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I’m struggling with an exercise where I need to decide if I should or shouldn’t use es when rewriting a sentence.

Es hat die ganze Nacht heftig geschneit.
Die ganze Nacht hat es heftig geschneit.

But how do you do to understand if you need to keep es or you can avoid it?

Manchmal ist es schwierig, mit unbekannten Personen ins Gespräch zu kommen.

– Mit oder ohne „es“? Beginnen Sie den Satz mit dem kursiv gedruckten Wort/Satzteil. –

Thats the exercise to do. I was thinking of:

Manchmal ist es schwierig, mit unbekannten Personen ins Gespräch zu kommen.

Mit unbekannten Personen ist manchmal schwierig ins Gespräch zu kommen.

Would that work?

  • Please do not use comments to add information. If it is important information, edit your question to include it. – Carsten S Sep 11 at 9:01
  • sorry, still new here – Fran Sep 11 at 9:07
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    If the question includes »mit dem kursiv gedruckten Wort/Satzteil«, please also format those parts of your question in italics (»kursiv«), using *asterisks*. Do you have any example exercises where you wouldn’t need an »es«? – Raketenolli Sep 11 at 10:26
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It is hard to guess what exactly the exercise is after. But judging from your examples, it is designed to teach you about the use of es as Korrelat, i.e. when es is used to indicate that a sentential or infinitival subject or object follows. In this use, es disappears when the clause occurs in first position.

Manchmal ist es schwierig, mit unbekannten Personen ins Gespräch zu kommen.
Mit unbekannten Personen ins Gespräch zu kommen ist manchmal schwierig.

Note that the Korrelat can be optional.

Dennoch tut (es) mir leid, was ich getan habe.
Was ich getan habe, tut mir dennoch leid.

Deshalb bedauert er (es) sehr, sich verabschieden zu müssen.
Sich verabschieden zu müssen, bedauert er deshalb sehr.

Some verbs demand a dummy subject es that can never be left out. Note that in these cases, es does not refer to a postponed clause. It actually refers to nothing at all, but must be present.

Hier gibt es jetzt auch E-Roller.
Dabei handelt es sich um einen Irrtum.
Wie geht es Ihnen?

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Most times it is the same as in English:

Es hat die ganze Nacht heftig geschneit.

It snowed heavily the whole night.

Die ganze Nacht hat es heftig geschneit.

The whole night it snowed heavily.

Manchmal ist es schwierig, mit unbekannten Personen ins Gespräch zu kommen.

Sometimes it is hard to start a conversation with unknown people.

There has to be a dummy subject es or it in all these cases. The logic in German and English is the same here.

The only difference is word order. German requires you to have exactly one item in front of the finite verb in declarative main clauses, so if there's a topic in front, the subject es has to follow the finite verb. Maybe this is your sole problem? You misidentify the topic for the subject and want to leave out the real dummy subject es because of that? Don't do that.


To add another complication, most German speakers would consider

Mit unbekannten Personen ist manchmal schwierig ins Gespräch zu kommen.

a valid sentence, though the dummy subject es is missing. But this sentence has a different vibe, it sounds more like a formula or aphorism than natural speech. Don't talk like this.

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    In the active voice the subject generally cannot be omitted, but in the impersonal passive the placeholder-es is only used if otherwise the verb-second rule is not satisfied: Es wurde gestern viel getrunken / Gestern wurde viel getrunken. – RHa Sep 11 at 12:51
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There are two variants next to the one using "es", yours and another

  1. Mit Unbekannten ist schwierig ins Gespräch zu kommen

I'd almost have called this wrong, but I have read it wrong and find it rather natural after all. I would have expected instead to say

  1. Mit unbekannten ins Gespräch kommen ist schwierig

this constructs mit unbekannten ins Gespräch kommen as a set phrase and does it without zu for the infinitive construction.

The different order stresses, in my reading, who's to blame: the unknown person or the conversation. The main difference is whether schwierig is (1) adverbial or (2) adjectival. But not quite so.

We can compare

Mit Terroristen ist nicht zu verhandeln.

