1. Objectives

In this unit you will learn how to:

  • Translate clauses involving multiple verbs, specifically including lassen, sehen, and hören as the primary verb.
  • Identify and translate infinitive phrases.
Last revised on September 26, 2014.

2. Verbs that Function Like Modals

  1. sehen = “to see” and hören = “to hear”

    With sehen and hören, a dependent infinitive is used and thus a double infinitive is formed in the perfect tenses.


    Er sieht den Zug ankommen.
    He sees the train arrive.

    Sie hört ihren Bruder singen.
    She hears her brother singing.
    [or:] She hears her brother sing.

    Present perfect:

    Er hat den Zug ankommen sehen.
    He saw the train arrive.

    Sie hat ihren Bruder singen hören.
    She heard her brother sing(ing).

    Simple past:

    Er sah den Zug ankommen.
    He saw the train arrive.

    Sie hörte ihren Bruder singen.
    She heard her brother sing(ing).

  2. lassen

    This verb has several uses:

    1. lassen – to leave. In this case it functions like any other verb:

      Er läßt mich allein.
      He leaves me alone.

      Er hat mich nie allein gelassen.
      He never left me alone.

    2. lassen + (an infinitive) – to let, to allow

      Er läßt ihn gehen.
      He lets him go.

      Er hat ihn gehen lassen.
      He let him go.

      In this case, a dependent infinitive is used and in the perfect tenses a double infinitive, just as with the modal verbs.

  3. lassen + (an infinitive) – to have something done.

    Wir lassen ein Haus bauen.
    We are having a house built.

    Wir haben unser Auto reparieren lassen.  
    We had our car repaired.

    Again, you see a dependent infinitive, with a double infinitive in the perfect tenses. Note that there is no visible difference between usage 1.b.ii above and this usage. Now that you are aware of both possible meanings for this construction, you can rely on real-world sense-making to decide which meaning is intended.

  4. sich lassen + (an infinitive) – as a substitute for the passive voice (compare Unit 9). More specifically, this usage is exactly equivalent to (and is preferred over) a combination of the modal verb können with passive voice. It might help you to think about how this usage of lassen is similar to 1-b-ii above: something “lets itself be done.”

    Dieses Wort läßt sich nicht leicht übersetzen.
    Dieses Wort kann nicht leicht übersetzt werden.

    This word cannot be translated easily.

    Das Fenster läßt sich öffnen.
    Das Fenster kann geöffnet werden.

    The window can be opened.

    Das Fenster ließ sich öffnen.
    Das Fenster konnte geöffnet werden.
    Das Fenster hat sich öffnen lassen.
    Das Fenster hat geöffnet werden können.

    The window was able to be opened.

Last revised on July 20, 2018.

3. Infinitive Phrases

Modal verbs, as you have already learned, are accompanied by a dependent infinitive without zu (to) because the “to” is inherent in the modal: Er muß gehen (He has to go). However, both English and German employ common verbs such as “to begin,” that we use with a dependent infinitive (“It begins to rain.”). Likewise, adding a bit more complexity, both English and German use dependent infinitives that have their own predicates (“It is his plan to develop a new engine.”).

  1. Verbs with infinitives and zu

    Heute beginnt es zu schneien.
    Today it (begins / is beginning) to snow.

    Wir haben beschlossen, unsere Ferien in Deutschland zu verbringen.
    We have decided to spend our holiday in Germany.

    Der Ingenieur versucht, einen neuen Plan zu entwickeln.
    The engineer is trying to develop a new plan.

    The dependent infinitive stands, as usual, in final position in the sentence, but it is preceded by a zu. If the dependent infinitive involves an entire phrase, as in our second and third examples, this phrase is separated from the main clause by a comma. Note that the structure of longer infinitive phrases appears to an English speaker to be in reverse order.

    When the dependent infinitive is a separable-prefix verb, the zu appears between the prefix and the stem of the verb, as in:

    Er vergaß, das Fenster aufzumachen.
    He forgot to open the window.

    Modal verbs can also appear in these constructions:

    Ich hoffe, eines Tages deutsche Zeitungen ohne Wörterbuch lesen zu können.
    I hope to be able to read German newspapers without a dictionary someday.

    In the same way English does, German permits infinitive phrases to refer to completed actions, by using an infinitive form of present-perfect tense. Compare the preceding, modal example with the following, completed-action example. Notice how the helping verb of the present-perfect tense (in this case, haben) fits into the phrase at the same place the modal verb did above:

    Sie verspricht, vor nächster Woche eine deutsche Zeitung gelesen zu haben.
    She promises to have read a German newspaper before next week.
    She promises that she will have read a German newspaper before next week.

    Here is an extensive but not exhaustive list of German verbs that can be used with dependent infinitives and zu. Your will notice that they are, for the most part, counterparts of English verbs which function in the same way.

    anfangen / beginnen to begin
    aufhören to stop / to cease
    befehlen to order
    beschließen to decide
    brauchen to need
    drohen to threaten
    hoffen to hope
    pflegen to be used to (in the habit of)
    scheinen to seem / to appear
    vergessen to forget
    verlangen to demand
    vermögen to be capable
    versprechen to promise
    versuchen to try />to attempt
    wagen to risk
    wünschen to wish
    zögern to delay

    Note when translating such constructions that English sometimes requires the gerund form (-ing) of the dependent verb:

    Gestern fing es zu regnen an, und heute regnet es immer noch.
    It started raining yesterday and it’s still raining today.

  2. Infinitive clauses with nouns

    Das ist ein Befehl, vorwärts zu ziehen.
    That is a command to move forward.

    Das ist ein Versuch, die neu entdeckten Mineralen zu untersuchen.
    That is an attempt to test the newly discovered minerals.

  3. The verb sein plus zu and an infinitive

    In terms of how it is translated, this construction is quite different from those above. Consider the following examples:

    Dieses Buch ist zu lesen.
    The book is to be read.

    In Minnesota sind viele Seen zu sehen.
    In Minnesota many lakes are to be seen.

    It is sometimes more natural in English to express this meaning using a passive voice construction with the modal verb “must” or “can.” We could optionally translate the first sentence as “This book must be read,” or the second as “In Minnesota many lakes can be seen.” In fact, the sich lassen passive construction in 1. d) above carries a meaning similar to this construction.

    Note that the above two examples do not have an adjective as the predicate of sein. When you do see an adjective there, the meaning will be easy to read, since English uses this same construction to express the same meaning:

    Dieses Buch ist schwierig zu lesen.
    This book is hard to read.

    Bei starkem Wind wird das Boot leicht umzukippen sein.
    In a strong wind, the boat will be easy to tip over.

Last revised on November 14, 2018.

4. Common Infinitive Constructions

As is true for all dependent constructions, including the infinitive clauses described above, it is helpful to remember that German abides by two rules that give you visual cues about the structure of sentences:

  1. All dependent constructions, whether clauses or phrases, are separated from main clauses by a comma or commas.
  2. Verbs stand in final position in dependent clauses and phrases.

There are three prepositions that in infinitive clauses take on special but commonly used meanings:

  1. um . . . zu + infinitive = “in order to”

    Sie lernt fleißig, um das Examen zu bestehen.
    She studies hard in order to pass the exam.

  2. ohne . . . zu + infinitive = “without” + present participle.

    Wir sind nach Frankreich gereist, ohne Paris zu besuchen.
    We travelled to France without visiting Paris.

  3. anstatt (sometimes statt) . . . zu + infinitive = “instead of” + present participle.

    Anstatt zu arbeiten, sind wir ins Kino gegangen.
    Instead of working we went to the cinema (movies).

Last revised on October 6, 2014.