Having recently completed reading The Awful German Language by Mark Twain, and basking in the inspiration that comes from having read something well-written for a change, I will attempt to enlighten my fellow noders on this murky subject which should concern, nay frighten, any person who wishes to keep his or her sanity intact.

There is a joke we Anglophones tell about a man who was describing an absolutely riveting German novel to his friend.  He described the book's enthralling characters, its stunning insights, its subtle shades of feeling.  Alas, our hero came to the end of the book and the entire narrative fell apart:  someone had ripped out the last page of the book.

If this were an English novel, we would probably have constructed an ending for it in our heads; indeed the missing last page would only add to our satisfaction, because our imagined ending woud be safe.

But no, this was a German novel, and the last page contained all of the verbs.

I should not have described the preceding story as a "joke": It can happen.  It is very real and not even hyperbole.

The main culprit in this drama is the double infinitive.   An ordinary infinitive is a "standard" form of a verb, stripped of any inflection (and mysteriously longer than most other forms of the verb).

The double infinitive is a train wreck of the German language.  They occur as a result of the collision of rules surrounding two grammatical constructs:

  • modal auxilliary (plus a few other verbs which sometimes act like modal auxilliaries).
  • Something that forces the infinitive form of the modal to be used, such as:
    • a tense requiring a helper verb,
    • another modal auxilliary,
    • the subjunctive mood.
When this happens, both the main verb and the helper verb get shoved to the end of the sentence, in infinitive form.

"I may not want to do that tomorrow".
"Morgen, mag ich das nicht tun wollen."

"I will have a new house built next February."
"Ich werde ein neues Haus nächste Februar bauen laßen."

("laßen" is one of the other verbs.)

"Surely the landlord wouldn't have let him knock a hole through the wall."
"Sicher, würde der Hausbesitzer die Wand durchlöchern dürfen."

One thing you should notice is: The double infinitive always goes at the end of the clause.

This is is the trump card of all grammatical rules in German:  If a rule suggests that a different word be placed at the end of at the end of a clause, such a rule loses.

Ordinarily, the subjunctive past perfect helper verb "hätte" goes at the end of a dependent clause. Thus:

"He would have enjoyed this movie, if he had attended."
"Er würde sich dieses Film erfreuen, wenn er beigewohnen hätte."

When we use a modal auxilliary, and hence a double infinitive, it does not:

"He would have enjoyed this movie, if he could have attended."
"Er würde sich dieses Film erfreuen, wenn er hätte beiwohnen können."

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