In translators I have found for the following sentence:

This is something that could have been done differently.
= Das ist etwas, das anders hätte gemacht werden können.

With this I'm particularly confused as to why 'hätte' is not at the end of the clause and I have found this structure in several translators. Does anyone know why hätte is not at the end of the clause and if there's a particular rule for this?

  • Why do you expect hätte to be at the end? Because of the rule that the finite verb is at the last position in a relative clause? Or are you confused about the order of the auxiliary, the modal verb, the passive auxiliary and the perfect auxiliary in this complex verbal phrase here? Mar 3 '21 at 9:40
  • I expect hätte to be at the end because it‘s the finite verb yes. sorry for not mentioning that
    – süßie
    Mar 3 '21 at 14:57
  • As so often in linguistics: the questino "why" does not make much sense. Yes, in German you can put the hätte on that place in the sentence (as well as at the end of the sentence). Both is correct. Now, for the German ear, the version with hätte at the end sounds rather clumsy (too many verbs in row), so therefore we would somewhat prefer the hätte in separate position. If that's an answer on your "why" question, so be it. Mar 3 '21 at 15:03
  • @ChristianGeiselmann HA thanks. How would you rephrase my question without using the ambiguous ‚why‘?
    – süßie
    Mar 3 '21 at 17:11
  • @ChristianGeiselmann I think, "why" always refer to a presumption of the asking person. I guess, identifying the false premise of the question is an answer to those kind of questions. It is often hard for the people who ask to exactly identify this premise. But I think, we got it in this case. Mar 3 '21 at 18:51

This is a very good question. I do not have a comprehensive answer. I still try to give an answer, hoping I can shed some light on the grammatical structure. I hope someone more knowledgeable can give you a better answer.


Das ist etwas, das anders hätte gemacht werden können.

das anders hätte gemacht werden können. is a relative clause, specifying etwas. Your confusion might stem from the fact, that there is the rule:

In a relative clause the finite verb is in last position.

And the finite verb is actually hätte! We can verify this, when we use the phrase in a main clause:

Etwas hätte anders gemacht werden können.

In the main clause, the finite verb is in second position, and we happily find hätte in second position here, and the complex verbal phrase is split by anders, so this is verifying that hätte is indeed the finite verb here.

So our finite-verb-in-last-position-in-subordinate-clause rule is violated here. This is, because this complex verbal phrase with a modal in perfect is an exception of the rule. Unfortunately, I do not know why this is the case. So, all I can give you is to explain the details of the grammatical structure here and tell you that this structure is an exception. (Since I cannot tell a more general rule which makes this exception appear a more systemically fit, I consider my answer incomplete.)

So let's look at this complex verbal phrase hätte gemacht werden können: This is a passive construction (etwas wird gemacht) combined with a modal verb (etwas kann gemacht werden), which is in Perfekt tense (etwas hat gemacht werden können) and on top it is also Konjunktiv mood (etwas hätte gemacht werden können).

Let me summarize the relevant exception rules here:

In a comment, Satish Vasan has mentioned this very good resource (in German) with an overview over the exceptions.

  • 4
    I think the details of more general rules can be found here: dict.leo.org/grammatik/deutsch/Satz/Wortstellung/Praedikat/…. In particular, the section on "Mehrere Verbformen am Ende eines Nebensatzes" Mar 3 '21 at 12:21
  • 1
    @SatishVasan Thanks for the link! Very good resource. I added it to my answer. Mar 3 '21 at 14:34
  • Thank you both this is really useful! :)
    – süßie
    Mar 3 '21 at 15:06
  • @SatishVasan Thanks!
    – süßie
    Mar 3 '21 at 17:08
  • This is trivially wrong in more than one way. If it is correct in some higher order of syntax theory though, I would be surprised. The main clause showing second position finite verb, das hätte anders gemacht werden können, differs markedly from the relative clause word order. At best you might hold the adverb anders be a constituent of the verbal phrase anders-machen (lexically verbal in ändern) following difficult rules about seperable verbs, although it might also be cast as akin to the determiner anderes, cp. etwas, das hätte mir/anders gemacht werden können, (nicht ihm/so)
    – vectory
    Jun 14 '21 at 9:25

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