German/Grammar/Coordinating conjunctions

Coordinating conjunctions edit

So far we've only dealt with sentences with a single clause. In this section we start to talk about how to create sentences with multiple clauses. This is done in a number of ways, too many to cover in a single section, so we'll start with a few that don't involve too many grammatical complications.

Terminology edit

A simple sentence expresses a single thought or fact. For example:

  • "We carried the box up the stairs."

This sentence has a single thought expressed as a single clause. But most of the time people want to combine several thoughts into a single sentence. For example:

  • "We carried the box, which was large and heavy, up the stairs."

This expresses two thoughts, and it has two clauses. The original sentence is one, and

  • "The box was large and heavy."

is another. So you can think of a clause as a single thought or action taking place within a sentence. If a sentence has only one clause then it is called a simple sentence (even if it is quite long and complicated). The key to understanding and creating sentences with multiple clauses is to find each of the individual thoughts that are being expressed, and find out what relationship they have to each other. The ways that English and German combine clauses into sentences are somewhat similar, but there are differences.

In German, clauses can can have two types of relationship with other; either they have equal rank and are independent of each other, or one is higher rank and the other is dependent on it. We'll be talking about the first type, independent clauses, in this section, and the second type, dependent clauses, in other sections. One thing to keep in mind is that whether a clause is independent or dependent can depend on word choice rather than meaning. In other words, an independent clause can sometimes be rephrased as a dependent clause without significantly changing the meaning. There are two ways of joining independent clauses together, and many ways of attaching a dependent clause to another clause.

One way to join two clauses is using a conjunction, a small word that expresses a relationship between the two parts. Conjunctions in English include "and", "or", "because", "while", "but", "though", etc. There are conjunctions in German as well, but they are classified according to whether they form independent clauses, in which case they're called coordinating conjunctions, or dependent clauses, in which case they're called subordinating conjunctions. Because the grammar associated with the types of clauses is different in German, this classification is much more important in German than in English. But there is a subtle difference in English as well: in English a coordinating conjunction must always go between the two clauses, but a subordinating conjunction can be placed in front of the first clause. For example you can say either

  • "I was hungry and I ate a lot."


  • "I ate a lot because I was hungry."

You can move the "because" clause to the start of the sentence since it's a subordinating conjunction.

  • "Because I was hungry, I ate a lot."

But if you try the same thing with the "and" clause,

  • "And I ate a lot, I was hungry."

the result is ungrammatical. The same rule holds in German as well, though there are other differences in German and, as you might expect by now, German and English don't always agree on which conjunctions should be independent or dependent. Note, it is still possible to start a sentence with a coordinating conjunction in either language, though it's sometimes frowned upon. This happens when a clause is added as an afterthought to a previous sentence. For example:

  • "The box was big and heavy. And it was slippery too!

Joining by proximity edit

The simplest way to join two clauses is to just put them next to each other. In written English you need to put a semicolon between the two parts, but in written German you can use a comma instead.

The meaning when two clauses are put next to each other is the same as in English; the two thoughts are connected in some unspoken way which is implied by context. For example:

  • Der Mann geht langsam; er ist alt. – "The man walks slowly; he is old."

In this case the second clause serves as an explanation or reason for the first clause, and this is the implied connection between the two. As we just mentioned, the German can be written with a comma instead of a semicolon, though the semicolon is required in English.

Common coordinating conjunctions edit

In German, coordinating conjunctions function like a semicolon in that they have no affect on the grammar of the two clauses. They include und, aber, doch, oder, sondern, and denn. As in English, you can include a comma before these conjunctions, especially if it avoids ambiguity. Older grammars may say that a comma is requred, but this has changed recently.

und edit

This is a cognate to the English "and" and means the same thing.

  • Die Katze frisst, und der Hund trinkt. – "The cat is eating, and the dog is drinking."

Note that the two clauses form grammatical sentences on their own.

As with "and", und not only can join two clauses, but it can join two words or phrases of the same type:

  • Die Katze und der Hund trinken. – "The cat and the dog are drinking."
    • Note that the noun phrase die Katze und der Hund is plural since there are multiple animals. In general, when two singular nouns are joined by und they form a plural. In practice though, depending on how the sentence is arranged, you may hear a singular verb. This can be attributed to people following habit and instinct instead of logic. This same phenomenon occurs in English, for example "Here is David and his wife Julia." Only the most diligent members of the grammar police will notice, much less try to correct, the error.
    • Also, when nouns are combined this way, both get the appropriate case. In this example, the combined nouns form the subject, so they are both in the nominative case.
  • Die Tiere fressen und trinken. – "The animals are eating and drinking."
  • Das Kätzchen ist weich und warm. – "The kitten is soft and warm."
  • Wir arbeiten heute und morgen. – "We're working today and tomorrow."

Also as with "and", und can be used to create lists of multiple items:

  • Die Tiere fressen, trinken und schlafen. – "The animals are eating, drinking and sleeping."

Unlike English, a final comma is never placed before und in such a list. (Some English speakers argue that this is also true in English, while others argue that it's never true. This is a book on German grammar though, so we don't need to concern ourselves with the issue.) The only exception is when there are multiple clauses, in which case the comma is optional:

  • Die Katze frisst, der Hund trinkt, und das Kind spielt. – "The cat is eating, the dog is drinking, and the child is playing."

There are many other uses of und, but most correspond closely to the English usage of "and".

aber, doch and sondern edit

These are used to join two clauses which, though both true, partially contradict each other in some way. So they correspond to "though" and "however" in English. They are often translated as "but", however keep in mind, as always, that meanings can overlap without being the same. The English "but" is a more flexible word and can also mean "except", and this meaning does not translate to aber.

