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I'm having difficulty with the auxiliary, modal, and perfect clauses because I never know how I'm supposed to interpret the initial Hilfsverb such as "sein" or "haben" when I hear/read "ist/war/wäre" or "habe/hatte/hätte" until I hear/read the final verb in the clause. My tendency has been to forget the auxiliary, hear/read the last verb, then have to either listen or read something again to know what was said.

Here are some examples I was hoping to get some clarification on "properly" interpreting. I'm intentionally translating these sentences as literal as possible because this is how my mind comprehends them.

  1. Ich bereue, dass ich nach dem Abitur nicht länger reisen gewesen bin.
    ⇆  I regret, that I after School/Exams no longer travel been am.

  2. Er soll den Verbrecher erhängt haben.
    ⇆  He should the criminal hanged have.

  3. Er hat den Verbrecher erhängen sollen.
    ⇆  He has the criminal hanged should've.

  4. Wir sind durch den starken Verkehr aufgehalten worden.
    ⇆  We are by the heavy traffic held up became.

  5. Ich würd' einfach alles natürlich kommen lassen.
    ⇆  I would simple all naturally come let.

Edit: To further clarify, it is only the verb combinations I'm trying to grasp. To me the real difficult ones to understand are "sein", "haben", and "werden" since their actual meaning can change depending on tense and location in the sentence. For instance:

"Ich bin zu Hause bleiben", "Ich bin zu Hause bleiben gewesen", and "Ich bin zu Hause bleiben worden" all display that "bin" does not mean the same thing in each sentence. So when a German is speaking, what triggers them to decide to leave it as is, add "worden" or add "gewesen"? Because contextually these sentence structures require an entirely different conjugation to the verbs in English, whereas in German, you don't do much different besides adding the extra word.

Personally, it just makes me want to use "waren" and "wurden" because the "Perfect" is very incomprehensible to my native English ears. Whereas the former is so much easier to understand. In the same vane, to me I'd almost prefer:

Ich lässte ließe einfach alles natürlich kommen.

to

Ich würd' einfach alles natürlich kommen lassen.

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  • Could you please indicate in your examples the words that you have difficulty in interpreting? There isn't an "initial Hilfsverb" in all of them, so it is unclear what you mean. Please markup the relevant words in either bold or italics.
    – user57303
    Feb 5 at 14:15
  • If you have difficulty rememberging Ich bereue until you come to the end of the sentence in your first example, the English equivalent must give you the same problems, because I regret is just as far away from the final prepositional phrase (after graduating from high school) of the English sentence as Ich bereue is from the final verb phrase of the German sentence. That is, in both sentences you have to remember the beginning of the sentence until you come to the end where you are being told what the beginning refers to. Why is it easier for you in English than in German?
    – user57303
    Feb 5 at 14:24
  • Just in case you don't understand the sentence, it means "I regret that I didn't travel longer after graduating from high school."
    – user57303
    Feb 5 at 14:26
  • @Ben I've made the verb pairs bold that are confusing me. Maybe to further clarify, how would you interpret something like 4.1? A german could just say "Wir sind durch den starken Verkehr aufgehalten..." and add either "worden" or "gewesen". In terms of verbs that have sein auxiliaries, you could even stop with that clause without them. So to you, "what" do you translate "sind" into? Because that meaning can drastically change the context if you add "gewesen" or "worden". Sometimes "sind" can be "have", other times it means "are", and other times it's contingent upon the final verb. Feb 5 at 15:31
  • @Ben Also just to be clear, I do understand what is being said in these sentences. What I don't understand is how to think like a German speaking this way. That is why I literally translated the sentences. I wanted to show "this is how I see it, so how does a German speaker see it translating German into English?" Feb 5 at 15:37

1 Answer 1

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As a native speaker, to me the first phrases of the example sentence set up some kind of frame for the information that comes later.

In the case of Er hat or Wir sind, the meaning that I take away from this opening is that something happened in the past. That is, the main meaning for me is the tense of the auxiliary verb.

For example, I read (or hear) Er hat den Verbrecher erhängen sollen as:

[At an unspecified moment in the past, this is what the situation was:] He is supposed to hang the criminal.

Similarly with the other examples. Ich würd' einfach alles natürlich kommen lassen reads to me as:

[The opinion of the person speaking is:] Let everything come naturally.

Er soll den Verbrecher erhängt haben.

[It is supposed that:] He has hung the criminal.

Ich bereue, dass ich nach dem Abitur nicht länger reisen gewesen bin.

[The speaker regrets:] After graduating from high school, I didn't travel extensively.


Ich lässte einfach alles natürlich kommen isn't correct German. It is possible to say Ich ließe einfach alles natürlich kommen. The meaning of that sentence would be synonymous to Ich würd' einfach alles natürlich kommen lassen, except that the form with ließe is rather old-fashioned and for some speakers today harder to understand.

Ich bin zu Hause bleiben, Ich bin zu Hause bleiben gewesen, and Ich bin zu Hause bleiben worden are all incorrect. Correct would be:

  • Ich blieb zu Hause. "I stayed at home."
  • Ich bin zu Hause geblieben. "I have stayed at home."
  • Ich war zu Hause geblieben. "I had stayed at home."

Again, I read Ich bin zu Hause geblieben as:

[Sometime in the past it happened that:] I stay at home.

And Ich war zu Hause geblieben as:

[Sometime before some other event in the past it happened that:] I stay at home.

bin ... worden is passive, and one cannot "be stayed at home".

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  • Regarding your second paragraph, would you say you do not translate them but just sort of "keep it in the back of your head" until you hear the final verb? Sort of like an "um...zu" type clause? To me, in those clauses, I just ignore "um" and wait to hear "zu..." and then "in order to..." comes to my mind. Feb 5 at 16:44
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    @BlauKakapoW Yes, of course I do not translate it, it is just a frame for the following information. But I do not wait for the final verb. Or no more than English speakers wait for whatever their sentences end in. You seem to think that the sentence final verb positioning in German requires some special mental gymnastics. It doesn't.
    – user57303
    Feb 5 at 17:04
  • I guess that helps with where I was confused. This whole time I was always translating the sein/haben Hilfsverben literally which is why it would start getting confusing when you'd have 2 or 3 verbs all at the end of a sentence. I would try to literally translate it in English, but it still wouldn't make much sense. Also your clarification with "ließe" helped me a bit too in understanding Konjunktiv II better. Feb 5 at 17:12
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    It's not just with auxiliary and modal verbs, but verbs in subordinate clauses and, to a lesser extent, separable verbs have this issue. I think you'd have a similar issue with any language with a word order different from English, and many languages use verb last order all the time, not just in certain circumstances. I found there isn't really a "trick" for handling this; it just becomes less and less of a problem with practice
    – RDBury
    Feb 5 at 21:01

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