I arrive to one part of text in menschen book

Vielen Familien fehlt das Geld.

i want to khow why vielen familien here = ihr because if vielen familien = sie we use fehlen but here we use fehlt

can you explain



3 Answers 3


The subject of the sentence is 'das Geld'. That is singular and thus is the verb. 'Vielen Familien' is the Dativ object of this sentence.

You likely are confused by the word order which is quite flexible.

The verb 'fehlen' requires the missing thing or person to be the subject, and who or what is missing is the dativ object. The English 'missing' works differently.


It's fehlt because the subject is das Geld, which is singular.

Vielen Familien is the dative object tells who has to bear the result of the action. Who benefits from it or who has to deal with its aftermath.

In German, you have to pick up all the clues on the cases of all nouns to decide which item is the subject, the object and so on. Word order gives little clues and especially that position in front of a clause gives no clue at all because anything may be placed there.

To understand your example, consider

Das Geld fehlt. — The money is missing.

This doesn't say who lacks money. In German, you can introduce that person as a dative object. It's who has to deal with the missing money.

Das Geld fehlt vielen Familien. — “The money is missing to many families.”

And now you have to realize that this position in front doesn't mark the subject in German but the topic. What this whole sentence is about.

Vielen Familien fehlt das Geld. — “To many families, the money is missing.”

This makes Vielen Familien, the ones who have to deal with not enough money, the thing this sentence is about. We are in for the families.


There is indeed something odd about the verb fehlen. As has already been pointed out in the other answers, the thing that is missing appears as the nominative subject with this verb, and there's no doubt about that, because this is the phrase which controls the verb form. However, the order of the arguments is indeed reversed, and it is not simply due to the choice of topic. Therefore, verbs of this kind have been noted in linguistic research on German: they demonstrate that German has no fixed subject position, not even in the middle field of the clause. (Literature: Hubert Haider: "Mittelfeld Phenomena", in M. Everaert & H. van Riemsdijk (eds.): The Blackwell Companion to Syntax, Blackwell, Oxford 2006, Vol. 3, S. 204–274, section 2.2.2 -- more also in: https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Subjekt_(Grammatik)#Subjekte,_die_nicht_hierarchisch_h%C3%B6chste_Erg%C3%A4nzung_des_Verbs_sind ).

To see the problem, consider the ordering in a subordinate clause, where the "Vorfeld" topic position does not play a role:

  • wenn Familien Geld fehlt
  • wenn Geld Familien fehlt

The subtle point here is that only the first example allows the neutral sentence accent on the item in front of the predicate:

    1. "wenn Familien GELD fehlt". -- This is a neutral word order and neutral intonation, and the sentence can be uttered out of the blue. "Geld fehlt" is one intonational unit. Note that "Geld" is the nominative subject, though.
    1. "wenn Geld Familien FEHLT" -- In this word order you get an intonation effect, one option is stress on the predicate alone (secondary stress on "Geld", I think).
    1. Variant: "wenn Geld FAMILIEN fehlt"

In 2) and 3), "Geld" is apparently preposed and it invites the interpretation that money has been talked about before. An alternative to 2) is stress on FAMILIEN in 3), but this would be understood as contrastive stress then, very unlike the neutral character of the stress pattern in 1). In 3) you get a meaning that is only natural in a special context:

  • "if it is FAMILIES that lack money -- instead of single households -- then the effect on the economy is more dramatic."

Whichever way, orderings 2) & 3) are unnatural when uttered out of the blue, without a supporting context. So they bear signs of a derived or "marked" word order ("scrambling") -- in spite of the fact that they exhibit the order nominative > dative, which is presumed to be the normal order. It isn't here... It follows that for some verbs, the nominative subject is the phrase closest to the verb (in a neutral sentence), not the object.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.