Having recently completed reading The Awful German
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
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
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
A 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
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
"Sicher, würde der Hausbesitzer die Wand durchlöchern
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