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Yesterday I saw a comment on YouTube that went like this:

"Mich würde mal interessieren, was die so verdienen ..."

I know (from Hammer's German) that the personal pronoun es can be used to point forward to a subject clause (was die so verdienen is a subject clause in this sentence for comparison), that there's no need for it if the subject clause precedes the verb and that it is sometimes omitted if not in the first position in the clause (can't tell if here that would be the case).

Here, it really feels to me as a learner that an es is missing (or is omitted, or implied) in the first clause (aside what I know from the grammar book).

I asked this question elsewhere yesterday and I've been told there's no implied/missing/omitted es at all but that would genuinely be a first for me. So I thought of asking this question here as well because I always get from the most thoughtful and comprehensive answers on here, which im very grateful for.

Outside placing es in the first position, which here is occupied by mich could it really be the case that this is not one of these cases where es could be used to point to a subject clause (in this case was die so verdienen)? And why would that be, is there something that would make this clause special so that it's never the case es would work as such with it specifically, for example it being a fixed expression or something the like?

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    I'm not quite sure what you're asking here: Is there a missing "es" in the sentence? No. Is there an omitted "es"? no. Could you add an optional "es" to the sentence? Yes, but "optional" means "not needed", so it can't be omitted or missing.....
    – tofro
    Oct 19, 2023 at 17:24
  • i formulated the question to the best of my ability, i guess i got confused answers before aswell... i should probably classify this as a mystery for myself, for now at least.
    – Srmuiel
    Oct 19, 2023 at 19:21
  • 1
    Does this answer your question? Use of “es” to anticipate a following clause
    – RHa
    Oct 20, 2023 at 15:09
  • No, his question is about es pointing to an object clause, my question is about es pointing to a subject clause and they're used in different circumstances. i'm not editing anything. because i already put a lot of effort and these questions are just too different, he has problems with some exercises and i ask something else 🤷‍♂️ dont be so quick with the close pistol
    – Srmuiel
    Oct 20, 2023 at 16:38

4 Answers 4

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Part 1: about the German expletive »es«

The word »es« in sentences like

Es regnet. Es gibt eine Lösung. Es fährt ein Zug nach nirgendwo.
It rains. There is a solution. There is a train traveling to nowhere.

is called »expletive« in English and »Expletivum« in German grammar. In English also the term »expletive subject« is very common, but in German this word is not always the subject: The subject of »Es fährt ein Zug nach nirgendwo.« is not »es« but »ein Zug«. In English you have two expletive words: it and there (see my examples above), but German has only one: es.

The German expletive »es« appears in two variations, that are very similar:

  1. A real grammatically subject without any semantic meaning.
    If this is the case, then it also can appear at position 3 (i.e. behind the verb). So it's not there, to fill position 1 of a sentence. It really is a subject in the sense of grammar/syntax, but it still is meaningless in the sense of semantics.
    (Experts argue about whether it is really absolutely meaningless, but the majority is of this opinion.)

    Es regnet. Gleich wird es regnen.

  2. Just a placeholder whose only function is to fill the otherwise empty position 1 (the place before the verb).
    If this is the case, the sentence contains a meaningful subject on position 3. When this subject is moved to position 1, the expletive disappears:

    Es fährt ein Zug nach nirgendwo. Ein Zug fährt nach nirgendwo.


Part 2: German sentences without a syntactic subject

All sentences discussed in part 1 contain a part of speech in nominative case that corresponds with the inflected verb (which stands at position 2) in number (singular/plural) and person (1st, 2nd, 3rd person). This is the syntactic definition of a subject. Subjects also stand either immediately before or immediately after the verb (i.e on position 1 or 3), but this is a consequence of being the subject, it's not a defining property. (But knowing this can be helpful to identify the subject within a longer sentence.)

But sentences like

  1. Bitte bleibt noch ein wenig! Bring den Müll runter! Geht!
  2. Mich friert. Ist dir langweilig? Mich interessiert seine Geschichte.

do not contain such an element. These are subjectless sentences. There is nothing missing in these sentences, so they are not ellipses (incomplete sentences) like »Mir nichts, dir nichts« or »Je früher, desto besser«.

  1. The sentences in category 1 contain a verb in imperative form, 2nd person and they use the informal "du" form. If a sentence is a statement or a question and uses the verb in 2nd person in the informal "du" form, then the subject is either »du« (if it's singular) or »ihr« (if it's plural), but this subject is omitted in imperative sentences (if the sentence is a command, advice or request).

