Subordinate Clauses

What are Subordinate Clauses?

Main Clause: a grammatically complete sentence that can stand alone.

Subordinate Clause: a phrase that is not grammatically complete. It is missing some part and can not stand alone.

Normally, a subordinate clause is combined with a main clause and gives extra information about it. Subordinate clauses are joined with main clauses with conjunctions ("dass," "wenn," "weil," …) or relative pronouns. In subordinate clauses, the conjugated verb goes at the end.

Word Order in Subordinate Clauses

Subordinate clauses must be separated from the main clause with a comma.

Word Order: Main Clause + Subordinate Clause

In the main clause, we follow the normal rules of word order for a sentence - i.e. the verb in position 2.

In the subordinate clause, the conjugated verb goes to the end.

Word Order: Subordinate Clause + Main Clause

The entire subordinate clause is position 1 of the main clause. This is followed by the conjugated verb (in position 2), and then comes the rest of the main clause.

  • The entire subordinate clause is position 1 of the main clause.
  • In the subordinate clause, the conjugated verb goes at the end.
  • The subject of the subordinate clause stays at the front.
  • The conjugated verb of the main clause goes, as usual, in position 2.
  • The main clause is separated from the subordinate clause by a comma.

Word Order: Separable Verbs

For separable verbs we must also follow the rule: conjugated verb at the end.

That means the verb stem is also at the end, so we no longer separate the prefix.

  • Wenn ich das Fenster aufmache, wird es kalt.“
    In comparison to: „Ich mache das Fenster auf.“

Word Order: More than One Verb

For modal verbs, the perfect tense, the passive voice, etc., there‘s more than one verb in the sentence.

The rule still applies: conjugated verb at the end of the clause. This means the other verbs go in the second to last position (and third to last position, if necessary).

  • „Ich habe keine Zeit, weil ich noch einkaufen gehen muss.“
    In comparison to: „Ich habe keine Zeit.“ „Ich muss noch einkaufen gehen.“


For perfect or past perfect, there is an exception to the rule about the conjugated verb going at the end.

Modal verbs and other verbs that are used with a 2nd verb in the infinitive form (i.e. "lassen," "sehen," "hören") have an irregular word order in perfect and past perfect tenses. The conjugated helping verb "haben" goes IN FRONT of the two other verbs (main verb + modal verb):

As main clause:

  • „Ich habe meine Mutter vom Bahnhof abholen müssen.“

As subordinate clause:

  • „…, weil ich meine Mutter vom Bahnhof habe abholen müssen.“

Modal verbs always use "haben" as the helping verb in the perfect tense.

Besides the modal verbs, "lassen," "sehen," and "hören" CAN be used with a second infinitive verb. If they are used in this way, the helping verb goes before the main verb as well

Now you know why Germans, when possible, use the simple past tense instead of the perfect tense with modal verbs!

Related Topics:

Comprehensive look at individual types of conjunctions: subordinate conjunctions, temporal conjunctionsand multipart conjunctions.

Info about German conjunctions in general.

Subordinate Conjunctions: "dass," "weil/da," "obwohl," "damit,“ "wenn/falls," "so dass," "indemand "als" / "wenn."

Conjunctive adverbs are similar to conjunctions but follow different grammar rules.

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