German Participle Construction 1 – what, why and how

german-participle-constructHello everyone,

and welcome to our German is Easy Learn German Online course and I have good news for all beginners: You have a day off! Hooray.
The topic today is maybe not exactly what you are asking yourself when you’re making your first steps in German, it’ll be long, and have grammar in it so… why not just go outside and enjoy the sun.
I mean, not that it’s gonna be too difficult for you, you’d be able to understand it just fine, you would gain some insight into the mechanics and structure of German and then of course there will be the answer to the question: is the following a possible beginning for a sentence:

  • Die das den…
  • The the the…

I really don’t know. Sure looks stupid, but then again… it’s German so it might work. Aaaaanyway, so beginners, you’re free to leave or stay as you please :).
So… what are we going to talk about today? Get ready for some jargon… our topic today is the:

German participle construction aka Partizipialkonstruktion

Wow, what a word. The German participle construction is something you will have to deal with when you advance to German level B2 and you certainly need them for mastery and to get the higher language certificates like the DHS. The mere German word for it, Partizipialkonstruktion,  is rather intimidating and about 80 % of all German native speakers have no idea what that is so naturally the word is used in language tests and textbook exercises to indicate what you are supposed to do.
So… you should know the term, but what really matters is an understanding of what this is, what it does and how you do it. And the particle consump… constructions are actually kind of useful, especially in writing. And the underlying idea is even more underlying… uh I mean useful of course.
So… today we’ll do 2 things. First we’ll explore what partial combustions are  an why they are useful. Then we’ll focus on the present tense version and learn how to build it and and when. Be warned: I will be really really detailed about everything. And because I’m already sick of the term itself… from now on we’ll call them party-somethings.  Sounds good? Awesome.

of slots and info

So… suppose we have a very basic thing like … red wine and make a short sentence with it.

  • Der Rotwein kostet 3 Euro.
  • The red-wine costs 3,88 dollar.

In this sentence, Rotwein is not described at all. Let’s put on our Box Model glasses for a second (check out the Box Model here).
The red wine is our who-box, (as in who does something)  and in that box we have the article der followed by the actual noun Rotwein. That is the whole subject-box and by the way… all we’ll do with this sentence will be changing things INSIDE the who-box. So… other than that box we have the verb kostet and 3 Euro which is the what-box (as in what does it cost?). Now lets imagine we have some additional information about the red wine: it is tasty. How can we communicate all we know about red wine. We could simply make 2 sentences.

  • Der Rotwein kostet 3 Euro.
  • Der Rotwein ist lecker.

or we could use und to make it seem one sentence.

  • Der Rotwein kostet 3 Euro und er ist lecker.

But this doesn’t sound very nice. If we were always talking like this, that would be pretty damn boring. It would be cooler if we could fit the tasty-info into out first sentence somehow. And we can. In German, just as in English and many other languages by the way, there is 2 slots or options where you could fit in additional information about a thing or a person. Here they are

  • Der [info] Rotwein, [info], schmeckt mir sehr.

The first slot is between the article and the noun and the second one is after the noun.
And now here 2 basic facts about this:

  • The slots use different grammar. If you want to move info from one to the other you have to modify the phrasing to make it fit.
  • Some piece of information is always put in slot 1, some always in slot 2 and some works fine in both slots.

So… let’s get back to our red wine example.

  • Der [1]Rotwein,[2], kostet 3 Euro.
  • Der Rotwein ist lecker.

Lecker is an adjective and those go very well in the first slot.

  • Der leckere Rotwein kostet 3 Euro.
  • The tasty Red Ale costs 2.57 pound…. (not in London though)

That looks familiar. But we could also put the tasty-info into slot 2.

  • Der Rotwein, der lecker ist, kostet 3 Euro.
  • The red wine, which is tasty, costs 3.74 Australian dollar…. (probably a Shiraz)

This is not wrong. It is just weird because it makes things longer and more complicated than necessary. The information that the wine is tasty is just one adjective so it is very short and only involves the wine itself. Such information is well placed in the first slot.
But not every piece of information is that short. In fact, the majority of info we give about things everyday needs a whole sentence with verb and everything to be expressed. Like this one:

  • The red wine tastes a little like vanilla and ripe forest berries.
  • Der Rotwein schmeckt ein bisschen nach Vanille und reifen Waldbeeren.

