How do you use non-modal verbs (hear, overhear, see etc.) to help another verb, as modal verbs do in German? For example, how do you translate these sentences to German:

I hear you coughing.

I overheard them talking about Alice.

He saw me walking.


The most direct equivalent to such constructions is an accusative-and-infinitive construction (AcI). It can be used with verbs of perception and similar and the subject of the action that is perceived is put into the accusative case while the verb is in the infinitive case. While you do not use it in your examples, there is an analogous English construction (“I hear you cough”, “He saw me walk”). Using this construction your examples would translate to:

Ich höre Dich husten.

Ich hörte sie zufällig über Alice sprechen.

Er sah mich gehen.

Note that the AcI cannot be used with all verbs of perception, but only the most common ones (hören, sehen, fühlen, spüren). For example, if you choose to translate to overhear with mitbekommen in your second example, you cannot say:

* Ich bekam sie über Alice sprechen mit.

Instead you have to use a subordinate clause, for example:

Ich bekam mit, wie sie über Alice sprachen.
Ich bekam mit, dass sie über Alice sprachen.

This is also more idiomatic in complex constructions. For example, both of the following sentences are grammatically correct and have mostly the same meaning, but the second one is more idiomatic:

Ich hörte sie Alice’ Probleme besprechen.
Ich hörte, wie sie Alice’ Probleme besprachen.
(I heard them talk about Alice’s problems.)

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  • Are "wie" and "dass" entirely interchangeable in this construction? – H. Saleh Sep 29 '17 at 9:21
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    @H.Saleh: Not entirely. This would actually make for a good separate question. – Wrzlprmft Sep 29 '17 at 9:25

You use them in connection with infinitive form.

Your examples would be:

Ich höre Dich husten
Ich hörte sie über Alice reden
Er sah mich laufen

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To be clear, modals are a common construct in many Indo-European languages, such as German, French, Italian, Spanish, etc.

What makes them modal is their unique structure and semantics. Thus, in English, "I can read" becomes in German "Ich kann lesen". Generally, they modal is conjugated for person and time, with an infinitive that is not.

There are very few true modals. In English, 'can', 'may', 'wish', 'should', and a few others corresponding to 'kann', 'darf', 'will', 'sollte', etc.

It is important to be clear what are and are not modals. This is crucial since how the rest of the grammar works is different for pure modals. For example, in German, modals after 'haben' (to indicate past tense) stay as infinitives, not past participles. So, 'I have (or was) at school (been) able to read' is 'Ich habe in der Schule gelesen konnen' - NOT 'Ich habe in der Schule glesen gekonnen' or some such.

The confusion comes from the fact - when compare to all other European langauges - that the English infinitive is described as 'to read', or 'to be able', but English drops the 'to' gramatically is use ('I can read', NOT 'I can to read'. Oddly, it comes back in the past: 'I was able to read' (which is the same as 'I could read').

It makes many things, to and English speaker, unfortunately appear as modals which are not. In your example, 'Ich hoere dich husten' is not a modal at all. In fact, it is very parallel to English: 'I hear you (to) cough', though we would leave the 'to' out with it understood as an infinitive. In older times (like at the time of Shakespeare), the 'to' might have been left in.

But it does not make 'hear' a modal.

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  • 2
    You may want to edit this post. The example with read and school is certainly confusing and probably wrong. In English, to + infinitive is not tied to the past as in your example "I was able to read", which works in the present tense as well ("I am able to read"). Note that the question was about non-modal verbs (I hear...) and you spend 75% of your answer on modal verbs. – Robert Sep 30 '17 at 5:50

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