But es does not always fit. Another often used expletive is da which translates to there but more often, it's just a filler for the topic position:

Da sind wir am Abend wegen des scharfen Essens in dieses indische Restaurant gegangen.


Why does the "es" sometimes not fit and we have to use the "da"? Could someone explain details with examples of this?

  • 1
    This is super tricky. I hope someone comes up with a good answer for this.
    – Janka
    Aug 19 at 19:04

3 Answers 3


Expletive "es" is grammatically a stand-in for the subject of the sentence, but it can only be used if the finite verb is in third person (singular or plural).

Es geht ein Bi-Ba-Butzemann in unserm Kreis herum ... (children's song)
Es trinken die Matrosen von allen Spirituosen am liebsten Rum ... (Shanty)
Es war(en) einmal ein Mann und eine Frau ... (beginning of "Rapunzel", a brothers Grimm fairytale)

Thus, in a sentence like:

Da sind wir am Abend wegen des scharfen Essens in dieses indische Restaurant gegangen.

... "es" doesn't fit because the subject and predicate is in first person ("we went").

"Da" as an expletive, in contrast, is grammatically still an adverb, like in the local or temporal use of "da", so it doesn't care about the person of the predicate.

That said, it's not really just a replacement of "es", it can be used in many cases where "es" could also be used, and it has at least some kind of its own separate meaning, although quite hard to define.

In the above example, "da" can have different meanings. In a specific context, for example, it could mean "so" or "given this situation":

Carla hatte nach drei Tagen keine Lust mehr auf die deutsche Kochkunst. Da sind wir am Abend wegen des scharfen Essens in dieses indische Restaurant gegangen.

At the beginning of a story or statement, it could establish a context, for example meaning something like "When this story happened, ...", similar to English "There was ..." or just using "this" in English to introduce a character. Or establishing a topic/context for a statement. For more, see the DWDS link.

Da lebte ein Fischer in einer kleinen Stadt ... (This fisherman lived in a small town ... / There was a fisherman who lived in a small town ...)

Da macht man sich die ganze Mühe, und dann wird es nicht wahrgenommen. (You go through all this work, and then it's not recognized. ("Da" says that the first sentence is the setup/situation for the second one))

Da sagen die Leute, sie sei dumm, dabei ist sie schlauer als alle anderen. (People say she's dumb, but she's smarter than all of them.)

It can also add context to an earlier sentence:

Sie war am Ende schlauer als alle anderen. Und da sagen die Leute, sie sei dumm. (In the end, she was smarter than all of them. While people say she's stupid.)

  • Halvar, the point about the adverbial character of "da" is useful, but please edit your first sentence: expletive "es" in the sense of Vorfeld-es is NOT a stand-in for the subject. It occurs in clauses with or without subject and is independent of the subject role. In contrast to the subject "es"-argument of weather verbs and the like, it cannot be moved around in the clause.
    – Alazon
    Sep 20 at 12:10

The da is not an expletive. It serves a function, which is refering to what is stated previously.

Da sind wir am Abend wegen des scharfen Essens in dieses indische Restaurant gegangen.

This sentence makes no sense on its own. In order to make sense, it must be preceded by some sentence, and the da provides a link to that sentence.

For example:

Im Gespräch hat sich herausgestellt, dass wir alle gern scharf essen. Da sind wir am Abend wegen des scharfen Essens in dieses indische Restaurant gegangen.

  • I basically agree, but it is a reasonable question whether it may be an expletive (I edited my answer to account for that). If it has a stronger meaning in one example, this does not strictly prove there are no expletive uses at all. The word "es" also has other uses with more specific functions.
    – Alazon
    Sep 21 at 4:12
  • PS: In your example, "da" could not be expletive because the subject "wir" is incompatible with an expletive.
    – Alazon
    Sep 21 at 4:21

I agree with Halvar's point that "da" has some kind of adverbial function – either it highlights the temporal anchoring, setting a "topic time" (in the words of Wolfgang Klein) or pushing the topic time forward, and it can also assume a weakly adversative meaning, like in Halvar's "Carla"-example (roughly: "at this point" = "in reaction to that"). It's hard to tell whether it should be called an expletive or not, but it's not uncommon in linguistics to call it an expletive (on a quick search, I found one such source: http://staff.germanistik.rub.de/eric-fuss/wp-content/uploads/sites/131/2019/12/HearingT%C3%BCbingenFIN.pdf )

The intriguing observation in the question is the following: Some sentences do not allow an "es" as Vorfeld (topic) expletive, and it seems this has to do with an interaction with the subject:

  • ?? Es sind wir am Abend ins Restaurant gegangen.
  • But OK: Es ist jemand / niemand am Abend ins Restaurant gegangen.

The first example is out. Given the contrast with the second example, this looks like a "definiteness effect" (a ban on definite subjects), which has also been described for English "there"-constructions: "There is a man in the room" / ?? "There is the man in the room". However, German is known not to show many of those definiteness effects that block "there" in English. (H. Haider: The syntax of German, CUP 2010, p.2). This is then used as an argument for a difference between English "there" as a subject expletive, and German "es" as a topic expletive instead of subject expletive.

But then, there seem to be certain types of definiteness effects in German nevertheless. I don't know what the solution is; a very short literature search didn't give me a clue, but it is obvious that the factor is very subtle. At any rate, Halvar's proposal that the verb must be 3rd person for an "es"-construction cannot be correct. Note the difference:

  • ?? Es ist Peter ins Restaurant gegangen.
  • OK: Es ist nur Peter ins Restaurant gegangen.
  • ?? Es sind wir ins Restaurant gegangen
  • OK: Es sind nur wir ins Restaurant gegangen.

I guess it has to do with the fact that sentences that start with an "es" expletive are used to convey that all of the following information is new. However, if this part starts with a subject consisting of 1st and 2nd person pronouns, and additionally impersonal "man", they do not support this because they can only be topical, they cannot be "new". However "only we" is different (it basically means: "nobody except us"). The clash could be that there is no reason not to have "wir/man/...etc" in the Vorfeld (given that the "es"-construction is a marked option). Just a speculation...

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