When Does the Sentence Begin with a Verb?

When does the Sentence Begin with a Verb?

Main clause following subordinate clause Conditional sentence omitting "if"
Imperative or suggestion Yes/no questions
Assertions emphasized with "doch" Subject omitted (informal use)
Summary: which is which?

You expect to see the verb either in second position (main clauses) or in final position (subordinate clauses). What if it begins the sentence or clause? There are five main possibilities, and a few special cases. Here they are, roughly in order of importance.

(a) Main clause following subordinate clause

In this case, the subordinate clause is in a sense occupying the first position in the main clause (since it answers one question, such as "Why?" or "When?"), so even though the verb appears to be in first position in the main clause, it is in a sense still in second position where it belongs.

Wenn Kühe müde werden, schlafen sie im Stehen.
When cows get tired (subordinate clause), they sleep standing up (main clause)

(b) Conditional sentence omitting "if"

The wenn may be omitted from any conditional wenn-clause in German. When this happens, the verb takes first position. Here is another way to say the same thing (as in (a) above) about cows:

Werden Kühe müde, (so/dann) schlafen sie im stehen

So or dann (=then) is usually (but certainly not always) inserted before the verb in the conclusion as an extra clue that this is a conditional sentence. Occasionally, "if" can be omitted in English in the same way. The following are equivalent:

  • If I had destroyed the book, you would not be playing MYST (Wenn ich das Buch zerstört hätte,...)
  • Had I destroyed the book, (then) you would not be playing MYST (Hätte ich das Buch zerstört, (so)...)

(c) Imperative or suggestion

Don't forget the "wir" form (translated "let's...")!

Sei/Seien Sie/Seid Individuen! Be individuals!
Essen wir ein Pfund SPAM Let's eat a pound of SPAM

There is no er/sie/es form of the imperative, but in formal writing, Subjunctive I is sometimes used, usually in conjunction with man or es, in order to express requests or suggestions in the third person. This construction may or may not begin with the verb. It is usually translated Let
the reader
, or just by the imperative. We will cover Subjunctive I (which usually indicates indirect speech) later, but its third person singular (present) is easy to recognize: for sein the form is sei; for all other verbs, it is the same as the ich-form ==> if you see the ich-form of a verb, but ich does not make sense, the verb is probably in Subjunctive I.

AB sei eine Gerade.

Sei AB eine Gerade.

Let AB be a straight line.
Man nehme zwei Eier. Take two eggs (standard cookbook phrase).

Man stelle sich eine Welt ohne Eier vor.

Stelle man sich eine Welt ohne Eier vor.

(Let the reader) Imagine a world without eggs.
Möge es ihm gelingen May he be successful.

(d) Yes/no questions

Haben wir Eier? Do we have eggs?

(e) Assertions emphasized with "doch"

One of the uses of the "flavoring particle" doch is to add emphasis to an assertion; when it is used in this way, the sentence is sometimes begun with the verb:

Weiß man doch, wie wichtig Eier sind

Man weiß doch, wie wichtig Eier sind

After all, one knows how important eggs are

Hatte er doch ein Pfund SPAM gegessen

Er hatte doch ein Pfund SPAM gegessen

After all, he had eaten a pound of SPAM

(f) Subject omitted (informal use)

Muß gehen Gotta go
Hab' keine Zeit I don't have any time

(g) Summary: which is which?

In addition to the context, these clues will help you decide which of the above possibilities applies in any given case:

--questions are always marked by question marks

--wenn-clauses omitting the wenn are usually marked by so or dann.

--imperatives and suggestions are sometimes marked by exclamation points or the use of Subjunctive I

--emphasized assertions are always marked by doch