Can a German sentence take more than one subject? I saw this as an example sentence on the German Wiktionary page for Vorgang:

Die Wahrnehmung von Gerüchen ist ein komplexer Vorgang.

Are Die Wahrnehmung von Gerüchen and ein komplexer Vorgang not each subjects? They are both in the nominative case.

  • 3
    Do you know any grammatical theory that allows for sentences in any language to be interpreted as having multiple subjects? (I don't think such a theory is impossible; I simply haven't met one so far.) Commented Apr 7, 2019 at 12:48
  • 2
    Grammatical functions are marked by case. Case doesn't define function. There are constructions with more than one nominative-marked element, and also constructions with more than one accusative-marked element. Commented Apr 8, 2019 at 6:18
  • @KilianFoth Or simply said: All subjects are in nominative case. But not all constructions in nominative case are subjects. Commented Apr 8, 2019 at 7:01

1 Answer 1


Short answer:


Long answer:

These are the parts of this sentence:

  • die Wahrnehmung von Gerüchen
    Subjekt (subject)
    Note, that neither Wahrnehmung nor Gerüchen are subjects. The whole nominal group is the subject.
  • ist ein komplexer Vorgang
    Prädikat (predicate)

The predicate consists of two parts:

  • ist
    Verb (verb)
    This verb is of a special kind, it is a Kopula (copula)
  • ein komplexer Vorgang
    Gleichsetzungsnominativ (predicative nominative)
    Note, that this is neither an object nor a subject, it is part of the predicate.
    Also note, that Vorgang is not the predicative nominative. It is just a part of it.

Other names for Gleichsetzungsnominativ are:

  • Gleichsetzungsergänzung
  • prädikativer Nomativ
  • Prädikatsnomen

You also will find the name Nominativobjekt, but as said before, it is not an object, it is part of the predicate.


Copulas are special verbs, that do not really describe an action. They have a grammatical function. They link (couple) something together. Examples of copulas are:

  • sein (to be)
  • werden (to become)
  • bleiben (to stay, to remain)

But there are also some more.

Those verbs only can be used with a Prädikativ (predicative supplement) which either is a nominal group in nominative case (which always contains a noun in nominative case) or an adjective group (which always contains an adjective).


  • just a noun (nominal group with nothing else but the noun)

    • Markus wird Lehrer.
      Markus becomes a teacher.

    • Laura ist Italienerin.
      Laura is Italian.

    • Ich heiße Hubert.
      I am called Hubert.

  • nominal group

    • Heute wird ein schöner Tag.
      Today will be a nice day.

    • Frau Steiner bleibt eine meiner liebsten Lehrerinnen.
      Mrs. Steiner remains one of my favorite teachers.

    • Die Wahrnehmung von Gerüchen ist ein komplexer Vorgang.
      The perception of smells is a complex process.

  • just an adjective

    • Der Garten von Thomas ist schön.
      Thomas's garden is beautiful.

  • adjective group

    • Herr Müller ist alles andere als erfreut.
      Mr. Müller is anything but pleased.


How to tell apart the subject and the predicative nominative?

There are German sentences where it is ambiguous which part of speech should count as the subject. You surely know that in German the subject has no fix place in a sentence. It can be (almost) everythere, but normally it is easy to find, because normally it is the only part of speech that is in nominative case.

Here is an example:

The hunter shoots the rabbit.

In English the hunter and the rabbit are both in nominative case, but this doesn't matter, because in English the subject is the first part of the sentence. You clearly know who is pulling the trigger (the hunter) and who will die (the rabbit). This would be wrong in English:

wrong: The rabbit shoots the hunter.

But in German these two sentences are both absolutely correct:

Der Jäger erschießt den Hasen.
Den Hasen erschießt der Jäger.

In German it is not the position but the grammatical case which indicates the subject. Here, in both sentences der Jäger is the only part of speech in nominative case, so it is very clear, that der Jäger must be the subject (the one who pulls the trigger) and that den Hasen (something in accusative case) must be something else (here it is an accusative object).

But then there are sentences like this one:

Marillen sind Aprikosen.

Both nouns are perfect synonyms. They are both names for the very same fruit (apricots), just with different geographical extension (The word Marille is used in Austria, Italy (South Tyrol) and parts of Bavaria, Aprikose is used everywhere else).

Which one is the subject, and which one is the predicative nominative?

In this example you simply can't tell. Both interpretations are correct, and both interpretations match with the same meaning. (which is: They are equal)

But in some other cases you can tell them apart:

  • Bäume sind Pflanzen.

    Every tree is a plant, but there are plants who are not trees. Here it is clear, that Bäume is the subject and sind Pflanzen is the predicate.

Another test is the infinitive test: Turn the verb into its infinite form and try to match it with what you believe might be the predicative nominative. The result that makes more sense indicates the predicative nominative:

Markus ist ein kluges Kind. (Markus is a clever child.)

  1. Markus sein (to be Markus)
  2. Ein kluges Kind sein (to be a clever child)

Trying to be a clever child makes more sense than trying to be Markus, so ein kluges Kind is the predicative nominative and Markus is the subject.

Marillen sind Aprikosen.

  1. Marillen sein
  2. Aprikosen sein

Both possibilities make the same amount of sense (because they both mean exactly the same: to be apricots), so you can't tell which one is the subject.

  • That's an interesting, exhausting and spiced with fruity examples answer. However, wouldn't another (now: middle-sized) answer be: It depends on your definition of 'subject'? I could imagine a grammatical theory that treats Fünf Marillen liegen auf dem Ofen as a sentence with five subjects. I don't know what use such a theory would have, but I find it at least conceivable. Commented Apr 7, 2019 at 12:44
  • @ChristianGeiselmann: Let me answer in German: Nein. Was das Subjekt ist, ist in der deutschen Grammatik ganz klar definiert. Alternative Privat-Definitionen helfen nicht weiter wenn man Deutsch lernen will. Das Subjekt ist die hierarchisch höchste Ergänzung des Verbs, stimmt mit ihm in Person und Numerus überein und steht immer im Nominativ. Wie alle Definitionen, die mit natürlichen Sprachen zu tun haben, ist auch die des Subjekts in Spezialfällen unscharf, deswegen muss man sie aber nicht gleich ganz über Bord werfen. Commented Apr 7, 2019 at 14:36
  • You are, of course, completely right regarding traditional grammar of German language (a thing we could lovingly or despicably call Schulgrammatik). My remark, however, was meant in a broader context of theories of formal grammar, not least Noam Chomsky's transformational grammar, and I was wondering whether in such a context (which is very far from what students at school do hear) the idea of multiple subjects would be of some (or any) use. Commented Apr 7, 2019 at 19:33

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