The subject

(The subject of the sentence in German grammar)

Table of contents – subject

On this page you will find the following:

  1. Explanation of the subject
  2. Determination of the subject
  3. Sentential subjects
  4. Further explanations and exercises

What is the subject?

The subject is the constituent of a sentence that answers the questions ‘Who?’ or ‘What?’. The German term for it is Satzgegenstand. It is always in the nominative case (1st case) and forms the central message of the sentence together with the predicate. It can consist of a single or several words. Compare in detail:

  • Subjects can be, for example:
    • Nouns:
      • Der Hund bellt laut.“ (The dog is barking loudly.)
      • Die Frau singt schön.“ (The woman sings beautifully.)
    • Pronouns:
      • Er bellt laut.“ (It is barking loudly.)
      • Sie singt schön.“ (She sings beautifully.)
    • Nominalisations:
      • Das Bellen stört sehr.“ (The barking is very disturbing.)
      • Das Singen wirkt etwas beruhigend.“ (That singing has a somewhat soothing effect.)
    • Numerals (number words):
      • Fünf kamen zu spät.“ (Five came too late.)
      • Drei davon sind zu klein.“ (Three of them are too small.)
    • Proper nouns (names):
      • Markus redet gerne.“ (Markus likes to talk.)
      • Lisa fährt vorsichtig.“ (Lisa drives carefully.)
    • Subordinate clauses as subject clauses:
      • Dass er mal wieder zu spät kam, hat uns nicht überrascht.“ (The fact that he was late again didn’t surprise us.)
      • „Heute zeigt sich, dass die Wahrheit der beste Weg ist.“ (Today it turns out that the truth is the best way.)

Note: In German, the subject must always be in grammatical agreement with the predicate, i.e. the verbs. So, if the subject is plural, the verbs must also be conjugated in the plural.

How do you determine (identify) the subject?

Particularly in German, it can be challenging to identify the subject, as it can appear in different places in the sentence. As a help, some questions make it relatively easy to find, and they are different for persons and things. Compare:

Questions for identifying persons as the subject at varying positions in the sentence:

  • Example 1: Mein Fahrlehrer hat mir ein paar Tricks fürs Einparken gezeigt.“ (My driving instructor showed me a few tricks for parking properly.)
    • Question: Wer hat mir ein paar Tricks gezeigt?“ (Who showed me a few tricks?)
    • Answer: „Mein Fahrlehrer.“ (My driving instructor.)
      • Mein Fahrlehrer’ is a multi-part subject located at the beginning of the sentence. Note that not only ‘Fahrlehrer’ but also the pronoun ‘mein’ belongs to the subject.
  • Example 2: „Michaela und ihren Freund haben wir gestern erst gesehen.“ (We saw Michaela and her boyfriend only yesterday.)
    • Question: Wer hat Michaela und ihren Freund gesehen?“ (Who saw Michaela and her boyfriend?)
    • Answer: „Wir.“ (We.)
      • Wir’ is the one-part subject and stands in the middle of the sentence.

With things, only the question word changes:

  • Example sentence: Dein Fahrrad ist ja schon wieder kaputt.“ (Your bicycle is broken again.)
    • Question: Was ist schon wieder kaputt?“ (What is broken again?)
    • Answer: „Dein Fahrrad.“ (Your bicycle.)
      • So, ‘Dein Fahrrad’ is the subject here.

Remember, complete sentences can be subjects too; read the next section for this.

What are sentential subjects (as clauses)?

Likewise, a whole clause can take the role of a subject as a subordinate clause, called a sentential subject (or sometimes a subject clause). It is a constituent and fulfils the same function as, for example, a one-part subject (one that comprises only one word).

A subject clause has the same characteristics and can therefore be at the beginning or end of the compound (complex) sentence. It often begins with ‘dass’ (that), ‘ob’ (if, whether) or a question word. The questions for determining the constituent remain the same. Compare:

Example 1:

  • Was du gesagt hast, stimmt nicht.“ (What you said is not true.)
  • Question: Was stimmt nicht?“ (What is not true?)
  • Answer: „Was du gesagt hast.“ (What you said.)
    • Here, the subordinate clause is the subject at the beginning of the complex sentence.

Example 2:

  • Es ist möglich, dass die Preise noch weiter steigen.“ (It is possible that prices will rise even further.)
  • Question: Was ist möglich?“ (What is possible?)
  • Answer: „Dass die Preise noch weiter steigen.“ (That prices will rise even further.)
    • The sentential subject is positioned at the end here (as the last part) and is replaced by the dummy pronounes’ at the beginning of the sentence.

Information: This type of dependent clause also exists as an object. Correspondingly, the name is sentential object.

Further explanations related to the topic ‘Subject’

The following explanations are relating to the ‘Subject in German grammar’ and may therefore be interesting too: