

  • What German subordinate clauses are
  • How word order changes in subordinate clauses
  • How to invert German subordinate clauses

What are German Subordinate Clauses?

In German sentences we can add more information to main clause (Hauptsatz) by adding a subordinate clause (Nebensatz). This allows us to expand upon an idea, and give more information. When both a main clause and a subordinate clause appear in a sentence this is known as a complex sentence.

To keep things clear, let’s add some colour to make these complex sentences easy to follow:

Main clause + subordinate clause = complex sentence

Here’s an example of how a subordinate clause gives us vital information:

Ich gehe früh ins Bett, weil ich um 6 Uhr aufstehen muss.I’m going to bed early because I have to get up at 6am.

Without the subordinate clause, we would know the person is going to bed early but we don’t know why. They could be going to bed early because they are tired, ill, went to bed late the night before. Without the subordinate clause we’d just be guessing.

How Subordinate Clauses are Introduced

Subordinate clauses are introduced in a few different ways. Two of the most common ways of starting a subordinate clause are using subordinating conjunctions and relative pronouns:

Subordinate Clauses with Conjunctions

Subordinating conjunctions are some of the most common words you’ll encounter in the German language. There are words such as:

  • als = when (the past)
  • dass = that
  • ob = if / whether
  • obwohl = although
  • während = while
  • wenn = if
  • weil = because

The question words also act as subordinating conjunctions:

  • was = what
  • wie = how
  • warum = why
  • wann = when
  • wer = who

Whenever we use any of these words, we introduce a subordinate clause. We can use subordinate conjunctions to add further information, explanations or to add doubt.

Subordinate Clauses with Relative Pronouns

In some sentences we use relative pronouns to add information about a noun. Using a relative pronoun introduces a relative clause which acts in the same way as a subordinate clause.

Mein Freund, der Amerikaner ist, spricht gut Deutsch.My boyfriend, who is American, speaks good German.

Relative pronouns generally replace ‘that’ or ‘who’ when we want to talk about a noun without using the actual noun twice in a sentence.

German Subordinate Clauses & Word Order

So now we know what a German subordinate clause is, and how we introduce one. Now let’s take a look at how word order is affected by them.

The main clause is the part of the sentence which comes before the subordinating conjunction, and then after that we have the subordinate clause. The two clauses are always separated with a comma (,)

Let’s start off with a main clause:

Position 1
Subject
Position 2
Verb
Object
Ichgießedie Pflanzen
Iwaterthe plants

Now we’ll add the subordinating conjunction, weil (because). Once we have done this we have started the subordinate clause, the second half of the sentence.

Pos. 1
Subject
Pos. 2
Verb
ObjectCommaPos. 0
Conj.
Pos. 1
Subject
Other InfoThe End
Verb
Ichgießedie Pflanzen,weilsietrockensind
Iwaterthe plants,becausetheydryare
I water the plants because they are dry

The subordinating conjunction, weil, starts the subordinate clause. A comma always goes at the end of the main clause in order to separate them. Once we start the subordinate clause, think of it as a new sentence, so the position numbers start from the beginning again.

Now one of the first things you’ll notice is that the conjugated verb in the subordinate clause has moved all the way to the end. This is the major difference between main and subordinate clauses.

  • The subordinating conjunction effectively takes position 0
  • The subject stays in position 1
  • The verb now gets thrown out of position 2, all the way to the end of the sentence
german subordinate clauses

German Subordinate Clauses with Multiple Verbs

Now let’s take a look at another example, this time with 2 verbs in the subordinate clause:

Pos. 1
Subject
Pos. 2
Verb
OtherCommaPos. 0
Subord.
Conj.
Pos. 1
Subject
Unconj.
Verb
The End
Conj. Verb
Ichweißnicht,wasichsagensoll
Iknownot,whatIsayshould
I don’t know what I should say (I don’t know what to say)

This sentence is a little trickier because we have 2 verbs in the subordinate clause, sollen and sagen. Without the subordinating conjunction the word order would be:

  • Ich soll sagen = I should say

But because we have a subordinating conjunction before it, the conjugated verb (sollen = soll) which would normally be in position 2, goes to the very end, beyond the other unconjugated verb (sagen):

  • Was ich sagen soll = what I say should
german subordinate clauses

Inverting the Subordinate Clause (Verb-Comma-Verb Rule)

So far we have seen the main clause appear first, followed by the subordinate clause. However in German you can swap the two clauses around. Here’s an example:

Ich werde mich nicht betrinken, wenn wir heute Abend ausgehen.I won’t get drunk if we go out tonight.
Wenn wir heute Abend ausgehen, werde ich mich nicht betrinken.If we go out tonight, I won’t get drunk.

Did you notice a change in the sentence structure in the second example?

Pos.1
Subord. Conj.
Pos.2
Subject
OtherEnd
Verb
CommaPos.1
Verb
Pos.2
Subject
OtherEnd
2nd Verb
Wennwirheute Abendausgehen,werdeichmich nichtbetrinken.

When we invert the subordinate clause in German and put it at the front, the subordinating conjunction (wenn) will be the first word in the sentence. Because we have used a subordinating conjunction, the verb (ausgehen) must go to the end. We then finish the clause with a comma.

But now the sentence structure does something strange. The verb (werde) in the main clause is now in position 1.

This is known as the verb-comma-verb rule. Whenever we invert the subordinating clause in German, we must follow the verb-comma-verb rule. In the subordinate clause the verb is already sent to the end because of the subordinating conjunction.

Then we put a comma. We must follow with the conjugated verb in the main clause. The rest of the sentence structure then behaves as normal.

Since this is a tricky concept, here’s another example:

Während ich in Deutschland bin, lerne ich viel Deutsch.While I’m in Germany, I learn a lot of German.

The subordinating conjunction (während) introduces the subordinate clause. Then we see the verb-comma-verb rule in action: bin (verb) ,(comma) lerne (verb).

inverting german subordinate clause

Subordinate Clauses with Separable Verbs

Sometimes separable verbs will get used in subordinate clauses. They don’t actually cause any problems because they won’t separate in subordinate clauses. They just get conjugated as usual and go to the end of the clause.

In this example, let’s use the separable verb aufstehen (to get up):

Pos.1
Subject
Pos.2
Verb
OtherCommaPos.1
Subord. Conj.
Pos.2
Subject
OtherEnd
Verb
Ichwerdefleißiger,wennichjeden Tag um 6 Uhraufstehe.
I will be more diligent, if I get up at 6am everyday.

And it works the same with inverted subordinate clauses:

Pos.1
Subord. Conj.
Pos.2
Subject
OtherEnd
Verb
CommaPos.1
Subord. Conj.
Pos.2
Subject
OtherEnd
Verb
Wennichjeden Tag um 6 Uhraufstehe,werdeichfleißigersein.
If I get up at 6am every day, I will be more diligent.

So now you know the what German subordinate clauses are and how to form correct sentences with them. If you’re interested in learning more German grammar, here are a few suggestions:

2 Comments

  1. Your examples are so clear to follow. I think I am beginning to understand German grammar. thanks, Kevin

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