So… now let’s try to fit this in into our original sentence. Here are the slots again:

  • Der [1] Rotwein, [2] kostet 3 Euro.

For information that needs a verb to be expressed, usually the slot 2 is the better choice…

  • Der Rotwein, der ein wenig nach Vanille und reifen Waldbeeren schmeckt, kostet 3 Euro.
  • The red wine, which/that tastes a little …., costs 210.91 Indian rupees.

But in German, we could also put this piece of information into slot 1

  • Der ein bisschen nach Vanille und reifen Waldbeeren schmeckende Rotwein kostet 3 Euro.
  • structure not directly translatable

And that is exactly what a participle constru… uh wait … I mean party-something …is for. It makes a piece of information that contains a verb suitable for slot 1.

  • ein bisschen nach Vanille und reifen Waldbeeren schmeckende

This whole chunk is a participle construction.
Why is it called that? Because it uses the participle form of the verb, here schmecken,  in order to make the whole thing fit into slot one . It makes the whole bit of information, which in slot 2 is a whole minor sentence, look like an adjective. Kind of like… a really really long adjective.

  • Der einbisschennachvanilleundreifenWaldbeerenschmeckende Rotwein kostet 3 Euro.
  • Der leckere Rotwein kostet 3 Euro.

It even gets an adjective ending. And we can combine it with other adjectives

  • Die leckeren, einbisschenachvanilleundreifenwaldbeerenschmeckenden, französischen Rotweine kosten 30 Euro.

Here, our ending is –en because … it it plural, I guess… and every piece of information gets one… tasty, french and that long one :).
So just let me repeat: the party-something makes pieces of information that contain a verb fit into slot 1.
Now… before we look at how it does that, let’s answer the question why this things are handy… I mean… why not just make a relative sentence and use slot 2 and keep slot 1 for adjectives.
Here is a sentence with one piece of information in each slot, the short one in the front, the one with a verb behind the noun.

  • Der französiche Rotwein, der ein bisschen nach Vanille schmeckt, passt gut zu weißen Shirts.
  • The French red wine, that/which tastes a little like vanilla, goes well with white shirts… or was it white meat … I… I don’t know

This is a very nicely balanced who-box. Both slots are used.Now let’s say we have yet another piece of information to convey. This one:

  • My mom gave me the wine as a birthday present a year ago.
  • Meine Mutter hat mir den Wein vor einem Jahr zum Geburtstag geschenkt.

This is a piece of information that can only come after the subject … I will answer why in a little bit… so it has to be behind Rotwein. Fine. We can do that using und

  • Der französische Rotwein, der ein bisschen nach Vanille und reifen Waldbeeren schmeckt, und den mir meine Mutter vor einem Jahr zum Geburtstag geschenkt hat, passt gut zu Bier.

This is correct but it is not very elegant. There is just a short word in slot 1 while slot 2 has this really really long block of info. That can be a problem.

  • The French red wine, which tastes a little like vanilla and ripe forest berries and which my mom gave me as a birthday present a year ago, is a book I have yet to read.

See, what I mean… the slot 2 is soooo long that you slowly forget the beginning of the sentence. So it would be better if we could make it a little more balanced.
Now, the mom-part HAS to stay where it is… again, we’ll see later, why…  but we could use a party-something and move the vanilla-part to the front.

  • Der ein bisschen nach Vanille und reifen Waldbeeren schmeckende, französische Rotwein, den mir meine Mutter vor einem Jahr zum Geburtstag geschenkt hat, passt gut zu Fisch.

This is soooo much better. The additional info we want to give about the wine is evenly distur… distrupu.. uh… disptriblablah and we have less problems to track where we are. Now, cramming that much info into one sentence is nothing people do very often in spoken German. It takes some processing to say something like this quickly. But just open a newspaper, and you will see these things everywhere. So… party-somethings are very very useful if you have loads of information that you want to put into your sentence because they help you make ideal use of the 2 slots you have available.
So, now that you know what it is and what it is useful for, let’s learn how to build it and that leads to our next headline.

German participle (under) construction

Haha… another master piece headline… man, I’m so funny… oh we’re on air already… uh… hi… uh… yeah… so,
in order to understand how a party-something is made, it is very useful to first look at how information is put into slot 2… because after all, party somethings move things that are by default in slot 2 (behind the noun) to slot 1 (between article and noun).
So… in slot 2, we always have a so called relative sentence. Here are some English examples.

