I want to translate the sentence: "I have forgotten to brush my teeth". I thought I should say "Ich habe meine Zähne zu putzen vergessen". I think that when we use the Partizip 2 we put "habe" in second position and "vergessen" in last position. But my German friends tell me that the correct translation is "Ich habe vergessen meine Zähne zu putzen".

Can someone explain me why "vergessen" is not in the last position here?

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    I assume you know the plural of "Zahn" is "Zähne", not "Zahne", and the typo is due to your keyboad settings?
    – Burki
    Commented Mar 4, 2015 at 15:57
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    For clarity you can (but don't need to) put a comma between "vergessen" and "meine". "meine Zähne zu putzen" is a infintive clause: "Ich habe vergessen, meine Zähne zu putzen" This is equal to a simple dass-clause: "Ich habe vergessen, dass ich meine Zähne putzen muss" – What I'm saying. The word order didn't change... It's just a clause that is "attached"
    – Em1
    Commented Mar 4, 2015 at 16:06
  • @Em1, ist das Komma auch für einen erweiterten Infinitiv mit "zu" nicht mehr zwingend? Oh, diese modernen Zeiten...
    – Carsten S
    Commented Mar 4, 2015 at 20:06
  • @CarstenSchultz Bin mir nicht sicher, inwiefern das jetzt ernst gemeint war, aber wie so häufig: Es ist manchmal zwingend und manchmal nicht und manchmal falsch.
    – Em1
    Commented Mar 4, 2015 at 21:13
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    @Em1, es war insofern Ernst, als ich meine, dass da ein Komma hingehörte, als ich zur Schule ging. Ich kann aber mit sich ändernden Regeln umgehen und halte es ohnehin mit Max Goldt, der einmal schrieb, Rechtschreibung wäre für Liebhaber.
    – Carsten S
    Commented Mar 4, 2015 at 22:25

2 Answers 2


This is an instance of the "end-weight principle" at work.

German often has to spread out the verb phrase around its complements, but with an entire nested verb phrase, it's permissible and in fact much preferred to extract it and put it at the end. This is for general cognitive reasons (it is easier to deal with one task at a time than with two interleaved tasks).

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    Even though you say that, let me emphasise that both versions are correct.
    – Carsten S
    Commented Mar 4, 2015 at 20:08

The word order in your first example puts an emphasis on what happened to your teeth:

Ich habe meine Zähne zu putzen vergessen

Ich habe meine Zähne zu Hause vergessen

Ich habe meine Zähne grün angemalt und sie anschließend fotografiert

If you reorder to "ich habe vergessen", the emphasis shifts to the fact that you forgot something:

Ich habe vergessen, meine Zähne zu putzen

Ich habe vergessen, meine Zähne zu putzen und die Haustür abzuschließen

Ich habe schon wieder vergessen, die Katze zu füttern

This may not seem to make a big difference, but the "first things first" pattern is one way to direct the readers attention. Admittedly, this may take effect depending on certain expectations and habits of the reader as to the structure and overall context of a sentence. In spoken language, the effect of the word order is still valid but you can overrule it by accentuating a word phonetically.

  • I find this "first thing's first" principle highly misleading. Why? Because it implies that what comes first matters most. Which is totally not the case. Proof: "Ich habe meiner Freundin ein Buch gekauft." "Ich habe ein Buch meiner Freundin gekauft." The main focus is on the element that is on the most right. IMO the emphasis on what happened to the teeth is not due to the fact that it's early but due to the fact that it's out of it's usual final position. The emphasis on "vergessen" in the usual order is due to the fact that it is at the end of its phrase.
    – Emanuel
    Commented Mar 5, 2015 at 22:17
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    @Emanuel You're right that this is not always conclusive, but I think it is a reasonable way to distinguish between "Ich habe meine Zähne zu putzen vergessen" and "Ich habe vergessen, meine Zähne zu putzen". Commented Mar 6, 2015 at 8:02
  • well, what about if the "zu"-construct has no noun then "ich habe vergessen, zu bremsen." vs "Ich habe zu bremsen vergessen". Do you really see a big difference in emphasis there? The second version sticks out as a whole but again, I think it's only because of the uncommon structure. Also, with that statement in your answer you will make students produce loads of unidiomatic sentences (having the zu-part early) just because they feel like they want to stress something. I don't have a problem with the answer, just with calling the whole thing a "principle" because that's just too general.
    – Emanuel
    Commented Mar 6, 2015 at 9:42
  • @Emanuel The problem here seems to me that we all tend to "read aloud" something written down emphasizing what to us, seems important in the context, which also depends on our individual or regional speaking patterns and, which is important, a constant but perhaps subconscious re-reading and re-interpreting the text. On the other hand, we have to take into account a neuro-linguistic effect called "priming", where (shown by fMRI screenings) the first term predetermines the perception of a second term. But these are complicated proceedings which probably don't explain the phenomenon as a whole. Commented Mar 6, 2015 at 10:22

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