1. Objectives

In this unit you will learn how to:

  • Translate sentences that use coordinating or subordinating conjunctions.
  • Explain the differences in meaning between als, wenn, and wann.
  • Identify when an adjective appears with a comparative or superlative ending and translate it appropriately.
  • Identify whether a word is being used as an adverb or adjective and translate it appropriately.
  • Identify relationships between verbs and their related words for some verbs.
Last revised on September 10, 2014.

2. Conjunctions

Conjunctions are those words that connect other words, phrases, clauses, and sentences. English examples include: “and,” “but,” “because,” and “although.”

These words fall into two categories: coordinating and subordinating conjunctions. In German, these two categories are important to be aware of because of their differing effect on sentence word order.

Coordinating Conjunctions

These conjunctions do not alter the word order of a sentence. The most common German coordinating conjunctions are:

aber but, however
denn for / because
entweder . . . oder either . . . or
oder or
sondern but rather (used after a negative)
sowohl . . . als as well as
und and
weder . . . noch neither . . . nor

Examples of their use:

Er lernt fleißig, denn er findet Deutsch schwer.
He studies hard because he finds German difficult.

Sie geht in den Laden und kauft ein neues Fahrrad.
She goes into the shop and buys a new bicycle.

Wir gehen nicht ins Kino, sondern in die Bibliothek.
We are not going to the cinema but (rather) to the library.

Entweder wir fahren mit dem Bus, oder wir gehen zu Fuß.
Either we take the bus, or we walk.

You can use the “verb in second position” rule from Unit 1 to help you identify the core elements of subject, verb, and object in these sentences. For example, if, after a coordinating conjunction, the first word is a conjugated verb, then you know the missing “first position” element must be implied (carried over) from the preceding clause.

Subordinating Conjunctions

These conjunctions do affect the sentence word order. The verb in a subordinate clause stands in final position within that clause. Note the locations of the verb waren and its subject ihre Eltern in this example, using the conjunction als (when / while):

Sie wohnte in Berlin, als ihre Eltern noch Studenten waren.
She lived in Berlin while her parents were still students.

When a subordinate clause is first in a sentence, then the finite verb of the main clause immediately follows the subordinate clause. Note the locations of the verb wohnte and its subject sie (its second occurrence in this sentence) in the next example, which simply follows the basic rule that the main verb of a German statement always comes in second position.

Als sie jung war, wohnte sie in Berlin.
When she was young she lived in Berlin.

A subordinate clause is also called a dependent clause because it does not make sense by itself. In German all dependent clauses are separated from main clauses by commas and the verb or verbs of the dependent clause stand at the end of that clause. This is an important punctuation practice worth remembering since it will enable you to split longer sentences apart when reading and translating.

The most common German subordinating conjunctions are:

als when (referring to past events)

Als er in Deutschland war, sah er seinen Bruder.
When he was in Germany, he saw his brother.

Caution: this word also has uses as an adverb, in which case it behaves like a normal adverb:

  • “than.” Example:  besser als – “better than”
  • “as.” Example:  als Ingenieur – “as an engineer”
als ob as if
(see Unit 15 for examples)
bis until

Bis es regnet, bleibt es trocken.
Until it rains, it will remain dry.

da since (because)

Ich gehe nicht ins Kino, da ich kein Geld habe.
I don’t go to movies because I have no money.

Caution: This word can also be used as an adverb (“there”) and is used in da-compounds where it means “it” (see Unit 12). Those uses appear with standard word order.

damit so that

Damit Sie das Examen bestehen, sollen Sie fleißig studieren.
So that you pass the exam, you should study hard.

Caution: Not to be confused with the da-compound meaning “with it” (see above).

daß that

Die Kinder wußten sehr wohl, daß Feuer gefährlich ist.
The children knew very well that fire is dangerous.

Note that the current German spelling of daß is dass, which you will see in 21st-century newspapers and other mass-media publications.

Like English, German sometimes omits this very common conjunction. You can tell this has happened because then the word order of the subordinate clause appears in normal German statement order. And more helpfully than in English, such sentences in German will always use a comma to signal where one clause ends and the next one begins. For example:

Ich glaube, ich kriege ein Fahrrad zum Geburtstag!
I think I’m getting a bicycle for my birthday!

