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»Wenn wir uns nur mit ihr hätten verstecken können, irgendwo im Ausland, unter falschem Namen, nur bis sie alt genug wäre...«
aus Rubinrot von Kerstin Gier

I don't get the "hätten verstecken können" part. I understand what it means, but I don't understand how it's formed. Can someone please explain it to me?

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    Look, here are the same three verbs in a row in the "(too) literal" English translation: "If only we could have hidden with her ..." (I know the "could" gives a slightly different meaning than the intended one, and a better translation is "had been able to hide", but I wanted to show that three verbs in a row are quite possible in English too.) Commented May 31, 2022 at 22:44

3 Answers 3

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One linguist once suggested analysing these sentences in terms of "multiplication" and "division", as if they were equations.

Ich verstecke mich. | × kann
Ich kann mich verstecken. | × habe
Ich habe mich verstecken können.

So you have a past form of a modal verb. In a subordinate clause, this becomes

da ich mich habe verstecken können

(with the finite verb habe placed in front of the double infinitive1). The auxiliary can be put in the past subjunctive, yielding

wenn ich mich hätte verstecken können
"if I had been able to hide myself"

Or, if you prefer the reverse:

wenn wir uns hätten verstecken können | ÷ hätten
wenn wir uns verstecken könnten | ÷ könnten
wenn wir uns versteckten

1 Können instead of expected gekonnt is known as Ersatzinfinitiv: see for instance LEO. Ersatzinfinitiv corresponds with a deviation from the standard order in subordinate clauses: the finite verb does not occur in final position, but in front of the double infinitive. For some examples and rules, see this answer (in German).

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    Wow, that was a lot of stuff I didn't know, thank you. One thing I don't understand though: it seems that wenn should kick hätte back to the end of the sentence from what I know about subordinate clauses, so it will be "wenn wir uns verstecken können hätten" instead of "wenn wir uns hätten verstecken können", but obviously it is not. Why so?
    – koko raari
    Commented May 30, 2022 at 11:45
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    @koko raari: I don't know if there's a why; to me the double infinitive is just an odd exception that's only triggered under unusual circumstances. Odd exceptions that are only triggered under unusual circumstances seem to be relatively common in German, and after a while you tend to go with the 'Ours is not to reason why ...' mentality.
    – RDBury
    Commented May 30, 2022 at 13:29
  • Out of curiosity, can you remember the linguist that suggested analyzing sentences in terms of multiplication and division? I'd like to read more about these ideas. Commented May 31, 2022 at 20:58
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    @JounceCracklePop Gunnar Bech (1955), Studien über das deutsche verbum infinitum. Apparently, the Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters has made available a PDF, which is linked on the Wiki page. The concept is introduced in § 20.
    – David Vogt
    Commented May 31, 2022 at 21:45
  • So is there a difference between "Ich habe mich verstecken können." and "Ich konnte mich verstecken."? Also would "hätten verstecken können" and "verstecken hätten können" be considered equivalent ("verstecken können hätten" won't work, right)?
    – U. Windl
    Commented May 31, 2022 at 22:39
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In addition to David Vogt's explanation: in English you can use the very similar word ordering with three "verbs" to the same meaning and similar reasoning (the 'to hide' and 'be able' are swapped in English grammar wrt to German grammar):

If we only had been able to hide

had - be able - to hide

The basic form is 'to be able to do sth' or the German equivalent 'etwas tun können' or in your example 'sich verstecken können'. Now the past is expressed with the auxillary verb 'haben' (in English with 'have'):

hatten sich verstecken können (have been able to hide)

Now we express the whole as a unfulfilled possibility which did not happen in the past (Konjunktiv irrealis der Vergangenheit):

hätten sich verstecken können (or equally possible: sich hätten verstecken können), in English 'had been able to hide'

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Let's analyze a shorter sentence:

Wenn wir uns hätten verstecken können, dann wäre alles anders verlaufen.
If we could have hidden, then everything would have been different.

