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?

  • 2
    This is super tricky. I hope someone comes up with a good answer for this.
    – Janka
    Commented Aug 19, 2023 at 19:04
  • @Alazon, since I don't have enough reputation to comment on your reply, I need to write another answer 🙈 What you give are basically cleft sentences where the deciding factor is how natural it is to put focus on the noun phrase in the beginning. So we are not talking grammar but pragmatics, not definiteness but focus. First, we are talking a different kind of expletive than in real expletives. Let's take your sentence: > Es ist jemand / niemand am Abend ins Restaurant gegangen. Since you actually can leave es out here, it is again a different kind of expletive as in the classical example fo Commented Feb 18 at 23:16
  • This does not provide an answer to the question. Once you have sufficient reputation you will be able to comment on any post; instead, provide answers that don't require clarification from the asker. - From Review Commented Feb 19 at 9:23
  • The example with strong focus on "Peter" is interesting, but I don't see a cleft anywhere. Your focus example perhaps aligns with the case of "nur Peter" in my answer. (I was saying that there is a distinction, but a subtle one, so it might be so subtle as to treat focused and non-focused items differently). And the example also aligns with the idea that the information that is presented clause-internally must be new.
    – Alazon
    Commented Feb 19 at 19:23

4 Answers 4


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...

  • I don't see why "Es ist Peter ins Restaurant gegangen." would be problematic when "Es tanzt ein Bi-Ba-Butzemann" is not, or vice-versa. Commented Feb 18 at 16:46
  • "ein" !! (ein Bibabutzemann). This is the crucial difference, as demonstrated above.
    – Alazon
    Commented Feb 19 at 19:15
  • I do not perceive a difference between "Es tanzt ein Bi-Ba-Butzemann." and "Es tanzt der Bi-Ba-Butzemann.", either. "Es blaut die Nacht." uses the definite article, as well, and doesn't sound off. Commented Feb 19 at 19:36
  • A topic for a research paper :)
    – Alazon
    Commented Feb 20 at 7:37

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
    Commented Sep 21, 2023 at 4:12
  • PS: In your example, "da" could not be expletive because the subject "wir" is incompatible with an expletive.
    – Alazon
    Commented Sep 21, 2023 at 4:21

Expletive "es" can in most cases 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)

An exception is the case that that the main new information that the sentence tries to convey is the subject -- then, "es" is also possible with first and second person:

Es bist Du, für die ich auch gern dreimal zum Bahnhof fahre.
Es seid am Ende nur ihr in das indische Restaurant gegangen.
Es gehen vor allem wir gern indisch essen, Anke und Peter essen lieber deutsch.

In this sentence, this is not the case though, the main piece of information here is what happened, and the subject and predicate is in first person ("we went"):

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

So "es" doesn't fit here.

"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
    Commented Sep 20, 2023 at 12:10
  • @Alazon: good point, edited.
    – HalvarF
    Commented Feb 18 at 8:52

I was about to side with RHa in saying that da is not - and, in fact, never is - an expletive when I ran into conflicting interpretations of the term expletive:

  1. a word that is semantically empty but grammatically necessary (only es)
  2. a word that is semantically empty (both es and da)

Number one is the definition used in German studies (called Expletivum there), 2) is a more colloquial usage of the term.

But answering your question: da in your example is from definition 2), it is being used as a so called Abtönungspartikel (modal particle) that refers to a successive event that is also caused by the previous event, like English "so" (see also this thread): "So we went..."

Es, however, is used in certain collocations and constructions where omitting it renders the sentence ungrammatical. It truly is empty of both function and meaning in this role so it is best to treat it differently from da...

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