When the first clause is positive, aber or doch is normally used, usually to emphasize some difference. The more common choice is aber by far. The meaning of doch is nearly identical to aber, though doch seems to reserved for when you want to emphasize the importance of clause which comes after. On the other hand sondern is used more to express the meaning of "on the contrary" and is used after a negative clause to correct a false impression. For example:

  • Die Katze schläft, aber das Kind spielt. – "The cat is sleeping but the child is playing."
  • Sie ist schön, doch sie ist eine Mörderin. – "She's beautiful, but she's a murderer."
  • Er ist nicht mein Bruder, sondern mein Cousin. – "He is not my brother, but my cousin."

You may see the adverb zwar in the clause preceding aber. This doesn't translate directly into English, but it does add a certain amount of emphasis to the contrast between the two clauses. One way you might deal with it in translation is to use a stronger conjunction in English.

  • Das Kind ist zwar müde, aber es spielt noch. – "The child is tired, however (s)he is still playing."

oder edit

This is a cognate of "or" and has nearly the same meaning. As with und it can be used to form a list, this time a list of alternatives.

One of the most important uses of oder is to ask questions which ask for a choice between alternatives. For example:

  • Wollen Sie Hühnchen oder Fisch? – "Do you want chicken or fish?"

Note that grammatically this is the same as a polar question, and only the intonation and context make it possible to figure out whether it's asking for a choice or for a yes or no answer. (The same issue exists in English, which is the source of many a bad joke. It seems that German speakers seldom see the humor in this kind of thing.)

As we mentioned in the section on polar questions, oder can be placed in the postamble to ask for a confirmation. For example:

  • Sie ist sehr hübsch, oder? – "She's very pretty, isn't she?"

denn edit

Although this sounds like "then", and is in fact a cognate, it means "because" or "since". This isn't the only confusing aspect of this word for English speakers though. Recall that a coordinating conjunction must go between the two clauses it joins, but no English translation of denn has this property. Not only that, but there are several other German words with roughly the same meaning and these are subordinating conjunctions. This proves that the distinction between coordinating and subordinating conjunctions is more a matter of grammar than of meaning. For example:

  • Ich komme nicht, denn ich bin krank. – "I'm not coming because I'm sick."

Even though starting the English version with "because", as in "Because I'm sick, I'm not coming," is acceptable, starting the German version with denn would be ungrammatical.

The future tense with conjunctions edit

To form the future tense in a simple sentence, the infinitive of the main verb is placed at the end of the sentence. But individual clauses are treated as self-contained units, so in complex sentences the infinitive goes at the end of the clause instead. For example:

  • Die Katze wird fressen, und der Hund wird trinken. – "The cat will eat, and the dog will drink."

Ellipses edit

If two clauses have a common element then it's customary to omit this element in the second clause even if the result makes the clause ungrammatical by itself. For example:

  • Kurt spielt die Gitarre, und Johann das Klavier. – "Kurt plays the guitar, and Johann the piano."

The second clause, Johann das Klavier, is ungrammatical on its own because it has no verb. Instead, the verb is implied by the first clause and we can think the second clause as Johann spielt das Klavier. Sometimes more than one element can be omitted:

  • Kurt spielt die Gitarre gut, aber Johann schlecht. – "Kurt plays the guitar well, but Johann badly."

An ellipsis is when one or more words are dropped from a sentence because they are unneeded, and this is one type. There are many other types of ellipses, and linguists have classified them according what is omitted and under what circumstance. We won't go into too much detail here though, because this is a feature of most languages and German and English behave similarly in this respect. Ellipses can be challenging for learners because what may be obvious and redundant to a native speaker can be a vital clue for understanding to someone unfamiliar with the language. Another challenge for learners is that German and English sometimes disagree on which elements can be dropped and which are essential to maintain the sentence structure, and some ellipses used in German may be surprising to English speakers. Ellipses also have great potential for creating ambiguity in a sentence, and it's up to listener to use context to find the exact meaning.

Adverbial conjunctions edit

There several adverbs which, while following the grammatical rules of an adverb, carry the meaning of a conjunction. Consider:

  • Ich suche die Schlüssel, jedoch sehe ich sie nicht. – "I'm looking for the keys, however I don't see them."

The adverb jedoch has roughly the same meaning as aber, but since it's an adverb it obeys the rules for an adverb. For example, as an adverb, it uses up the slot before the verb, so, by the V2 rule, the verb comes immediately after it. Compare with:

  • Ich suche die Schlüssel, aber ich sehe sie nicht.

Here, aber does not use the first slot and it must be filled with something else, in this case ich. Also, since jedoch is an adverb, it can be moved elsewhere in the clause:

  • Ich suche die Schlüssel, ich sehe sie jedoch nicht.

There are a number of these words, but since they are grammatically adverbs there's no need to go into them in detail here.

Some common adverbial conjunction are:

  • jedoch – "however"
  • sonst – "otherwise"

To further blur the distinction between conjunctions and other word types, several actual conjunctions in German also function as modifiers. For example aber can act as adjective modifier and may be translated as "rather":

  • Sie ist aber hübsch. – "She is rather pretty."

Multipart conjunctions edit

Just as English has "Either ... or ..." and "Both ... and ...", German has a few multipart conjunctions as well. included are:

  • entweder ... oder ... – "either ... or ..."
  • weder ... noch ... – "neither ... nor ..."
  • sowohl ... als (auch) ... – "both ... and (also) ..."


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