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There is a sentence in one of my textbook tasks, which says "Otto hat Probleme, denn es fehlen genaue Angaben auf dem Einkaufszettel".

I can't understand right away, if the 'es fehlen' clause is either just a typo (and the verb should've been conjugated as 'es fehlt') or a usable norm, because Google shows me some examples where 'es fehlen' is genuinely used.

And if the phrase is right, how do I generally tell whether we use singular or plural conjugation with the expletive/dummy subject 'es'? Or is this the particular verb 'fehlen' that exclusively goes this way, while other, like 'geben', stand in 3-rd singular?

  • "fehlen" refers to "Angaben", not to "es". – Eller Apr 20 '17 at 14:01
  • I thought of this, but how do I then explain the presence of 'es'? – WTEDST Apr 20 '17 at 14:03
  • In this case "es" is a place holder so that the verb is at the second position. – Eller Apr 20 '17 at 14:05
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It's mandatory in many languages (German, English, French and others) to have a subject in a sentence. That's no problem if there's a subject in the sentence's meaning:

The dog sleeps / Der Hund schläft

It sleeps / Er schläft

But what about cases where there is no subject in the meaning? In such cases, you need something like a "filler subject":

It rains / Es regnet (what's the "it" exactly? ;) )

It is necessary to study for the exam / Es ist notwendig, für die Prüfung zu lernen

Such "filler words" can be about any word that is "coerced" by the grammatical structure without having meaning in the sentence, not just pronouns. They are called "Expletivum" or "syntactic expletive".

In your example, as @Eller mentioned in the comments to the question, the syntactic expletive is necessary to ensure the proper word order of subject - predicate. You could rewrite the sentence as

... denn auf dem Einkaufszettel fehlen genaue Angaben

or

... denn die genauen Angaben fehlen auf dem Einkaufszettel

But these versions would imply that it's more or less clear which specifications exactly are missing. As I understand the example, Otto would be grateful for about any further information ;)

So because the the specifications are not really specified, you don't use them as a subject, and you need a syntactic expletive. You might say, the author would have had a "real" subject, but decided not to use it to give the sentence a specific emphasis.

The difference between

Genaue Angaben fehlen

and

Es fehlen genaue Angaben

could be compared with the difference between

Further specifications are missing

and

There are further specifications missing

The predicate is plural because the "real" subject, which the author decided to deemphasize, is plural: "Die Angaben sind...", "The specifications are..."

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  • 1
    This doesn't explain the question why fehlen is Plural. – Janka Apr 20 '17 at 15:29
  • @Janka You are right, I updated my answer. – Henning Kockerbeck Apr 20 '17 at 23:02
  • I think the first half of this answer contradicts the second half. First you say there is no subject, then you say there is a "real" subject? – Blavius Apr 21 '17 at 3:32
  • @Blavius You're right, the subject in the example sentence is a bit "in flux". It's there, but the author seems to want to deemphasize it, so he treats the subject as if it weren't there. I clarified my answer. – Henning Kockerbeck Apr 21 '17 at 12:11
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"Denn" introduces a main clause (unlike "weil" with has a similar meaning but introduces a subordinate clause). So the structure of the sentence does not change and the verb should be at the second position. And "es" is used as a place holder for putting the verb to the second position.

Otto hat Probleme, denn es fehlen genaue Angaben auf dem Einkaufszettel

Grammatically it is possible to change the word order and thus get rid of "es":

Otto hat Probleme, denn genaue Angaben fehlen auf dem Einkaufszettel

But this sentence cannot fully replace the original one because it emphasizes different things.

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