When do we use "das" and "es" and what is the difference? For example:

Das kann ich machen.
Es kann ich machen.

Das habe ich ihm gesagt.
Es habe ich ihm gesagt.

  • Better: "Ich kann es machen" and "Ich habe es ihm gesagt". "Das" (direct object) = "that" moves to the front because it emphasizes. "Es" (= "it") doesn't. – Rudy Velthuis Apr 23 '19 at 23:35

"Das" (this) is a stronger statement than "es" (it). So you use "das" in the first position for emphasis. You would use, "es," if at all, in the third position or later.

You would not say Es kann ich machen, because its placement in the first positon (for emphasis) is incongruous with its weakness, but you might say Ich kann es machen.

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The difference between es and das is, that das is a demonstrative pronoun here and es just a normal personal pronoun (in the accusative).

Your sentences starting with das are perfectly fine. You used a demonstrative pronoun, because you want to stress it and can therefore also put it at the beginning of the sentence.

Your sentences starting with es, however, sound odd. I’m not sure whether they are really grammatically wrong, but saying that will raise a few eyebrows. You would normally say "Ich kann es machen." or use a demonstrative pronoun straight away as you did. To sum it up: You just don’t say that.

(In Liechtenstein people speak like that, although it can be considered part of their dialect as you normally never hear people in Liechtenstein speak standard German.)

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"Es" in the first position wants to be the subject.

Compare another gender, e.g. der Mann.

Den habe ich euch beschrieben

it would never be "Er" in that case, because this object is Akkusativ. As for position, I would say either

Ich habe euch den beschrieben


Ich habe ihn euch beschrieben

which is somewhat confusing. I can't explain that.

With neutral gender the same sentence would be:

Das habe ich euch beschrieben

Ich habe euch das beschrieben

Ich habe es euch beschrieben


Er/Es wurde euch beschrieben.

That smells like raising (which I just recently heard for the first time and don't fully understand or believe yet; I don't think German grammarians use that concept, but I don't really know).

Therefore, the deciding difference is that "Es" in the first position wants to be the subject.

PS: If in doubt, just speak with contraction: "Ich kann's machen". That may be why both "das" and "es" work in that position, or why people say "Ich weiß' nicht" (instead of "ich weiß es nicht").

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  • Very interesting post! Do you think the position-difference between “das” and “es” could relate to the “strength” of the respective words, and the fact that more important (or in this case, “strong”) information tends to be placed farther into the clause? Also, interesting idea that the final example may be “raising”! The examples given for “raising” in the wiki article you linked tend to end in an infinitive. I’m not sure if that’s a condition of raising clauses, but in any case, it’s still nice to learn some topics in linguistics. – Aaron Apr 26 '19 at 13:53
  • Also, semantically, what is the difference between the “Ich habe euch den beschrieben” sentence, and the corresponding one with “ihn”? – Aaron Apr 27 '19 at 1:01
  • @Aaron, a) no I wouldn't and I'm not sure what kind of strength you mean, but maybe there's a theory that does fit; I don't think that importance is a one-dimensional measure, thus I don't see it mapping to placement, but I know what you mean b) I see no semantic difference between the two variants; Searching for "I told you it" we find copious evidence that the personal pronoun introduces a subsentence ("I told you, it is over"), in line with my assumption that 3rd p. sg. n. nom. signals subject status, in contrast to the akk./dat. objects; With various constraints, obviously. – vectory Apr 27 '19 at 18:42
  • I thought the phonotactics and meter might play a role, too, if that's what you mean with strengths, but I have no clue about that. – vectory Apr 27 '19 at 18:44

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