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Lesson Transcript


Michael: Is omission of an implied subject common in German?
Igor: And why (not)?
Michael: At GermanPod101.com, we hear these questions often. In the following situation, Mark Lee came late to a meeting with Johannes Jäger. He says,
"I'm sorry."
Mark Lee: Es Tut mir leid.
Mark Lee: Es tut mir leid.
Johannes Jager: [Es] Macht nichts.
Michael: Once more with the English translation.
Mark Lee: Es tut mir leid.
Michael: "I'm sorry. "
Johannes Jager: [Es] Macht nichts.
Michael: "No worries."

Lesson focus

Michael: Omitting the subject or the pronoun is possible in so-called "pro-drop languages.” Pro-drop-languages are languages where omitting the pronoun, or the subject, doesn’t affect the information conveyed by the sentence. You can observe this, for instance, in Romance and Slavic languages. However, this is not possible in the English language, and subject omission is also not a standard practice in German. The German language allows for subject omission only in a very limited number of cases—and most of these can even be considered fixed expressions.
[Recall 1]
Michael: Let’s take a closer look at our dialogue now.
Do you remember how Mark says "I'm sorry. "
(pause 4 seconds)
Igor: Es tut mir leid.
Michael: literally meaning “This I’m sorry for.”
We’ll concentrate on the subject of this sentence which is “this” or
Igor: Es
Michael: literally meaning “it” and, in this context, we call it a dummy subject. German is a verb-second, or a Subject-Verb-Object language, which means that the verb has to always be in the second position in the main clause. If the subject is not specified, German speakers would fill in the space before the verb with
Igor: Es
Michael: to cover both rules we mentioned in this lesson—that every German sentence should have a subject, and that the verb will take the second position in the sentence.
Now, we will come to our exception. For spoken, or colloquial language, the dummy subject can actually be dropped. Our verb meaning “do,”
Igor: tut
Michael: is already conjugated in the third person singular, and our personal pronoun
Igor: mir
Michael: is in dative and takes the role of the subject here. The subject is always in the nominative case, and it’s logical for both conversation participants that the dummy subject “it” was used here to substitute for the actual subject.
So, we would be allowed to say
Igor: Tut mir leid.
[Recall 2]
Michael: Do you remember how Johanes answered “No worries?”
(Pause 4 seconds)
Igor: Macht nichts.
Michael: Did you notice that something was missing? In his answer, there is no subject at all. We have the same situation as in Mark's apology. Can you guess what the full sentence should sound like?
(Pause 4 seconds)
Igor: Es macht nichts.
Michael: literally meaning “It does nothing” but is understood as “Nevermind.” As before, after dropping the subject, we had the verb in the first position, meaning that the subject is missing. Using your reverse engineering skills here, you can pretty much assume that we will use the dummy subject in the first position.
But be aware that not every sentence allows the subject to be omitted. Let’s take, for instance, the sentence
Igor: Es schneit,
Michael Hillard: meaning “It snows.” Even if we have a conjugated verb here, the sentence itself does not convey enough information for the subject to be dropped.
Michael Hillard: We learned in today’s lesson that you should never omit the subject while using formal German, but when it comes to spoken and colloquial language, some subjects can be dropped without losing the meaning of the sentence.
Let’s have a look at some other sentences where the subject can be omitted. For example,
Igor: Mir ist es kalt.
Michael: literally “It is cold to me.” We can drop the subject here, and we will get the sentence,
Igor: Mir ist kalt.
Michael: The subject “it” was dropped so we have only “Is cold to me” left. Next, we have
Igor: Ihn dürstet es,
Michael: meaning “He is thirsty.” The subject can also be dropped here,
Igor: Ihn dürstet.
Expansion/Contrast (Optional)
Michael: The omission of the subject is also allowed under two further conditions. Similarly to English, we can drop the subject in the imperative mood. If we use the imperative for second person singular, or second person plural, usually the subject isn’t needed because the conjugated verb implies the subject of the sentence. So, for instance, in the sentence,
Igor: Geh nach Hause!
Michael: meaning “Go home!”, the verb “go” implies that it’s directed to the second person singular. As in English, the subject isn’t necessarily needed here. But if we use the imperative for ourselves, such as,
Igor: Ich gehe nach Hause!
Michael: or, if we use the imperative in formal manners, like in
Igor: Gehen Sie nach Hause!
Michael: the subject is required.
The other situation where the subject can be omitted is while using the impersonal passive in German. It’s often formed using the dummy subject
Igor: Es
Michael: as in
Igor: Es wurden neue Arbeitsplätze geschaffen,
Michael: meaning “New workplaces have been created.” As we mentioned before, we can use the dummy subject to push the verb into the second position. If we change the word order, setting the Object in the first position, we can drop the subject completely. The previous sentence would sound like
Igor: Arbeitsplätze wurden geschaffen.
Cultural Insight/Expansion
Michael: If you have friends from Germany and you try to keep in touch with them via chat programs, you might have noticed that they often don’t include the subject while chatting. This comes from something the Germans call
Igor: Telegrammstil
Michael: or “telegraph style” in English. It’s a style of writing which evolved after the invention of the electric telegraph in 1837, and the idea behind this was to shorten the written text to essential information, since the message transported by the telegraph had to be as short as possible.
For instance, the following sentence,
Igor: Ich komme heute um 15 Uhr an,
Michael: meaning “I will arrive today at 3:00 p.m.,” can be shortened to only four words,
Igor: Komme 15 Uhr an.
Michael: In this case, the conjugated verb shows us that the subject is the first person singular, so it’s not necessarily needed to include the subject here.
Igor: Heute
Michael: can be omitted, if it’s obvious from the context, and
Igor: um
Michael: can be left out as well. So, the sentence in telegraph style is
Igor: Komme 15 Uhr an.
Michael: and literally means “Arrive 3PM” but it is understood as “I will arrive at 3:00 p.m..”
This has mainly been used for telegraphs in the past, but, after telephones were invented, many papers continued to use this style for headlines. With the development of modern technologies, the telegraph style came back into fashion since SMS, for example, was limited to only a small number of characters. Probably because of the convenience of keeping the length of sentences to a minimum, this style of writing survived until the Internet age, where it is now commonly used to communicate in chat programs.
But remember, if you intend to write an official letter, such as the cover letter for your next job in Germany, you should always write in full sentences including the subject.
Michael: This might be also the origin of some set phrases such as,
Igor: keine Ahnung
Michael: meaning “Don’t know,” where the subject also isn’t included. Even though the whole sentence is
Igor: Ich habe keine Ahnung.
Michael: meaning “I don’t know,” there is no rule on why the subject and the verb is dropped. You will just have to memorize set phrases like this.
Michael: Do you have any more questions? We’re here to answer them!
Igor: Tschüsschen!
Michael: See you soon!"

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