    If the imperative verb is in 1st person (»Gehen wir!«; adhortative) or if the sentence uses the formal "Sie" form (»Gehen Sie!«), then the subject must be given.

  2. The sentences in category 2 do not use the imperative mode. They are plain statements. But they describe purely subjective and individual feelings or emotions of the speaker, that nobody who is not the speaker, can objectively experience. If you want to express something like that, there are two patterns that you can use which both don't need a subject:

  • Pattern 1: Dative object + copula verb + adjective

    Dem Mann wird kalt.
    Ihr ist langweilig.

    Of course, you can also form such sentences in other tenses and add other elements to them. (»Dem Mann auf der Parkbank wird sicherlich bald ziemlich kalt werden.«) But for some adjectives, this pattern must be extended by a mandatory object or object clause:

    Ihm blieb unklar, warum sie lachte.

  • Pattern 2: Accusative object + verb (+ object if the verb demands it)

    Mich friert.
    Ihn graust vor Spinnen.
    Mich interessiert seine Geschichte.
    Mich würde mal interessieren, was die so verdienen.

    This second pattern is used more rarely than pattern 1 and limited to a small number of verbs (frieren, frösteln, schaudern, grausen, interessieren; I didn't find any more). And in idiomatic sentences the accusative object is very often a personal pronoun, although also sentences like »Den Mann friert« are correct.


Part 3: Do subjectless sentences need an expletive »es« to be complete and correct?

The simple answer is: NO. All subjectless sentences, as described in part 2, are absolutely correct and entirely proper German sentences. Nothing is missing in these sentences.

Is it possible to add an expletive »es« to these sentences?

Sometimes this is allowed, but sometimes not. If the sentence is an imperative sentence, then it is never allowed to add an expletive »es«.

But if it is a statement that has an agent in dative or accusative case (Sentences that I labeled as "category 2" above), then it is allowed. It is an option. You can decide to choose this option, but there is no compulsion to do so. In everyday language, you almost always refrains from choosing this option.

But this option is not a special feature of subjectless sentences. This can also be done with almost all sentences that have a proper subject.

Here are some song and movie titles, that use this pattern:

Ein Bi-Ba-Butzemann tanzt in unserem Haus herum.
Es tanzt ein Bi-Ba-Butzemann in unserem Haus herum.1
There is a bi-ba-bogeyman dancing around in our house.

Ein Ros ist entsprungen.
Es ist ein Ros entsprungen.2
There has a rose grown.

Ein Zug fährt nach nirgendwo.
Es fährt ein Zug nach nirgendwo.3
There is a train traveling to nowhere.

Ein Reif fiel in der Frühlingsnacht.
Es fiel ein Reif in der Frühlingsnacht.4
There fell a frost in the spring night.

Kein Weg führt zurück.
Es führt kein Weg zurück.5
There is no way back.


1German children's song. Melody and lyrics on Wikipedia
2German christmas carol. Melody and lyrics on Wikipedia »Ein Ros« is an outdated form of »eine Rose« (a rose) and the meaning of »entspringen« in this special context is to come up, to blossom.
3German "Schlager" (hit song) from 1972. Video on YouTube
4German folk song. Melody and lyrics on Wikipedia. There is also a silent movie from 1915 with the same title. Wikipedia
5German title of the American move »The Lost Man«. Wikipedia

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  • it's a really nice answer but i couldn't find interessieren included with these emotion-expressing verbs like bangen/hungern/frieren/grauen/etc anywhere online; so at least from the perspective of a learner it would be impossible to know (despite it being an emotion-expressing verb like them) that this is what's happening for sure (although it would make sense). Either way, the overwhelming answer i got is that there's no omitted es since it doesn't have to be part of the sentence to begin with. 👍
    – Srmuiel
    Oct 20, 2023 at 21:28
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    The es in the question is not an expletive. It's a Korrelat.
    – RHa
    Oct 22, 2023 at 20:35
  • "Part 2: German sentences without a syntactic subject [...] Pattern 2: Accusative object + verb [...] Mich interessiert seine Geschichte. Mich würde mal interessieren, was die so verdienen.": In the first of these examples, seine Geschichte is a regular subject in nominative: Seine Geschichte interessiert mich – Wer (not: *wen) oder was interessiert mich? In the second example, the subclause was die so verdienen is the subject (Subjektsatz): Was die so verdienen, würde mich mal interessieren – Wer [not: *wen] oder was würde dich mal interessieren? Oct 27, 2023 at 21:18
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1. German clauses do not need a subject. In order to exclude expletive es (also called Platzhalter- or Vorfeld-es), it is best to use verb-final clauses to demonstrate this.

wenn wieder gefeiert werden kann (impersonal passive)
wenn dich frieren sollte (subjektloses Verb)

2. When a subject is present, it cannot be dropped. (There is a construction that seemingly allows the subject to be dropped, but that is a property of that specific construction and not of subjects in general.)