  • The man, who drinks beer, will have to pee eventually.
  • The horse, with which I am good friends, stars in Man of Steel.
  • My brother, whom I haven’t seen in a while, is bored.
  • The green book I read blew.

Now, I would love to make a detour and explain how relative sentences work in German but that would be too much. The 2 main features are:

  • most of the relative pronouns are the definite article… der, die, das, dem , den etc…
  • all those relative pronouns are intro words. That means the relative sentence is a minor sentence and the verb comes at the end of it

Here is the example we’ll work with…

  • Die schöne Frau, die in dem Café als Köchin arbeitet, studiert Geschichte.
  • The pretty woman, who works as a chef in that café, studies history.

So we have a main sentence:

  • Die schöne Frau studiert Geschichte.

and we have additional info about the woman which we have put into slot 2.
If we want to put it into slot 1, we have to do the following things first:

  • remove relative pronoun
  • put verb into participle
  • add correct adjective ending to verb
  • ready for slot 1.

Sounds complicated but it is really simple. So let’s do that step by step

  • original: die in dem Café als Köchin arbeitet
  • die removed: in dem Café als Köchin arbeitet
  • verb participle: in dem Café als Köchin arbeitend
  • add ending (same as for schön here): in dem Café als Köchin arbeitende

And now we’re ready to insert it.

  • Die schöne, in dem Café als Köchin arbeitende Frau studiert Geschichte.

That’s it.  And now let me point out what we didn’t do:

  • you don’t need to change order of words!!!

This is such a common mistake and people get confused and start thinking about word order and how it changes… but the fact of the matter is… IT DOESN’T. The word order in slot 2 is EXACTLY the same when you put it in slot 1. Think of it a one block. You take it out of slot 2, remove the article, adjust the verb and then you plunk it into slot 1. And even if the info is 3 lines long and contains layers of side sentences… it doesn’t matter. All you have to touch is the beginning and the end of it. The rest is solid and remains unchanged. Here is prove. The sentence is grammatically correct. It is not nice German, it is hard to understand and follow even for a native, but some of our philosophers and authors did write that way.

  • Der [empty slot 1] Mann, der den Kaffee, den ihm die offensichtlich demotivierte Kellnerin nach langem Warten endlich auf den mit einem seit Tagen nicht mehr ausgespülten Lappen gewischten Tisch gestellt hatte, trinkt, raucht.
  • Der  der den Kaffee, den ihm die offensichtlich demotivierte Kellnerin nach langem warten endlich auf den mit einem seit Tagen nicht mehr ausgespülten Lappen gewischten Tisch gestellt hatte, trinkt trinkende Mann [empty slot 2], raucht.

It is hard to translate that using only one sentence in English:

  • The man, who is drinking the coffee, which, after a long wait, the obviously not motivated waitress had put on his table, wiped with a cloth that hadn’t been rinsed out  for days, is smoking.

But … anyway… Go ahead compare the 2 German versions… nothing changed anywhere apart from article and verb.
Now… the only real thing to do is actually change the verb into the correct form. Removing the article is kind of logical because otherwise we could end up having a double article as you can see in the example above… that would be pointless.
Adding the adjective ending is logical too, because slot 1 is kind of the adjective slot and remember… the main purpose of the party-something did form our info into one looooooong adjective. Since we do not care about the correct adjective endi… oh… uh… since we all perfectly know which adjective ending comes when, the only real challenge is changing the verb…. what’s that you say, you find all that already challenging enough? Well, by challenge I mean of course piece of cake because the form we need is the simplest, most easy to build form everrrrrrr…. the form we need is the participle 1 so it is the brother of the participle 2 which is also known as the ge-form (if you don’t know what that is you must read this article… the ge-form is really important). But wait, wasn’t the ge-form the one where there were all those exceptions and vowel changes and random endings? Yes, but the participle 1 is nothing like that… it is really really simple… here is how it works:

  • add a d to the dictionary form.

That’s all. This is the official rule.