This is a typical wenn-dann (if-then) construction. But the then part is missing in your sentence. That's why it ends in an ellipsis (three dots).

The word wenn (if) introduces a temporal subordinate clause. And in subordinate clauses all verbs of a sentence stand at the end. (There are different rules for questions and commands.) In main clauses of statements there must always be one of the verbs (the finite verb) at position 2, but in subordinate clauses even the finite verb must stand at the end together with all other verbs:

  • main clause of a statement: finite verb at position 2, all other verbs at the end of the clause:

    Wir hätten uns vergangenen Sonntag gemeinsam mit den anderen in dem kleinen Waldstück verstecken können.

  • subordinate clause: all verbs at the end of the clause:

    Wenn wir uns vergangenen Sonntag gemeinsam mit den anderen in dem kleinen Waldstück hätten verstecken können, dann wäre alles anders verlaufen.


So, what is a finite verb and what kind of verbs are the other verbs which are always located at the end of the clause?

There are different kinds of verbs:

Full verbs

These are the verbs you usually have in mind when you think about verbs. These are verbs like essen (to eat), öffnen (to open), laufen (to run) and many others. Every clause must contain exactly one full verb.

Auxiliary verbs

These are verbs that do not carry any meaning. They are only in the sentence for grammatical reasons, to indicate a grammatical tense. German has exactly 3 auxiliary verbs:

Haben, sein und werden
sind die drei Hilfszeitwörter auf Erden.
To have, to be and to become are the three auxiliary verbs on earth.

Forms of haben and sein are used to indicate the tenses Perfekt, Plusquamperfekt and Futur II. Which of them has to used does not depend on the tense but on the full verb. Each full verb has it's individual favorite auxiliary verb. Rule of thumb: Verbs that describe a state like schlafen (to sleep) need haben. Verbs that describe a transition like einschlafen (to fall asleep) need sein.

  • Perfekt

    Ich habe geschlafen.
    Ich bin eingeschlafen.

  • Plusquamperfekt

    Ich hatte geschlafen.
    Ich war eingeschlafen.

  • Futur II

    Ich werde geschlafen haben.
    Ich werde eingeschlafen sein.

Forms of werden are used to indicate the tenses Futur I and Futur II, independent from the full verb.

  • Futur I

    Ich werde schlafen.
    Ich werde einschlafen.

  • Futur II

    Ich werde geschlafen haben.
    Ich werde eingeschlafen sein.

As you can see, Futur II needs two auxiliary verbs in addition to the full verb, so you already have 3 verbs in the predicate when you use the tense Futur II.

The verbs schlafen and einschlafen do not need any objects, so you can create short sentences which is fine to create simple examples, but without additional parts in the sentence it becomes difficult to distinguish between position 2 and the last position. So, lets add additional material to one of the examples given above:

  • Futur II, main clause with additional stuff including a relative clause

    Ich werde morgen Abend, wenn du nach einem langen Tag endlich nach Hause kommen wirst, bereits eingeschlafen sein.
    I will have fallen asleep already tomorrow night when you finally come home after a long day.

  • Futur II, subordiante clause with additional stuff including a relative clause

    Wenn ich morgen Abend, wenn du nach einem langen Tag endlich nach Hause kommen wirst, bereits eingeschlafen sein werde, dann darfst du mich aufwecken.
    *Tomorrow night, when you finally come home after a long day, if I already will have fallen asleep, you can wake me up.

Note, that all modal verbs have homonyms that are full verbs:

Ich bin krank. Ich habe Hunger. Ich werde Arzt.

And that these full verbs also can be combined with auxiliary verbs:

Ich bin krank gewesen. (Bin is a form of the auxiliary verb sein, gewesen is a form of the full verb sein)
Ich habe Hunger gehabt. (Habe is a form of the auxiliary verb haben, gehabt is a form of the full verb haben)
Ich werde Arzt werden. (Werde is a form of the auxiliary verb werden, werden is a form of the full verb werden)

Modal verbs

Full verbs must always be there, and auxiliary verbs must be there to indicate 5 of the 6 German tenses. But modal verbs are optional. In most grammar textbook you will find these 6 modal verbs:

  • dürfen (to may, to be allowed to)

    Ich darf schlafen. - I may sleep, I'm allowed to sleep.

