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I am trying to learn the various uses of es and poking around in Duden and Wiktionary, I came across this sentence for usage as a “delayed” subject.

(1) Es fielen die ersten Tropfen, einzelne, aber sehr schwere.

If I take the “normal” subject as,

(2) Die ersten Tropfen fielen, einzelne, aber sehr schwere.

Do I get the right meaning (apologies for my comma usage) if I say:

  1. It fell, the first drops, single but very heavy.

  2. The first drops fell, single but very heavy.

Also, can someone tell me when the “delayed” form in the form of sentence (1) is used commonly nowadays, if at all?

The fragment Es fielen die ersten Tropfen … comes from Duden online for es under the meaning

kündigt ein ins Mittel- oder Nachfeld des Satzes gerücktes (hervorzuhebendes) Subjekt an oder einen im Mittel- oder Nachfeld stehenden [verkürzten] Subjekt- oder Objektsatz; da; das

That was my rationale for using the term “delayed subject” as used by the English Wiktionary.

When I search for the complete sentence as shown above in (1), Google offers an extract from an old German book: Alexis, Willibald: Ruhe ist die erste Bürgerpflicht oder Vor fünfzig Jahren. Bd. 1. Berlin, 1852. You can see the extract here.

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The "es" in this case is a an empty filler. There has to something in position 1; otherwise the sentence would sound like a question. But for some reason the author chose to move all the constituents after the verb, which is fine. But only if position 1 gets filled and that is done by what we can savely call a "filler-es". Note that

it has nothing to do with the subject!

This shows once we look at the conjugation of the verb. "es" is singular, "die ersten Tropfen" is plural. The verb is "fallen" so we're using a plural form. But that's not the only reason. The filler-es can always be used when position 1 is empty, even in sentences that do not have a subject.

In Deutschland wird viel gemeckert.
Es wird in Deutschland viel gemeckert.

As far as translation goes I would use "then" if the sentence is part of a sequence of events or your version 2; if not probably just this:

Drops started falling, single ones but very heavy.

  • According to our German teacher (in the 1990s when I went to school) the subject in sentences like "Hier wird viel gemeckert" really is the word "es", even if it is not written. However in the case of "Es fallen die Regentropfen" the word "es" cannot be the subject. Otherwise you would have to say: "Es fällt die Regentropfen". – Martin Rosenau Jun 2 '17 at 10:36
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Top, you made a good translation.

The first form is stil commonly used, it has sometimes an poetic touch. With it's short rhythmic parts your first example could be from a poem or a song.

Here a more common example.

Es fielen die ersten Tropfen, bald darauf regnete es in Strömen.

  • I'm not sure, if "It fell" followed by a plural is proper English – Emanuel Nov 20 '14 at 21:43
  • @Emanuel Could be, my english is very bad so I can't decide. However even if wrong, it catches the german meaning exactly. – Kitana Nov 20 '14 at 21:52
  • Also, I perceive this structure mroe technical than poetic. "Es darf nicht gerannt werden", "Es muss erst noch der Wein bezahlt werden", "Es passen 3 Menschen in den Aufzug." There's nothing poetic about these. – Emanuel Nov 20 '14 at 21:52
  • I don't think there's much meaning to catch. At least we can't tell unless we know the surrounding sentences. What it does do is mirror the structure the closest but that is usually only a tertiary concern in translation after meaning and meter/flow. Oh, make that 5th. I forgot register and tone. – Emanuel Nov 20 '14 at 21:55
  • @Emanuel Darum habe ich ja auch das "more common example" noch gebracht - gut ein paar Varianten mehr hätten auch nicht geschadet. Nichtsdestotrotz hat für mich das erste Beispiel schon fast wie ein Haiku geklungen, ausserdem sind in meinem "Schweizer Singbuch" aus der Schulzeit immerhin neun Lieder aufgeführt deren Titel mit "Es ..." beginnen. – Kitana Nov 20 '14 at 22:13

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