I learned on a website that if a relative clause separates the final verb element from the main clause, it would be awkward; the first (in bold print) in each of the pairs below is better than the other.

  • Letztes Jahr haben Ludwig, Johanna und Karin den Berliner Marathon gewonnen, den sie jedes Jahr zusammen rennen. vs. Letztes Jahr haben Ludwig, Johanna und Karin den Berliner Marathon, den sie jedes Jahr zusammen rennen, gewonnen.

  • Sie werden nie die Kiste Champagner trinken, die sie dafür gewonnen haben. vs. Sie werden nie die Kiste Champagner, die sie dafür gewonnen haben, trinken.

Then, what about verb prefixes? I know that separable prefixes basically should be placed at the end of the sentence. But when, because of the relative clause, the separable prefix of a verb is isolated and dangling at the end, is it better to move it in front of the relative clause?

Let me give you an example of what I'm asking. Which one sounds better?:

  • Heute Abend kommt Hans, den ich lange nicht gesehen habe, zurück.


    Heute Abend kommt Hans zurück, den ich lange nicht gesehen habe.

  • The first one sounds better too me, but I couldn't explain why.
    – rimrul
    Sep 1, 2013 at 4:53

2 Answers 2


As you already suspect, moving the separated prefix to the front is possible in the same way as with an infinitive, participle, negation, etc. Grammatically, both versions are correct; the difference is a matter of style, which means that opinions may vary.

The case for moving something to the front becomes stronger as the length of the interruption increases, because such a sentence quickly becomes incomprehensible. And an interruption may be very long:

Gestern kam Hans, mein alter Schulfreund, der jahrelang zu Fuß und auf Schiffen um die Welt gereist ist und von dem ich viel zu lange nichts gehört hatte, weil er auch nur selten Karten geschrieben oder gar angerufen hat und sich nie mit dem Internet oder überhaupt Computern hatte anfreunden können, obwohl Mail ja für ihn als Kommunikationsmittel ideal gewesen wäre, vorbei.

  • 2
    The interesting thing in terms of phrasing/style is, that if you leave the prefix at the end, it is nicely possible to set up strong "arc of suspense" by inserting lots of relative clauses and then finally mess up all of the reader's expectations by adding a tiny little negation to the "dangleing" prefix. For this answer's example this could be using nicht vorbei instead of vorbei. :-)
    – alk
    Sep 1, 2013 at 9:01
  • @alk: Yes, or even um. Still, the question is whether the reader or listener remembers that the sentence started with kommen, not e.g. schauen or kehren.
    – chirlu
    Sep 1, 2013 at 9:10
  • Sure, the stylistic effect depends on whether the prefix could and even would be guessed after having read the beginning of the sentence. In your example this most likely would be the case. But you are right for other verbs, this kind of "fooling the reader" might not work so well.
    – alk
    Sep 1, 2013 at 9:18
  • @chirlu: your example.... that is Kleist, right :)
    – Emanuel
    Sep 3, 2013 at 9:53

Technically, both versions are possible and as stated in chirlus answer it is a matter of style. There are 3 things I want to mention though so I decided to make that an answer myself.

1. Balance

This refers to the style-part. Having the sentence being comprehensible is certainly one aspect but another one is balance. We always have a main sentence and that is preceded, followed and split by dependent sentences. The resulting construction should have some sort of balance. That means for example that you should avoid putting 2 dependent sentences at the end if the first "slot" is available.

Nachdem ich gegessen hatte, habe ich mich hingelegt, weil ich müde war.

is better than

Ich habe mich hingelegt,nachdem ich gegessen hatte, weil ich müde war.

The first version is balanced, the second not so much.

Main sentence: ----------- Dependent sentence:____



vs. -------------, ______,_______

There is also a semantical problem with the second version but even without that .. distribute your dependent sentences as equally as possible. And for the example that means... don't split off one word of a moderatly long main sentence even if the dependent sentence is very short.


---------------------,__ .

is preferable to this:

---------------------, __, --.

The second version is not balanced at all.

2. Conflict

You shouldn't "delay" the relative clause if another dependent sentence follows because that might lead to semantical ambiguity.

Thomas hat gestern den Mann, der beim Bäcker arbeitet, angerufen, weil er Geld brauchte.

Thomas hat gestern den Mann angerufen, der beim Bäcker arbeitet, weil er Geld brauchte.

In the second version it is not clear what the weil-clause refers to. The first version is clearly the better one here although not nicely balanced.

3. Cohesion

The last example in the question made me realize another point. There has to be some force between the noun that is being specified and the relative-clause if you want to separate them. By force I mean something that binds them together and that is usualy the need for specification of the noun.

Ich habe gestern den Mann gesehen, der beim Bäcker arbeitet.

den Mann alone means nothing. It needs the relative clause to be precise. So there is something pending still which immediately pulls the relative clause to Mann as soon as we hear the pronoun... hence, a little delay is okay. Things are different in this example:

Ich habe gestern Hans gesehen, der beim Bäcker arbeitet.

Though not wrong, I perceive this to be not really good style because there is not much of a need to specify Hans. The name gives me a pretty good idea of which person I have seen I don't need more info. So... I get my participle and I am waiting for nothing but then comes a relative clause. I will associate it with Hans but it is not completing anything for me so it is a bit boring. It feels like an afterthought, whereas the relative clause in the first sentence HAS to be there. So... in this situation I would actually say that one shouldn't delay the relative clause and say:

Ich habe gestern Hans, der beim Bäcker arbeitet, gesehen.

This is a bit unbalanced but not so much actually because the first part of the main sentence is not that long.

So in short:

  • delay the relative clause is fine to get a nicely balanced text.
  • don't delay it if it would then conflict with another dependent-clause that follows
  • don't delay it if the relative clause is completely optional because then there is no force that pulls it bakc to its object
  • 2
    I guess the most common version for the example in the conflict-paragraph would be: "Da Thomas Geld brauchte, hat er gestern den Mann, der beim Bäcker arbeitet, angerufen." Then again you can move angerufen in front of the subordinate clause, without having any conflicts.
    – Em1
    Sep 3, 2013 at 12:04
  • @Em1: and you have a balanced sentence :)
    – Emanuel
    Sep 3, 2013 at 16:05

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