Just for illustration, this is how the same sentence would look if the speaker bothered to use the daß conjunction:

Ich glaube, daß ich ein Fahrrad zum Geburtstag kriege!

bevor before

Bevor es regnete, sahen wir Wolken.
Before it rained we saw clouds.

nachdem after

Erst nachdem der Schnee schmilzt, sieht man Tulpen.
Not until after the snow melts does one see tulips.

ob whether / if (only used for true/false possibilities)

Wir wissen nicht, ob er kommt.
We don’t know if he’s coming.

obwohl /

Obwohl zwei fertig waren, blieben noch drei in Arbeit.
Although two were done, three were still being worked on.

seitdem since (the time when) / ever since

Seitdem sie heirateten, reisen sie jedes Jahr nach Mallorca.
Ever since they got married, they travel to Mallorca every year.

sobald as soon as

Wir fliegen, sobald das Unwetter vorbei ist.
We will fly as soon as the storm has passed.

solange as long as

Solange es so stark regnet, starten wir nicht.
As long as it rains this hard we won’t take off.

während while / whereas

Während er auf der Universität studierte, lernte er seine Frau kennen.
While he was a university student, he got to know his wife.

Caution: Not to be confused with its use as a preposition meaning “during,” with normal prepositional word order.

weil because

Ich trinke nachmittags Kaffee, weil ich dann schläfrig bin.
I drink coffee in the afternoon because that’s when I’m sleepy.

wenn when(ever) / if (used to set a condition)

Wenn es regnet, fährt sie mit dem Bus, nicht mit dem Fahrrad.
When it rains, she takes the bus, not her bike.

Last revised on October 13, 2014.

3. Als, Wenn, and Wann in Expressing Time

When used to express time relationships (like the English word “when”), als, wenn, and wann have quite different meanings, and they are not at all interchangeable.

The first two, als and wenn, are subordinating conjunctions as described in the previous section, and they are each used for different senses of time. Wenn carries the meaning of “when” in the sense of “whenever” or “if” when describing either the past or the present. Als is used to refer to a single event or block of time when referring to the past.

Wenn ich krank bin, bleibe ich zu Hause.
When(ever) I am sick, I stay at home. [or:] If I am sick, I stay at home.

Wenn ich krank war, blieb ich zu Hause.
When(ever) I was sick, I stayed at home.

Als ich krank war, blieb ich zu Hause.
When I was sick, I stayed at home.

The first sentence denotes repeated occurrences in the past or present, as well as potential occurrences in the future. The second sentence covers only repeated occurrences in the past, while the third refers to a particular single event in the past, in this case a particular bout with an illness.

Als sie Studentin war, war sie immer gut vorbereitet.
When she was a student she was always well prepared.

This usage of “als” refers to a single block of time in the past: one’s time as a student, one’s childhood, etc.

The question word wann is used solely in forming direct or indirect questions. Study the examples below:

Wann kommt der Bus? Ich weiß nicht, wann der Bus kommt.
When is the bus coming? I don’t know when the bus is coming.

Note that here the use of “wann” indicates either a direct or an indirect question.

Last revised on September 12, 2014.

4. Comparison of Adjectives

Up to this point we have only dealt with adjectives in the positive form, e.g., klein – “small,” rot – “red,” etc. Now we shall consider the comparative and superlative forms of adjectives, e.g., “smaller,” “redder,” and “smallest,” “reddest.”


The German form of the comparative is more consistent than that of English. In English, sometimes we use the word “more” to signal a comparison (example: “more consistent”), and sometimes we add an ending –er (example: greener). German simply adds an –er– to all its adjectives. Thus, the comparative of grün (green) is grüner, that of konsequent (consistent) is konsequenter. Note that on adjectives with the vowels a, o and u, an umlaut is usually added in the comparative form. For example, groß (big) becomes größer (bigger), schwarz (black) becomes schwärzer (blacker).

As far as sentence constructions go, German uses the comparative form of adjectives in much the same way as English. For example:

With als (than):

Der Stille Ozean ist größer als die Atlantik.
The Pacific Ocean is bigger than the Atlantic.

With je and desto or umso:

Je älter ich werde, desto weiser bin ich.
The older I become, the wiser I am.

Je reicher er wird, umso öfter fährt er in Urlaub.
The richer he gets, the more often he travels on vacation.

But it has some other uses, too:

With immer:

Er läuft immer schneller.
He runs faster and faster. (immer is translated as another “faster.”)

As an adjective modifying a noun:

Diese Familie verbrachte eine längere Zeit in Rußland.
This family spent a rather long time in Russia.

When comparative forms of adjectives are used in front of nouns, they must, like all other adjectives, have the appropriate endings. Consequently, in order to translate / read correctly, one must look closely at the form of the adjective(s) preceding a noun. Consider the following:

Gestern war ein schöner Tag.
Yesterday was a beautiful day.

Vorgestern war ein schönerer Tag.
The day before yesterday was a more beautiful day.

In the first example, read schöner as (schön + adjectival ending er). In the second, read schönerer as (schön + comparative ending –er– + adjectival ending er).

Thus, when translating, you must analyze any adjective endings before rendering your translation into English. Otherwise you may mistake a normal adjective ending for a comparative ending or vice versa.


