German Subordinate Clauses: How to Make Complex Sentences
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:
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.
|Other Info||The End|
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 with Multiple Verbs
Now let’s take a look at another example, this time with 2 verbs in the subordinate clause:
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
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?
|Wenn||wir||heute Abend||ausgehen||,||werde||ich||mich nicht||betrinken.|
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).
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):
|Ich||werde||fleißiger||sein||,||wenn||ich||jeden Tag um 6 Uhr||aufstehe.|
And it works the same with inverted subordinate clauses:
|Wenn||ich||jeden Tag um 6 Uhr||aufstehe||,||werde||ich||fleißiger||sein.|
So now you know the what German subordinate clauses are and how to form correct sentences with them.
Grammar Hub: Sentence Structure
German Sentence Structure Explained
Question Words in German
→ German Subordinate Clauses
German Infinitive Clauses
Your examples are so clear to follow. I think I am beginning to understand German grammar. thanks, Kevin
Thanks for your kind comment, I’m really glad the article helped you 🙂
Thank you Emma, keep up the good work
Thanks for your kind words 🙂 Glad you’re finding it helpful.
Hallo Emma, your explaination is really so simple and structured, especially for those who follows English well and hence appreciate, since I am really struggling in sentence formation for my B2 written examination, this is helping me a lot.
I have a question pertaining to last example, why is hier “sein” missing in Hauptsatz when the sentence starts with Hauptsatz and why is it included in Hauptsatz when the sentence started with Nebensatz.
Ich werde fleißiger, wenn ich jeden Tag um 6 Uhr aufstehe.
Wenn ich jeden Tag um 6 Uhr aufstehe, werde ich fleißiger sein.
Hi Sonu, thanks for your kind feedback, I’m so pleased you’re finding the site helpful 🙂 In answer to your question, that was a mistake on my part. I’ve corrected it now, thanks for bringing to my attention.
It’s right how it’s, why would u correct it 😳