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I wonder what kind of structure this sentence has:

Ist das noch zu retten?

It consists of a present tense verb (ist) + zu + an infinitive (retten)

What does it mean when an infinitive with zu is used with a present tense conjugation of sein?

This sentence is probably translated as:

Is that yet to be rescued (saved)?

Or maybe:

Can it still be saved?

I would prefer to write this sentence this way:

Kann das noch gerettet werden?

Doesn't it look better that way?

2 Answers 2

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This is the infinitive replacement of the Gerundivum.

Don't mistake the Gerundivum for the Gerundium — gerund. German doesn't have the latter. English doesn't have the former.

The Gerundivum is the third participle German has. As the other participles, it can be used like an adjective. It tells what has to be done or what cannot be done. Compare

der gerettete Plan — the plan that we have saved

der nicht gerettete Plan — the plan that we have not saved

That's the Partizip II as an adjective.

der rettende Plan — the plan that saves/saved (us)

der nicht rettende Plan — the plan that does/did not save (us)

That's the Partizip I as an adjective.

der zu rettende Plan — the plan that has to be saved (by us)

der nicht zu rettende Plan — the plan that cannot be saved (by us)

That's the Gerundivum as an adjective.

So that's the general idea of the Gerundivum. But adjectives also have a predicative use. That's with copula phrases:

der schwierige Plan — the difficult plan

That's the attributive use.

Der Plan ist schwierig. — The plan is difficult.

That's the predicative use. Let's use the participles predicatively:

Der Plan ist gerettet. — The plan is saved.

This works just the same in German and in English. That Partizip II is used as an adjective. This isn't Perfekt but Zustandspassiv. The plan is both difficult and saved.

Der Plan ist rettend. — The plan is saving. (as in life-saving)

This also works just the same in German and in English. This isn't present progressive tense but it tells another property of the plan. Just as before. Now the plan is told to be difficult, saved, and (life-)saving.

And finally, let's try that with the Gerundivum.

Der Plan ist zu rettend.

Alarm siren goes off.

Nope. It doesn't work that way. In German, we say

Der Plan ist zu retten. — The plan has the property of being salvageable, or it has the property of being required to save.

Without the -d that tells apart the infinitive from the Partizip I in German.

In my view, this is purely because it sounds better.

But that became a grammar rule.

Ist das noch zu retten?

Das ist noch zu retten.

Zu retten ist das noch?

Noch ist das zu retten.

Those are perfectly fine and both formal and "street". Native speakers talk that way all the time. Most common:

Bist du noch zu retten?

In stark contrast,

Kann das noch gerettet werden?

is grammatical and fine as well but it doesn't get you street credibility. You are clearly an Ausländer.

Oh, and as an addition, there are more copula verbs in German, so variants as

Dieser Plan bleibt zu retten. — This plan still has to be saved.

Gilt dieser Plan als zu retten? — Is this plan considered to be possible to save?

are also fine and common.

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  • Thanks a lot for your explanation dear Janka. I already knew 80% of what you said above but I have never heard ist + zu infinitive construction before and didn't encounter it in Grammar books either. Sep 5, 2023 at 16:18
  • Dieser Plan bleibt zu retten. Is it correct to translate this sentence this way? This plan remains to be saved. Sep 5, 2023 at 16:19
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    Yes, you can also translate it that way. As you can see, English doesn't feature the Gerundivum itself, but it has that infinitive replacement to be + past participle which works just the same in some phrasings.
    – Janka
    Sep 5, 2023 at 16:21
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    @NarimanAsgharian: Yes, "Ist das zu machen?" means indeed "Is that possible?", but "Ist das zu tun?" Is more like "Does that have to be done?"
    – bakunin
    Sep 5, 2023 at 17:53
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    @NarimanAsgharian: Exactly. But always remember the Gerundivum and its infinitive replacement always have two different meanings that can be told apart only from context.
    – Janka
    Sep 5, 2023 at 18:20
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The use of infinitive + zu has several cases which demands it.(1) In general you have constructions with two verbs, in your example ist and retten. The second verb relates to the first verb, here retten relates to conservation of state you express with ist.

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