  • haben – habend
  • trinken – trinkend
  • fotografieren – fotografierend
  • sein – seiend (the extra -e makes it 2 syllables thus setting the rhythm right)
  • wollen – wollend

This is it, just add a d like… done… now guess what we’ll call that form from now on? Exactly… the d-form because the verb gets deformed …. hahaha… seriously though. By the way… this d-form seems to corresponds to the English -ing… but be careful there… this is really only to an extend. And another by the way… there is also a party-something using the ge-form. But that is somewhat more complicated … of course… so we’ll deal with that in part 2. For now, let’s do some more examples with our nice little system …

  • Der Hund, der bellt, nervt.
  • The dog that barks sucks.
  • Der bellende Hund nervt.
  • The barking dog sucks.
  • Ich mag keinen Käse, der nach Füßen riecht.
  • Ich mag keinen nach Füßen riechenden Käse.
  • I don’t like cheese that smells like feet.
  • Das Kind kommt nicht an die Keksbox, die auf dem Schrank steht.
  • Das Kind kommt nicht an die auf dem Schrank stehende Keksbox.
  • The child can’t reach the cookie box that sits on the cupboard.
  • Der Professor, der über Zeitreisen forscht, bestellt eine Pizza.
  • Der über Zeitreisen forschende Professor bestellt eine Pizza.
  • The professor who does research about time travel orders a pizza.

All right… so… let’s recap real quick. We have learned what the party-somethings are for:

  • making verb containing side info about stuff fit into slot 1.

And how to build them based on the slot 2 version:

  • drop the der-word
  • dig the d-form
  • add adjective ending
  • plunk in the chunk

All that is missing is a look at when we can use it…

When can we use party-somethings

So… let’s say there is info in slot 2 and we want to put it into slot 1. That doesn’t always work. The first condition is this:

  • the noun, for which you give the additional info should be subject in the slot 2 part

Here is what I mean.

  • Die Frau, die am Laptop arbeitet, ist meine Schwester.
  • The woman working on the laptop/who works on the computer is my sister.

Our noun is Frau and she is the one working on the laptop so we could use a participle consblahblah here…

  • Die am Laptop arbeitende Frau ist meine Schwester

Now, how about this example.

  • Der Laptop, mit dem die Frau arbeitet, ist meine Schwes… oh  ist ein Sony.
  • The laptop, with which the woman is working/the woman is working with, is a Sony.

Our noun here is laptop. The slot 2 sentence gives additional info about laptop. But laptop is not the subject in the slot 2 phrase… Frau is… Frau does the working, the laptop is just an object. And there is NO WAY to make that into a particle consumption. It is impossible.
So, the noun the additional info is talking about MUST be subject in the additional info. Only then can you make it into a practical combustion.
Now mind you, it does NOT matter which role the noun has in the main sentence. Actually let me elaborate that a bit since this really confuses many people.
Here is what I mean.

  • Ich sitze neben der Fraudie am Laptop arbeitet.

The main sentence is “I sit next to some woman.” In this sentence woman is just an object… grammatically of course and the box woman is in is the where box… where do I sit – next to woman. But that doesn’t matter.
The slot 2 sentence gives some additional info about that woman. And because she is subject in that laptop part (she does the work), I can change that part and make it fit for slot 1. It absolutely does NOT matter what is going on outside.

  • Ich sitze neben der am Laptop arbeitenden Frau.
  • Ich gucke die am Laptop arbeitende Frau an.
  • Ich träume von der am Laptop arbeitenden Frau.
  • Mich nervt die am Laptop arbeitende Frau.

So… a quick recap… with a party-thing you move additional info about a noun from slot 2 to slot 1. But the noun MUST be subject in the additional info…. I know this sounds abstract but I really can’t find a better way to phrase it so I hope you understand the point.

So.. this subject condition is a grammatical one and there is no work around.
The second condition is not that strict and it is more a stylistic one…

  • modal verbs and other helper verbs like sein, haben and werden do not work well in slot 1.

Technically we can do it. EVERY verb has a d-form. But for said verbs it sounds anything from just bad to really really awful.