This is the only viable variant (However [… Verhandeln] is nich! exists colloquially). It is basically a subversive imperative, similar to "the meeting is adjourned", which carries more weight than an indicative (e.g. "Terroristen verhandelten nicht"). The stress lies on the final word.

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Most German sentences need a subject. The most significant exception is subjectless passive sentences (for example: Heute wird gefeiert) but unless you are dealing with passive it is a good idea to assume you always need a subject.

In the sentence about snowing, the verb schneien in active voice needs a subject. Since there is no other part of the sentence that carries meaning and could take over the subject role – die ganze Nacht is a temporal adverbial and heftig is an adverb – some agent needs to come in and stand in as subject. This is an expletive, the word es. As the role of this word is to be subject, it cannot be left out when reordering the fragments of the sentence because otherwise a subject would be missing.

The sentence about talking to people is somewhat more complicated. In its original form, I would classify the fragments as follows:

Manchmal (adverbial) ist (finite verb; here: copula) es (subject) schwierig (predicative adjective), mit unbekannten Personen ins Gespräch zu kommen (extended infinitive postfixed).

The entire part behind the comma could be considered as a subsentence of its own. Just add a subject and conjugate the verb and voilà. If you intend to keep all these fragments as what they are, then the es will have to remain. For example:

Es ist manchmal schwierig, mit unbekannten Personen ins Gespräch zu kommen.

However, depending on the requirements of the exercise it may be permissible to also relabel parts of the sentence. Instead of having starting a conversation with unknown people as a single, immobile postfix, you can:

  1. Turn the infinitive (as a whole) into a subject (instead of saying it is difficult you are saying talking is difficult):

    Mit unbekannten Personen ins Gespräch zu kommen ist manchmal schwierig.

    (Note the absence of a comma here; although it is allowed, I wouldn’t place it)

    Obviously, if you have a different subject, the es must leave.

  2. Split apart the extended infinitive; carrying the unknown people into the main clause:

    Mit unbekannten Personen ist ins Gespräch zu kommen manchmal schwierig.

    Ins Gespräch zu kommen ist mit unbekannten Personen manchmal schwierig.

    When the extended infinitive is split apart, the shorter infinitive which relies on the unknown people can no longer be its own postfixed infinitive. Instead, it must now directly contrast with schwierig – but since that is a predicative adjective and the verb is the copula, it becomes clear that ins Gespräch zu kommen must now be the subject (mit unbekannten Personen while somehow still being a prepositional object to the talking can now be regarded as an adverbial of the main clause).

    As an undeniable subject exists, an es would be superfluous.

These juggling exercises are complex, especially when relabelling fragments is possible as in the extended infinitive case. Depending on the requirements of your exercise some of my examples may and some may not be possible. One day, you will hopefully reach a level when your brain just gives you the correct answer automatically, without you thinking – like native Germans.

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Admittedly I had to twist and turn this several times before answering, but by rare coincidence the usage of es happens to parallel that of it in English almost exactly!

Here's why:

Usage of a neutral pronoun is essential when describing weather, where the agent of the sentence is inherently nonspecific (nothing or nobody does the snowing, of course, that just occurs on its own as a natural phenomenon). German tolerates freer word order for emphasis more than English, hence the two grammatically equivalent snow sentences in your example.

The second example can indeed be structured for avoiding es or it in both languages...

DE: Mit Unbekannten ins Gespräch zu kommen ist manchmal schwierig.

EN: Striking up a conversation with strangers can be difficult at times.

...because the activity of initiating a conversation is the sentence subject. In fact, since ...ist manchmal schwierig is all that's left of the sentence when clipping off its subject makes it hard to identify the bulk of the sentence as ist subject. But you can do so by stripping everything until your sentence goes to the tune of Sprechen ist manchmal schwierig or Conversing can be difficult to see that the verbs sprechen or to converse, as gerunds, become the sentence subject.

The equivalent construction Es ist schwierig, zu... / It is difficult to... however is perfectly valid for spoken dialogue, and carries the exact same meaning, but comes across as less literary in style.

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