3. The anticipatory es (Korrelat-es), as the term suggests, does not function as a subject or object by itself, but merely points to one. This explains why it can be dropped without a change in meaning.

4. The sentence

Was die so verdienen, würde mich mal interessieren.

shows that no es is required, that es sometimes has to be omitted (or cannot be present) and that the verb appears in the third person singular when a sentential subject is present (as it does when no subject is present).

5. In some contexts, speakers prefer using the anticipatory es, in others they prefer avoiding it. There are definitely multiple factors involved in making the decision and sometimes it's a toss-up. In the original example, es could easily be present as well.

Mich würde (es) mal interessieren, was die so verdienen.
Sie hatten ?(es) abgelehnt, sich dazu zu äußern. (better with es)
Er hat (??es) versprochen, sich dazu zu äußern. (way better without es)

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While I am not a linguist and have no idea whether actual linguists would agree with my analysis:

My analysis is that it the subject of "würde interessieren" is the entire subclause "was die so verdienen". It certainly acts that way. It is possible to move it around: "was die so verdienen, würde mich interessieren" is also a grammatical sentence.

Subclauses can be subjects in German without needing an "es" like they need in English (although it is still possible to add one).

You can do that for other subclauses too although not all of them sound very natural (I think they are all grammatical):

  • Mich interessiert nicht, dass die mehr verdienen als ich. / Dass die mehr verdienen als ich, interessiert mich nicht.
  • Interessiert dich, ob die mehr verdienen als du? (no good way to change word order here)
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While rare if not actually ungrammatical in English, subject dropping in German is fairly common. This happens most often with the "impersonal es" when it wouldn't violate the V2 rule and there is a grammatical object which takes the place of the subject in terms of meaning. For example you can analyze "Mir ist übel" as having the subject "es", so "Mir ist es übel", but with "es" dropped. There are differences in interpretation though; some regard the "es" as being unnecessary in the first place, so there is nothing "dropped". But I think of it as the "es" being there in spirit, at least in the sense that it determines how the verb is conjugated. There can be different interpretations of grammar which have the same results in terms of which sentences are allowable. You have to choose the interpretation you're more comfortable with

Note the German impersonal imperative does not use a grammatical subject at all, not even an optional one. In that case the verb is used in the infinitive. Note also that in an informal setting such as an internet comment section subject dropping is even more common, dropping "ich" for example and even going so far as to break the V2 rule. Since the subject can often be deduced from the verb conjugation, it can be dropped without loss of meaning, even though the result may be ungrammatical. Internet comment sections aren't known for being bastions of correctness, political, factual or grammatical. That seems to be true no matter what language they're in.

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  • »Mir ist es übel« is just wrong. »Es ist mir übel« might be possible but is very unidiomatic. German native speakers only use »Mir ist übel.« This special constructions works for all adjectives that describe a subjective and individual feeling of the speaker, i.e. feelings and emotions (physical and psychical), that can not be experienced objectively from other persons: Mir ist kalt, mir ist langweilig, mir ist schwindlig. In some cases this only works with an additional object clause: Mir ist klar, dass das stimmt. Oct 20, 2023 at 6:49
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    @HubertSchölnast Duden has it: duden.de/rechtschreibung/sein_Verb_Vollverb#Bedeutung-1c.
    – David Vogt
    Oct 20, 2023 at 9:27
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    I can very well understand that an English native speaker whose language does not really allow to drop subjects (or, rather: delegate the subject function to a subclause) is desparately searching for a subject, thus concluding "there must be an es that was dropped". But I can assure you that's no issue at all for a German native speaker.
    – tofro
    Oct 23, 2023 at 10:18
  • @tofro - I believe you. According to Occam's razor you pick the simplest explanation. But which is simplest may depend on your point of view, and indeed when it comes to grammar that may include your native language.
    – RDBury
    Oct 23, 2023 at 12:49

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