  • The horse that is being groomed by Thomas is enjoying itself.
  • Das Pferd, das von Thomas gestriegelt wird, hat Spaß.
  • Das von Thomas gestriegelt werdende Pferd hat Spaß… is really strange.
  • The man, who has no more cash money, is paying with a card.
  • Der Mann, der kein Bargeld mehr hat, zahlt mit Karte.
  • Der kein Bargeld mehr habende Mann zahlt mit Karte…. again… really really strange
  • The woman, who is a big fan of Matt Damon, makes a fan page for him.
  • Die Frau, die ein großer Matt Damon Fan ist, macht für ihn eine Fanseite.
  • Die ein großer Fan von Matt Damon seiende Frau macht für ihn eine Fanseite…. this is super super strange

So for all those verbs … stay away from party-somethings. So… here’s a checklist. You can  party if and only if:

  • the described noun is subject
  • the verb is not a modal or a helper verb

And then finally, let me give you some general advice… slot 1 is good for short info… so stuff like adjectives and simple actions like barking, tea drinking, annoying and so on… it is hard to tell anyway what is what… is annoying an adjective or is it a verb. But I digress… so short stuff goes into slot 1 (between article and noun) and long stuff as well as all the stuff that isn’t suitable for slot 1 goes in slot 2 (after noun).
When you have lots of additional info, try to balance it nicely and not squeeze everything into one slot… you have 2 so try and use them both.
Puhhhhhhhhhh…… that was really really loooooong and a lot to digest. Time to have some fun.

Messing around with party-somethings

So… now that we know everything about German participle constructions let’s find out if we can use it to do crazy German language things. Let’s make up an example… an example that appeals to everyone.
Let’s say there is a woman… an independent woman…  aaaaand she is watching hmmmm a roe deer… one like Bambi…  as it crosses the little creek that is there… and now we need to get the mens attention… so… uh… that woman has a sexy secret. Here is a boring list of main sentences

  • Die [available space] Frau, [available space] hat ein sexy Geheimnis.
  • Die Frau ist unabhängig. (slot 1 material)
  • Die Frau beobachtet das [available space] Reh [available space]. (slot 2 material)
  • Das Reh überquert den kleinen Bach. (slot 2 material)

Now let’s combine this into one sentence… if we put everything in its default slot the English version would be something like this:

  • The [ slot 1 of woman : independent ] woman[ slot 2 of woman : who is watching the[slot 1 of deer – empty] roe deer [slot 2 of roe deer: that is crossing the little creek] has a sexy secret.

Not a pretty sentence maybe but it gets the job done.  Here it is in German:

  • Die unabhängige Frau, die das Reh, das den Bach überquert, beobachtet, hat ein sexy Geheimnis.

Now… could we actually put the whole long deer-watching part that is in slot 2 of Frau … oh… uh.. that sounds weird … into slot 1 just for fun? Yes, we can because the woman is subject in that part. She watches the deer. And as we’re at it… can we put the creek-crossing info in slot 1 of the deer? Again, we can because deer is subject, it does the crossing. So let’s do this…

  • Die das den kleinen Bach überquerende Reh beobachtende Frau hat ein sexy Geheimnis.

And there we have it… a legit sentence that starts with die das den and there isn’t even a comma there. German… you are one awesome language… but wait there is more.
Here is the sentence that earned German the “Most twisted language on earth 2012”-award

  • Der die das den kleinen Bach überquerende Reh beobachtende Frau massierende Mann heißt George Clooney.

Wow… so impressive. Now… this is NOT good style. And even natives will have to think and read twice. But grammatically it is totally fine and it shows this German principle of opening up something (here with the articles) filling in all kinds of stuff and then closing it…

Speaking of closing it… we are DONE here….Now, if you’re a beginner and you feel like “What the hell did I just read… I don’t know if I want to continue with German now if it gets that tough….”… well, don’t worry… party-somethings are for advanced learners and you’ll understand it when you’re ready for it. Just see what sticks and if you forget 80% … that’s fine.
And for the advanced learners… well, I really really hope that this helps you a bit and showed that German Participle Constructions are not difficult at all when it comes to forming them. Drop article, use d-form, add adjective ending, done… The main mistake most people do is to think they have to change word order… nooooo need. This is really just moving chunks from one slot to the other….
Here some links with exercises for you… I’ll put up my own but at some point:

And then if you want another source… here are some good animated explanations about the matter also dealing with relative sentences:

In part 2 we’ll look at party-somethings that use the ge-form. That will be a little more tricky since passive mode is involved but for today we’re done.
If you have any questions or suggestions leave me a comment.
I hope you liked it and see you next time…with something shorter…much shorter… Wayne Shorter….