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Here is a sentence from the Duden dictionary:

Es vergingen drei Stunden, ehe wir landen konnten.

Why es vergingen instead of es verging?

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  • 2
    Ask yourself: How many hours passed by?
    – Stephie
    Commented Oct 28, 2016 at 19:56
  • 1
    Stunden = Plural.
    – Ingmar
    Commented Oct 28, 2016 at 19:57
  • Related, potentially dupe: german.stackexchange.com/q/6806
    – Jan
    Commented Oct 29, 2016 at 13:46
  • Since you can say "Drei Stunden vergingen" but not "Drei Stunden verging", it is "Es vergingen drei Stunden". Stunden is int the plural form (three hours), therefore vergingen. You say "Eine Stunde verging" or "Es verging eine Stunde" though, Stunde is in the singular form (one hour).
    – user15248
    Commented Oct 29, 2016 at 15:08

2 Answers 2

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It's about the amount of things that are doing the verb "vergehen". In this case, even though at first glance the subject of this sentence is es, this is only a dummy-subject.

The best way to think about it is, is the es necessary? In this sentence, it is not. You could replace

Es vergingen drei Stunden

with

Drei Stunden vergingen (or Drei Stunden sind vergangen)

and you can see clearly that the plural form of the verb should be used. From here you can clearly apply this principle to the imperfect, and therefore add en to the end of the verb. This is different from other constructions using es, which is probably what has confused you (for example es gibt) where the es would be necessary to the sentence.

Es gibt zwei Katzen

Here, the es could not be replaced without changing the sentence completely, so the es is the subject and the verb agrees accordingly.

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    I think it would have been clearer if you had no also switch from past to present perfect.
    – Carsten S
    Commented Oct 29, 2016 at 12:07
  • @CarstenS I agree, but I did this for two reasons. 1. I thought that by using "sind", it makes it clearer to people who are not as familiar with the imperfect that it is the third person plural and 2. because it sounded more natural to my (non-native) ears to use the imperfect. However I don't want to cause confusion so I will add it in as well.
    – Harvey
    Commented Oct 29, 2016 at 18:24
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This is because "drei Stunden" is the subject of the sentence, and it is a plural form, so the verb has to be in plural as well.

Although "es" may look like he subject of the sentence, it's not: It's just a fill-in word. Grammar requires that there is something before the verb. This is called "syntactic expletive" (see Wikipedia).

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