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I am not a native speaker of German, and so would like to verify if the following sentence is correct:

Das schönste, das du sein kannst, ist du selbst.

In particular, I am not sure about the ist. In my opinion, the subject of the sentence is das schönste, das du sein kannst, and not du, and so the verb should be ist, not bist. However, my wife (who is a native speaker) feels that the verb must be bist.

Also, the English meaning I am trying to achieve is something similar to:

The most beautiful thing you can be, is yourself.

and not:

The most beautiful thing you can be, are you (yourself).

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3 Answers 3

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Search for the subject …

Ignoring the relative clauses for the moment, you can (somewhat) say

Du bist das Schönste.
Das Schönste bist du
Das Schönste ist: Du

Case one and two are basically the same sentence but case two makes use of the flexible placement of SPO in German. And all three sentences have valid grammar (although I have placed the colon in example three because my mind wants to say bist (*). The colon eases that desire a bit.)

In (1) and (2), the subject is du, thus the predicate is bist. In (3), the subject is das Schönste (note that Duden says Adjektive in substantivischem Gebrauch werden im Allgemeinen groß geschrieben)

And a native German writer would probably evade the bist/ist dilemma by using a construct with man — like

Das Schönste, was man sein kann, ist: Man selbst.

which would (in this case) not even be an evasion, but rather closer to what the original sentence wanted to express — Assumed it was not used to address someone directly, but rather anyone.

(*) Note that if you say … something is something … it is perfectly valid to exchange the somethings (i.e. subject and object) in any language … But example (3) just sounds clumsy in native ears — Even if it is perfect German.

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  • 1
    Thanks for your answer. I indeed decided to rephrase the sentence.
    – Hoopje
    Mar 6, 2016 at 21:44
  • 1
    I stumbled over search the subject when editing. I want to replace it by search for the subject or searching for the subject but I don’t know what you want to convey so I left it.
    – Jan
    Mar 20, 2016 at 23:04
  • I was thinking about something like Cherchez la femme when I thought about the heading... Thanks for pointing out.
    – tofro
    Mar 22, 2016 at 18:51
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Duden Volume 9 Richtiges und gutes Deutsch suggests a simple test to identify the subject and the predicative in such sentences: Replace the linking verb (e.g. sein) with gelten als or bezeichnet werden als. The part that follows the conjunction als is the predicative (not the subject).

The example given in the question

Das Schönste, das du sein kannst, ist/bist du selbst.

or its counterpart

Du selbst ist/bist das Schönste, das du sein kannst.

can be replaced with

Als das Schönste, das du sein kannst, giltst du selbst.

Als das Schönste, das du sein kannst, kannst du selbst bezeichnet werden.

and

Du selbst giltst als das Schönste, das du sein kannst.

Du selbst kannst als das Schönste, das du sein kannst, bezeichnet werden.

Thus, das Schönste is the predicative (not the subject). Therefore, the correct sentences are:

Das Schönste, das du sein kannst, bist du selbst.

Du selbst bist das Schönste, das du sein kannst.

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  • Thanks for your answer, and for the Duden link. However, I have the feeling that the "bist" version loses some of the meaning I want to convey. The predicate "du selbst sein" has meaning beyond the mere meaning of the words. Everybody is himself, but "du selbst sein" actually requires an effort. I do not want to say that "du" is "das Schönste", but that being "du selbst" is. I was trying to do that by taking a sentence like "Das Schönste [...] ist Feuermann." and replacing "Feuermann" with "du selbst". I realise now that I am then actually replacing the subject. I decided to rephrase.
    – Hoopje
    Mar 6, 2016 at 21:41
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In German, the common phrase for individuation is Sei du selbst!, meaning that you should allow yourself to explore and develop who you truly are, instead of adapting to the expectations of who your surroundings think you should be.

Taking this phrase, the obvious corresponding construction is:

Das Schönste, das du sein kannst, bist du selbst.

This will be understood by all native speakers of German to mean that your true self will be more beautiful than any false and defensive facade.

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