I'd like to discuss the following sentence:

If you had told me that you would arrive today, I would have waited for you.

I am told that this translates as:

Wenn Sie mir gesagt hätten, dass Sie heute ankommen würden, hätte ich auf Sie gewartet.

I understand that the 'Wenn' ensures that the 'gesagt' and 'hätten' are switched. Likewise I accept that the 'dass' ensures that the 'ankommen' and the 'würden' are switched ie inverted.
...but why are the 'hätte' and the 'ich' also switched in the final clause? Is the answer because the 'dass' has to invert all verbs that follow even after the comma?


4 Answers 4


That switch/inversion idea will only confuse you. Please forget it.

To understand German word order, let's mark the finite verbs in your example, and add some brackets.

[Wenn Sie mir gesagt hätten, dass Sie heute ankommen würden,] hätte ich auf Sie gewartet.

So, what we have here is a dependent clause lead by Wenn, a dependent clause lead by dass, and a declarative main clause. How can I tell? Because

  • dependent clauses have their finite verb in last position.
  • declarative main clauses have their finite verb in second position.

“Second position? Did you mean first position?” No. Second position is correct, because all that bracketed stuff in front of that finite verb hätte in the main clause counts as one huge item inside the main clause.

Let's rearrange your example.

Ich hätte auf Sie gewartet, wenn Sie mir gesagt hätten, dass Sie heute ankommen würden.

See how hätte is again at second position? This is the same sentence as before. The only thing changed is the topic. It's ich now. Before, it was Wenn Sie mir … ankommen würden.

Auf Sie hätte ich gewartet, …

Gewartet hätte ich auf Sie, …

Those two are as valid, again with a different topic than before. It will help you if you are thinking of German (declarative) main clauses as always topicalized, and nothing but the topic in front of the finite verb.

  • But note that some surprises are possible in all three parts: "Hätten Sie mir gesagt, Sie würden heute ankommen -- ich hätte auf Sie gewartet" Commented Oct 5, 2019 at 12:53
  • @HagenVonEitzen, in which case "Hätten Sie" must be interpreted similar to "Gehen Sie", which is an imperative that is marked only by word order. Cp "Hätten Sie mir doch nur geholfen!". But this is only notable once an indicative sentence is initiated (marked by a leading subject). Therefore it's very complicated for beginners, and I didn't even begin mapping out all the alternatives, that one might expect at the start of the sentence.
    – vectory
    Commented Oct 7, 2019 at 2:42
  • @Janka, just for fun, cp "Hätten Sie mir gesagt, Sie würden heute ankommen, hätten Sie mir gesagt, Sie würden heute ankommen"--admittedly, I very strongly urge to insert "dann", but shouldn't your explanation work for both occasions of "hätten Sie"? Or does intonation (raising, then falling) make a difference?
    – vectory
    Commented Oct 7, 2019 at 2:46
  • It's decipherable in writing alone. That's your answer.
    – Janka
    Commented Oct 7, 2019 at 6:16

You seem to expect that German would have the same word order as English, i.e. subject-verb-object. That's not the case. German has a different word order, the verb takes the second position in main clauses and the last position in auxiliary clauses. The first position in the main clause can be the subject (as in English), but it can also be an object, an adverbial description of time or place or even an auxiliary clause (which is the case here).


"Switched" is a misleading wording. After "wenn", the personal form of the Verb (the one that was conjugated according to the person and number, i.e. hätten(plural, third person) as opposed to gesagt, the latter being unpersonal) comes fast always comes at the very last position, except for extreme cases you don't really have to worry about (like combination of Konjunktiv 2 and a modal verb, e.g. "Wenn es hätte nicht sein müssen,"). So it's not about "switching", it's about occupying the last syntactical position (or the first, the second).

Generally speaking, the basic word order in German is Subject-Verb-Object. In the clauses you ask about, putting the verb on the first place has the effect, that the subject MUST be placed second, and not somewhere else.

The dependent clause beginning with the verb behaves as if the first position is already occupied, even if it has a Subject and Object of its own. Actually, this is just typical for subordinate clauses introduced by wenn and dass and is just a usage-based grammatical rule, but this line of thinking may help you memorize it. Example:

Dass du verstanden hast, habe ich gesehen.

Structure of the example: Object, Verb, Subject, everything else.

A simpler example:

Tom sah ich nicht.

Once again, the ground structure is Object, Verb, Subject.

So, in your example, we cannot put the verb anywhere else but on the first position, because the first position is kind of occupied with the main clause with "wenn."

Note, however, that we can also leave out the "wenn" and use the VSO structure for conditions, e.g.

Hätte es nicht geregnet(full version: wenn es nicht geregnet hätte), wäre ich nicht gekommen.

  • .but the 'hätte' and the 'ich' also inverted are like a separate part of the sentence as I say in the OP. Thaty is the essence of my query.
    – Jim4567
    Commented Oct 5, 2019 at 11:04

I have found that it would have been easier to answer by stating that when a subject (in this example a pronoun) is in a sentence but the sentence does not start with said pronoun then when the pronoun is stated it always inverts with it's attached verb;

Wenn Sie mir gesagt hätten, dass Sie heute ankommen würden, hätte ich auf Sie gewartet.

  • That would have been easier but unfortunately it also would have been a worse answer (than Janka's). You repeatedly claim that word orders are "inverted" when in reality they are entirely ordinary. Above all, your "rule" is incorrect. The sentence Leider kann er nicht singen, aber er kann malen meets all the conditions stated in your answer, yet the second er precedes the verb, contrary to your claim.
    – johnl
    Commented Oct 29, 2019 at 22:26
  • Why is this the case in your sentence provided? Leider kann er nicht singen, aber er kann malen
    – Jim4567
    Commented Oct 30, 2019 at 23:46

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