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In order to say something like:

what I see is you

in German, would one say

  1. was ich sehe, bist du"

or

  1. was ich sehe, ist du

I heard was ich sehe, bist du in a song lyric and it confused me because translating from English makes me feel like I should use ist instead of bist.

Which version is grammatically correct in German, or just generally how would one say what I see is you?

Also, is there supposed to be a comma in the phrase or not?

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4 Answers 4

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The question is actually much more tricky than it looks at first sight.

For native speakers, it is obvious it should be

Was ich sehe, bist du.

But it is kind of tricky to find out why.

What we know is: The subject of the sentence drives the predicate's verb form. The subject is normally a substantive in nominative, in sentences of the form "<etwas> ist <etwas>" you normally find two nominatives. One of them is the Gleichsetzungsnominativ, the second form of "etwas", the other one must be the subject of the sentence, which rules the verb. Now, which is which?

Der Löwe ist ein Raubtier.

So the subject could be either of Löwe or Raubtier (actually, it is indecisive, we can't really see without context what the subject could be)

Wikipedia tries to help with "try and replace the 'ist' with a verb that goes together with 'als'", like

Der Löwe entpuppt sich als Raubtier

Doesn't help much here, because it could just as well be

Das Raubtier entpuppt sich als Löwe

What we see in your example is that the first <etwas> is replaced by a relative clause ("Was ich sehe," we call that "freier Relativsatz", that term has the same status as a substantive and can also be subject or object in a sentence.

So let's do the same as above with your example sentence:

Was ich sah, entpuppte sich als Du.

Du entpupptest dich als was ich sah.

Doesn't help much as well, we can say it both ways, and both sound right. This form makes it clear where the subject is, and also what rules the verb form.

So, without knowing more context, we actually don't know which is right and which is wrong. Formally, there is no rule that says

Was ich sehe, ist du

should be wrong and

Was ich sehe, bist du

right. However, there is a tendency to pick the more concrete thing as the subject in such sentences, especially if the alternative is a "freier Relativsatz" - So 99% of native speakers would prefer

Was ich sehe, bist du.

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  • I wouldn't say "Was ich sah, entpuppte sich als Du." sounds right.
    – Iris
    Oct 6, 2016 at 11:48
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In such structures, there is a method, which i use to find the correct form of the verb. Basically, my method is to change the order of clauses.

For example, there is a saying in English and German.

You are what you eat.

In German, it is said

Du bist was du isst.

if you change the order of clauses, you get the following

Was du isst, bist du.

Briefly, if you change the order of the clauses in your sentence, you get the correct answer.

Was ich sehe, bist du -> Du bist was ich sehe.

But your other example would not be very meaningful, if you change the order

Was ich sehe, ist du -> Du ist, was ich sehe

With this method, you can always find your way better. Both versions (pre and post) of the sentences may not be very meaningful but if it is gramatically correct, then you are on the right way.

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Was ich sehe, bist du

is the only one that is grammatically correct. It seems as though it was the equivalent of You are what I see. Apparently, personal pronouns have a hard time being part of the predicate in predicative constructions in German, even though

Ich würde mir wünschen Du zu sein

does not sound utterly unacceptable to me. So whatever it is, Was ich sehe is a free relative clause, and thus acts as constituent on its own that occupies the first position of the German clause, just like what I see takes the subject position in the English equivalent (which is why it controls agreement on the verb there). Due to its status as a free relative clause, I would refrain from using a comma, since it is not an actual case of subordination.

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  • 3
    Why would the comma not be necessary? The sentence consists of a main and a subordinate clause and it is typically mandatory in German to separate those with a comma.
    – Jan
    Oct 5, 2016 at 22:10
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In English the verb is related to what and that makes it is instead of are.

You might also write

It is you who I see

that probably makes cleared where the form of the verb comes from.

In the german translation, the verb is related to you.
You could translate the German sentence to:

You are the thing that I see.

That is, why the correct translation indeed is.

Was ich sehe, bist du

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  • What about: Was ich sehe, ist blau?
    – tofro
    Oct 6, 2016 at 7:45
  • @tofro, same rule. It is not about the what, but about the blue thing. "Das Etwas ist blau."
    – Iris
    Oct 6, 2016 at 8:19
  • @Iris Exactly not: In my example, the relative clause drives the verb form - in the original, it's the "du".
    – tofro
    Oct 6, 2016 at 8:36
  • @tofro: In your example the comma is wrong. ist blau is missing the noun - no subordinate clause - no comma. The sentence is completely different from the one in the question.
    – Tode
    Oct 6, 2016 at 8:43
  • @TorstenLink I can see a relative clause (freier Relativsatz), that is why the comma is needed. And, apart from the "what is it", it's the same sentence. Another nice example: "Was ich sehe, ist das Bild an der Wand, der Baum vor dem Fenster und du"
    – tofro
    Oct 6, 2016 at 8:51

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