  • können (to can, to be allowed to, to be able to)

    Ich kann schlafen. - I can sleep. I'm allowed to sleep. I'm able to sleep.

  • mögen (to like to)

    Ich mag schlafen. - I like to sleep.

  • müssen (to must, to have to)

    Ich muss schlafen. - I must sleep. I have to sleep.

  • sollen (to shall, to be supposed to)

    Ich soll schlafen. - I should sleep. I'm supposed to sleep.

  • wollen (to want to)

    Ich will schlafen. - I want to sleep.

Sometimes also some other verbs behave like modal verbs:

Du brauchst nicht anzuklopfen.
Wenn du das sagst, wird es schon stimmen.

The point is, that you almost always can add modal verbs to a clause:

  • Only the full verb (Präsens)

    Ich schlafe.

  • Full verb + one auxiliary verb (Futur I)

    Ich werde schlafen.

  • Full verb + two auxiliary verb (Futur II)

    Ich werde geschlafen haben.

  • Full verb + modal verb (Präsens)

    Ich will schlafen.

  • Full verb + modal verb + one auxiliary verb (Futur I)

    Ich werde schlafen wollen.

  • Full verb + modal verb + two auxiliary verb (Futur II)

    Ich werde schlafen gewollt haben.

In the last sentence you have 4 verbs in a row, but only because there is no additional stuff in this main clause. When you add something, it must go between position 2 and the last position:

  • Main clause with additional material

    Ich werde morgen Abend, wenn du nach einem langen Tag endlich nach Hause kommen wirst, bereits schlafen gewollt haben.

But when you make a subordinate clause out of it, then also the finite verb moves to the end:

Wenn ich morgen Abend, wenn du nach einem langen Tag endlich nach Hause kommen wirst, bereits schlafen gewollt haben werde, dann darfst du mich aufwecken.

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  • That's even hard for a German, but that broght up "Ich bin gesessen." vs. "Ich habe gesessen." ;-)
    – U. Windl
    Commented May 31, 2022 at 22:44
  • @U.Windl: There is a difference between the standard variations German German and Austrian German for auxiliary verbs used for full verbs that mean staying in a position (stehen, sitzen, liegen, ...). In Austrian and Swiss German (the official language that is taught in Austrian and Swiss schools and that is used for laws and other official documents in Austria and Switzerland) it is sein: Ich bin gelegen, ich bin gestanden, ich bin gesessen. In German German it is haben: Ich habe gelegen, ich habe gestanden, ich habe gesessen. In southern parts of Germany (like Bavaria) also ... Commented Jun 1, 2022 at 5:32
  • ... sein is used for position verbs, but there colloquial speech differs from the official German standard, while sein is standard German in Austria and Switzerland. For details see (in German language): de.wikipedia.org/wiki/… It is also mentioned in the English article, but shorter: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Austrian_German#Grammar Commented Jun 1, 2022 at 5:32
  • That was meant to be a joke: "Ich habe gesessen" would mean I was in prison ;-)
    – U. Windl
    Commented Jun 1, 2022 at 6:25
  • @U.Windl: Well, this is not a joke, but an interesting exception to what I've said before: In Austria you normally say »Ich bin gesessen« when you mean »I was sitting«. But »sitzen« is also a synonym for being arrested in a jail or prison (jail and prison are the same in German and Austrian law). But for a reason I don't know people in Austria don't use the auxiliary verb sein in this case, but haben. So, »I was sitting on a chair« is in German German »Ich habe auf dem Stuhl gesessen« but in Austrian German it is »Ich bin auf dem Sessel gesessen« (Note, that there ... Commented Jun 2, 2022 at 4:13

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