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From the beginning of my German learning way I've always heard that anything can be put on the first or on the third position in a narrative sentence and the only thing you have to do is just to put a verb on the second place and a subject right before or after that, but seems like it's not correct, because my German friend said, that in the sentence below I can't put "die ganze Geschichte" on the first place:

Das ist die ganze Geschichte.

So, what can I put on the first place in a narrative sentence ?

2 Answers 2

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When learning the structure of a language, one cannot rely on the judgments of native speakers; unless they are linguistically aware, they will check whether a sentence is acceptable in a given context (or any context they can come up with), but not whether it is grammatically well-formed.

Now, the following utterance should be judged unacceptable by most native speakers:

Die ganze Geschichte ist das.

The reason being that, without any other context, the element in first position, die ganze Geschichte, will be interpreted as the subject, with the expectation that some property follows, e.g. ist unangenehm, eine einzige Katastrophe, etc.

However, a minimal change suffices to make the sentence fully acceptable.

Die ganze Geschichte ist das nicht.

As soon as nicht is encountered, die ganze Geschichte is interpreted as the property and das as the subject, which renders the sentence fully acceptable. This is due to what is called information structure; with the negation, fronting the rhematic element becomes plausible.

The acceptability of a given word order depends on context, intonation, focus and information structure, which isn't something the average native speaker is conscious of.

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As it stands, your friend is wrong: you can say

Die ganze Geschichte ist [das] ...

but - and this is a serious "but" - word order is not happenstance! You put words (or word groups) in a certain order to emphasize (or deemphasize) them. There is a difference in what is more important between:

Das ist die ganze Geschichte.

and

Die ganze Geschichte ist das.

The first version is sort-of summing up what you might have told before:

Es war Sonntag, wir sahen einen Film, danach gingen wir nach Hause. Das ist die ganze Geschichte.

The second version is the prelude to what you are about to tell:

Die ganze Geschichte ist das: es war Sonntag und wir sahen einen Film. Dann gingen wir nach Hause.

Notice, that the exposed place of the group die ganze Geschichte puts stress on the adjective: ganze and also on the group ganze Geschichte. The second version sounds like you told the story before but left out something (say, the part about watching the movie), but now you relate the whole story.

Without these contexts both versions are equally correct from a purely grammatical POV but only context makes one or the other better fitting for the occasion.


PS: as @Stef rightfully commented "Die Geschichte ist die: ..." would equally be possible. While "das" (neuter) would reference an implied "das Gesagte", "das Erzählte", etc., the "die" (feminine) would reference "die Geschichte".

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    I think his friend is right: the leading "das" refers to something previously said (as you correctly pointed out). The reverse case "Die ganze Geschichte ist das: ..." is not possible, it must be "Die ganze Geschichte ist die: ..." because it's a reference to Geschichte (fem.) (it would be possible with a neuter noun, e.g. "Das ganze Problem ist das: ...", but it still sounds awkward to me and I'd definitely say "Das ganze Problem ist: ..."
    – Stef
    Aug 28, 2022 at 21:32
  • @Stef: "Die ganze Geschichte ist die ..." is of course correct too, because - you said it - "die" references "Geschichte", which is feminine. "das" instead of "die" is also correct, though, because "das" references an implied "das zu sagende", "das zu erzählende" or something such. Basically this is what i learned as a "Nominativobjekt" (I am aware it is called differently today), like "Hans ist Fußballer", which can also be ordered differently: "Fußballer ist Hans". "Die ganze Geschichte" is a so-called "Nominalgruppe".
    – bakunin
    Aug 29, 2022 at 6:25
  • sorry, but I think no native German speaker would ever say "Die ganze Geschichte ist das: ..." or "Fußballer ist Hans".
    – Stef
    Aug 29, 2022 at 6:38
  • @Stef It's rare, but possible: "Wer ist Fussballer?" "Fussballer ist [der] Hans".
    – PMF
    Aug 29, 2022 at 7:33
  • @Stef: Consider the following rant: "Der Hans hätte alles werden können: Koch, Maurer, sogar Fliesenleger. Was ist er geworden? Fußballer ist er, der Hans."
    – bakunin
    Aug 29, 2022 at 11:29

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