Ihm blieb vor Schreck der Atem weg.

Does this sentence miss "es"? so it would be:

Ihm blieb es vor Schreck der Atem weg.

Otherwise where is the subject?

  • No, expletive es is only ever used in the vorfeld, and only if it isn't already filled. This sentence already has all topological positions filled. Jan 10 '18 at 8:22

In German the subject can stand almost everywhere in the sentence. German word order is very flexible. Only the finite verb must be the second part of speech in a sentence, everything else is allowed to to float around in the sentence almost freely. (Well, there are also rules for this, but they do not give very much limitations.)

German has grammatical cases, and the subject always appears in nominative case. Everything else in the sentence in not in nominative case. (There is an exception that is called Gleichsetzungsnominativ where you have two parts of speech in nominative case. In this case you normally take the first as subject)

Let's analyse your sentence:

  • ihm
    personal pronoun in dative case (i.e. not in nominative case, so it can't be the subject)
  • blieb
    the finite part of the separable verb wegbleiben
    ("finite" means: it is inflected)
  • vor Schreck
    a prepositional object
    Prepositional objects (the hole part of speech) don't have any case, which means: A prepositional object is not in nominative case and therefore never can be the subject.
    Prepositional objects consists of a preposition and an object, and this (inner) object has a grammatical case, which here is dative case.
  • der Atem
    Something in nominative case. Since there is no other part of speech in nominative case, this must be the subject.
    This subject consists of an article and a noun, bot are in nominative case.
  • weg
    This is the infinite part of the separable verb wegbleiben
    All parts of the verb, except the finite part, must stand at the end of the sentence.

Valid word orders for this sentence are:

Ihm blieb vor Schreck der Atem weg.
Vor Schreck blieb ihm der Atem weg.
Der Atem blieb ihm vor Schreck weg.

Also grammatical correct, but less often used:

Ihm blieb der Atem vor Schreck weg.
Vor Schreck blieb der Atem ihm weg.
Der Atem blieb vor Schreck ihm weg.

You can find such word orders in poems and lyrics, but rarely in normal prosaic texts.

About »es«

The expletive subject (expletive pronoun in the function of a subject) exists in German and in English:

Es regnet.
It rains.

(What is it, that rains? Its nothing!) This pronoun has no semantic function (i.e. it doesn't refer to anything in the real world). It only is a grammatical placeholder. It fills the otherwise empty space where the subject should be.

But beside this version, that also exists in English, German has a second form of expletive subject, that you can find in this sentences:

Es fährt ein Zug nach Nirgendwo. (Title of a German song from 1972)
Es ziehen Wolken übers Meer.
Es sitzen viele Leute im Café.

All three sentences contain a part of speech, that perfectly matches all criteria for a subject (ein Zug, Wolken, viele Leute), because they are in nominative case, and you could build sentences without this expletive pronoun:

Ein Zug fährt nach nirgendwo.
Wolken ziehen übers Meer.
Viele Leute sitzen im Café.

But German allows, to move all parts of speech behind the verb. But the verb still must be on position 2, so you need something to fill the position 1, and this is this very special form of expletive subject.

You can do this also with your sentence:

Es blieb ihm vor Schreck der Atem weg.

This is an absolutely correct German sentence. But, as you might understand from what I wrote before, this very special part of speech only can appear as the very first word of a sentence. This grammatical placeholder never can stand inside the sentence.

  • Thank you so much for the informative comprehensive answer. But ihm here means for him?
    – Millen
    Jan 10 '18 at 7:55
  • @Millen: Yes, it literally means him, but this German »ihm« is a grammatical feature, that doesn't exist in English, so you can't use him in an English translation. The English translation of this sentence is either: "He was breathless with horror" (where the breath no longer is the subject) or "The breath was gone in horror." (where no personal pronoun exists) Maybe you want ask for the grammatical function of »ihm« in a separate question? (Do not ask for a translation, translations are off-topic!) Jan 10 '18 at 8:24
  • I think vor Schreck is rather an adverbial than than a prepositional object.
    – RHa
    Jan 10 '18 at 8:35
  • @HubertSchölnast: thanks again and I do indeed need to ask this in a separate question
    – Millen
    Jan 10 '18 at 8:43
  • Just for fun, this expletive subject is very well known even to high school German learners, hidden in the expression "Es war einmal...", the introduction many a German fairy tale.
    – Ledda
    Jan 10 '18 at 9:49

The sentence is correct, its subject is der Atem.

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