In English, superlative adjectives are either prefaced by “most” (as in “most beautiful”) or carry the ending –est (as in “biggest”). Whereas in German, you will always see the ending –est or st on the adjective as the only way to indicate superlative meaning. A general rule is: if the root adjective ends in –d or –t, then –est is added, otherwise –st.

klein– (small) kleinst– (smallest)
rot– (red) rötest– (reddest)

You may, rarely, see these forms as above. Uusually you will encounter them as modifiers of a noun, with the appropriate adjective ending appended after the superlative ending. Take the superlative adjective ältest– (oldest):

Das ist das älteste Buch in unserer Bibliothek.
That is the oldest book in our library.

German also has another form of the superlative, which is used without a noun:

Der Mercedes ist am teuersten.
The Mercedes is the most expensive.

This form is always am followed by the superlative form of the adjective plus the ending –en.

Last revised on July 15, 2015.

5. Adjectives as Adverbs

In English, we generally differentiate adverbs and adjectives by adding the ending –ly to adjectives to form adverbs (for example: “hot”, “hotly”).  In German, there is no such visible difference when a word is used either as an adverb or as an adjective. (Recall, however, Recognizing Adverbs vs. Adjectives in Unit 4.) This applies even for comparative and superlative adjectives. In all cases you can tell from the context which meaning is being used.

Das Kind liest gut.
The child reads well.

Er läuft schneller.
He runs more quickly.

Sie läuft am schnellsten.
She runs fastest.

There are a few commonly used superlative words that are used only as adverbs such as höchst (highly), äußerst (extremely), and meistens (mostly). For instance,

Dieses Buch ist höchst interessant.
This book is (highly / most) interesting.

You will often see superlative constructions with am used in an adverbial sense, especially based on the adverbial meanings of the superlative adjectives best– (best), meist– (most), and wenigst– (least):

Meine Freunde haben gute Boote, aber mein Boot ist am besten ausgestattet.
My friends have good boats, but my boat is best equipped.

Sylvias Boot ist am wenigsten ausgestattet.
Sylvia’s boat is the least equipped.

Sylvia brauchte am meisten unsere Hilfe.
Sylvia needed our help the most.

If you are curious about the relation between gut and best, bear with us until the next unit.

Last revised on September 12, 2014.

6. So . . . Wie . . . Construction

The construction so + (adjective or adverb) + wie expresses a comparison of equation, equivalent to the English expression “as . . . as . . .” These two examples demonstrate an adverbial and an adjectival use:

Sie läuft so schnell wie er.
She runs as (fast / quickly) as he does.

Ihre Wohnung ist so groß wie die Wohnung ihrer Freundin.
Her apartment is as large as her friend’s apartment.

Last revised on September 12, 2014.

7. Verb Formation

Word Formation

These sections of the textbook help improve your speed during the skimming phase of reading and help you gradually build vocabulary.

In Unit 5 we dealt with the formation of nouns from verbs and common adjectives. Now we will look at the formation of verbs from adjectives and their different forms. For example:

breit (broad, wide) verbreiten (to broaden, widen)
ganz (whole) ergänzen (to make whole, complete)
größer (bigger) vergrößern (to make bigger, increase)
länger (longer) verlängern (to make larger, lengthen)
klar (clear) erklären (to make clear, explain)
rot (red) erröten ( to make red, blush)

As you can see we have used a simple adjective in its comparative form to make a verb by adding a prefix and the infinitive ending –n or –en.

Formation of Nouns from More Verbs

German also changes verbs into nouns by capitalizing the word and adding a noun ending. Thus, using some of our examples from above:

verbreiten (to broaden) Verbreiterung (widening)
ergänzen (to make whole) Ergänzung (completion)
vergrößern (to make bigger) Vergrößerung (enlargement)
verlängern (to make larger) Verlängerung (lengthening)
erklären (to make clear) Erklärung (explanation)

Compare these -ung nouns with the kind of nouns you learned how to read in Unit 4, Verbs as Nouns, which were nouns formed directly from infinitive verb forms. For example, whereas Vergrößerung (feminine) refers to a photographic enlargement as an object – thus as the end product of the act –, Vergrößern (neuter) refers to the act of enlarging a photo. The neuter, infinitive-form nouns always refer specifically to the act, action, or process itself. Similarly, compare Erklären (the act of explaining) with Erklärung (the explanation itself).

As you seek to expand your vocabulary, always look closely at a word to see if a part of it is familiar to you. This will give you some indication as to the word’s general meaning, and often the context in which it appears will enable you to choose a precise meaning.

One way to increase your vocabulary is to group related words together. Thus, using one of our examples, breit (broad, wide), we would group it with die Breite (breadth, width), verbreitern (to make broader / to widen), and Verbreiterung (widening) etc. This can be one of the more stimulating ways of learning vocabulary.

Last revised on September 8, 2014.