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Während ich die Gitarre spielte, klopfte jemand an die Tür.

or

Während ich die Gitarre spielte, jemand klopfte an die Tür.

Are both of these sentences grammatically correct?

  • Not sure what you mean by "grammatical". Clearly with the comma this is IMHO not a valid sentence. You could maybe replace comma with a dash and start with an uppercase "Jemand." – stephanmg Apr 20 at 4:57
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    As a side remark, "die Gitarre spielen" sounds unnatural. In German we would say "Während ich Gitarre spielte, ...". We might use the article in this sentence if we want to emphasize that it's a specific or special guitar: "Während ich die Gitarre spielte, die mir mein Großvater vererbt hatte, ..." Otherwise, it sounds about as natural as "While I played the miniature golf, ..." ;) – Henning Kockerbeck Apr 20 at 8:42
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    @stephanmg "to be grammatical" is a fixed phrase in English, see for example Collins Dictionary. – Henning Kockerbeck Apr 20 at 9:36
  • @stephanmg you need to explain what should be wrong with the first example. It is not clearly wrong. You might want to avoid conjunctions at the start of a sentence, but that's not a general rule. – vectory Apr 20 at 11:30
  • @HenningKockerbeck "die Gitarre spielen" is such a minor deviation and not breaking any rule, that I didn't even notice it was there. It is certainly not as much a difference as ich fahre Zug / den Zug (I take / drive the train). – vectory Apr 20 at 11:37
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The first one is grammatical, the second one is an error often committed by native speakers of English because they translate word by word.

But German main clauses don't have invariant word order, instead they follow topological fields. In particular, the finite verb should occupy the second of the fields. Since the subclause occupies the first field, there is no more room for the subject to go in front of the verb, and the result, while understandable, sounds rather wrong.

  • This is a rather technical explanation. More naturally, I would say that "ich Gitarre spielte, jemand" does offend the ear, when the punctuation can't be heard, because that would be lexically ambiguous, e.g. "jemand spielte als Ich-Gitarre", wha-what? what's an "Ich-Gitarre". Better example: "Wenn Sie gehen lernen wir ..." the sentence up to that point would be totatlly ambiguous and is thus taboo. – vectory Apr 20 at 12:03
  • @vectory Yes, but your explanation doesn't help someone who doesn't already have your intuitions. (For an English speaker, the wrong sentence doens't offend the ear.) – sgf Apr 20 at 14:35
  • @sgf, you are right at least as far as I was giving a hint to the author of the answer, not to native speakers (because there's no space for translations in comments). It would be helpful with more examples. Are there other cases, other reasons for the rule?I was also misleading: *Wenn Sie gehen lernen" is supposed to mean "learn to walk"; that might as well use "zu", familiar to En. "to", "Sie lernen [zu] gehen" (but the "zu" is dropped in subordinate clauses?). So, "Wenn Sie gehen lernen, [VERB] wir [OBJ]" can not be confused with "Wenn Sie gehen, lernen wir ..." (which's correct!). – vectory Apr 20 at 16:12
  • See this link for topological fields: ps.uni-saarland.de/~niehren/index.html/vorlesung/node251.html – stephanmg Apr 20 at 16:46
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Correct in terms of grammar and what sounds natural would, as others already pointed out, be

Während ich Gitarre spielte, klopfte jemand an die Tür.

However, there are various minor things to consider in addition.

The above sentence somehow is close to implying that the playing and the knocking are actions of equal continuation; which is technically possible; but practically improbable. Rather, the playing is a continuous activity, the knocking a short, one-off, with sudden onset. So, a more natural way to say this would be

Als ich gerade Gitarre spielte, klopfte jemand an die Tür.

Main difference is the use of als instead of während. Als is used to prepare the reader (or listener) to expect a sudden action, whereas während lets them expect a prolongated action. But these differences are not absolute. There is no hard rule that would prescribe to use the one or the other in certain situations. Therefore, I inserted an additional gerade to put focus on a certain, brief moment of the (otherwise prolongated) playing.

It is also important to mind that the use of klopfte instead of hat geklopft is characteristic for written narratives of some formal level such as short stories or novels where ativities are presented under a perspective sequence. In oral everyday communication this does practically not occur. Here, the hat geklopft, habe gespielt tense is much more common. For example:

Als ich Gitarre spielte, hat jemand an die Tür geklopft.

or (not very good style, but anyway in use):

Als ich Gitarre gespielt habe, hat jemand an die Tür geklopft.

Even more natural in oral communication:

Als ich grade am Gitarre Spielen war, hat plötzlich jemand an die Tür geklopft.

Or even:

Als ich grade am Gitarre Spielen war, hat plötzlich wer an die Tür geklopft.

where the jemand is replaced by the informal (and a bit rude) wer.

Note however that this is natural German for oral use. If you write such sentences in a German language course, the teacher would probably fire red ink on you.

  • "the above sentence somehow is close to implying that ..." -- no it's not. "als" is certainly preferable, the semantics can thus be inferred to differ, but in practice "während" covers the semantics and can pass without creating a garden path sentence. If someone would answer "what, the whole time somebody knocked", they would be a douchy stickler. I'm being a stickler right now, too. Ironically, "gerade" seems contrived--though correct--just to fit the English translation. Why would a mere "als" be bad style? Or are you just highlighting that the notes weren't schief? – vectory Apr 20 at 11:50
  • @vectory You are right that usually people would automatically tihnk that the knocking was short and sudden (on the background of prolongated guitar playing), but that's, I think, chiefly so because that's the typical character of these activiies: guitar playing is usually continuous over a period of time, whereas knocking is typically brief, one-off. In order to test your claim we should use sentences of activities of similar typical duration: Während ich Gitarre spielte, regnete es. – Christian Geiselmann Apr 20 at 12:23
  • PS: Note that Während typically prepares the reader (or listener) to expect that the activity to follow will be prolongated. Als prepares to expect that it will be short: Während ich Gitarre spielte, regnete es. - Als ich Gitarre spielte, kam Fritz vorbei. – Christian Geiselmann Apr 20 at 12:28
  • I believe you are mistaken. Isn't während simply an adverb derived from währen, that here modifies "spielen", at least historically. Not sure of the history at all, and a learner learns während long before währen, and lexicalizes it separately anyway. Also funny to note that "anhaltend" (literally sustained) would be an oxymoron if it were from "anhalten" (to stop, to hold-in). Note that the adverb is actually fortwährend. So, are you sure that während alone does carry the sense of prolonged? wehrend would rather give it the sense against; cp. gegen acht and so on. – vectory Apr 20 at 16:21

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