and welcome to our German Word of the Day. This time we’ll have a meaning at one of the most basic words ever:
Es can mean fusion crust and unicorn and towel. And even girl. Isn’t that fascinating.
Now you’re all like “Well, duh… it’s because es means it. Boring. Talk about something useful instead. We’d have a few ideas like conditional or written past. ”
And you’re right. Es doesn’t sound like an interesting word to talk about. It means it and that’s it. Except it isn’t. There are some differences between German es and English it and there’s specifically one use that trips up many learners because the es doesn’t seem to make sense.
So today we’ll take a detailed look at es. We’ll check out what it is used for, how it compares to English and how it is translated. It’ll be a little nerdy today but it’s worth it and at the end we’ll all be … esperts. Hahaha.
Meh… let’s find out of whether the explanation will be better than the jokes.
We can distinguish between four different use cases for es. They are not all completely different from each other but it’s helpful to treat them all separately. The first function is of course… the pronoun
Es – replacing stuff
The English it is a third person singular pronoun and it can replace anything that is not a human being. Chair, idea, dog, abstract concept… they all can be it.
German es is also third person singular, but German has a different system, commonly called crappy gender system. In German, it’s not about what a noun is but about what article it has. Es is the right choice whenever the noun has a das in the dictionary. And for things that have a der or a die es is NOT the right choice.
- Do you know the book? Yes, I know it.
- Kennst du das Buch? Ja ich kenne es.
- Do you know the tree. Yes, I know it.
- Kennst du den Baum? Ja, ich kenne es.... WRONG… like… really!
I’m sure it must be hard to believe for native speakers of English but the second example sounds super hyper turbo wrong. Baum is masculine. It is der Baum and not das Baum and so es cannot in any way refer to Baum. Es can only refer to grammatical neuters.
- Der Fuchs sieht das Huhn. Er will es fressen.
- The fox sees the chicken. It wants to eat it.
(in German, it sounds fine, no idea about the English version)
Grammatical gender is really calling the shots most of the time. The line only blurs a bit if we’re talking about an actual person.
- Kennst du das Mädchen? Ja, ich kenne es/sie.
- Do you know the girl? Yes, I know her.
Grammatically correct would be es but people do use sie too and both are allowed. With es it sounds a bit more technical, with sie it’s more personal. And the more distance there is between the word Mädchen and the pronoun, they more natural sie will feel.
So, es and it have the same function (replacing nouns) but they use different systems and not every it will be an es in German. When there’s a noun involved… mind the gender.
The only time when you don’t have to think twice is when you use es to replace … facts.
- “Thomas will be a bit late for the meeting.”
“I knew it.“
Here, it doesn’t stand for a specific noun but rather for a fact. The fact that Thomas will be late. For such facts, English uses it which makes perfect sense because it’s not a person. The Romance languages like French for example have only two genders, feminine and masculine, and so they had to pick one to use in these situations. Of course they went for masculine. Apparently they’re incredibly sexists and think men rule the wo… oh wait, maybe it’s just language. I don’t know. In either case, German went for the neuter es and so it works exactly like English.
- “Thomas wird ein bisschen zu spät zum Meeting kommen.”
“Ich wusste es.”
And with this example we’re already at our next use for es.
In the example with Thomas not taking his job seriously enough the es was basically replacing a sentence (because facts are expressed by sentences). But it doesn’t always have to be a full statement. What matters is that es can replace things that are expressed with a verb.
- Es macht Spaß, im Regen joggen zu gehen.
- It‘s fun to go running in the rain.
Es stands for im Regen joggen zu gehen. This is the subject in the main sentence.
- “What is fun?”
“To go running in the rain.”
And we could technically put this subject into the first position.
- To go running in the rain is fun.
- Sleeping is fun.
The structure of these two sentences is exactly the same. But the running-part is rather long and especially in English we’re used to putting such side clauses after the main sentence. So we move it.
- _____ is fun, to go running in the rain.
Now we have an empty spot in our main sentence. And grammar is going bananas. “Ahhhhhhhh… empty spot in the beginning! Fill it. FILL IT!!!!”
But we’re used to grammar’s OCD so we’re just like “All right all right, we’ll insert a pronoun. Chill out dude.” And as we’ve learned the pronoun to replace sentences or verbs is… es, or it. In English, this it is often called a dummy pronoun or dummy subject. These constructions are very common
- Es ist langweilig, immer das gleiche zu essen.
- It‘s boring to eat the same all the time.
- Es war schön, dass du angerufen hast.
- It was nice that you called.
And they’re not limited to subjects. It also works for direct objects.
- Ich fände es wirklich extrem schön, [wenn du auch mal von alleine abwäschst].
- I really would appreciate it immensely [if you could do the dishes without me having to tell you].
The logic is exactly the same. We don’t want (or even can’t) integrate the whole part about the dishes into our main sentence, so we put it after and use the pronoun es instead.
What’s interesting is that the use of such a dummy-es is not always needed. It’s different for every verb. And not only that.
- Ich verstehe (es), wenn du nicht mitkommen willst.
- I understand ((it)) if you don’t want to come with.
- Ich verstehe (((((es))))), dass du nicht mitkommen willst.
- I understand (((((it)))))) that you don’t want to come with.
In the first example, at least for German, the es sounds fine, in the second not so much. So it ALSO depends on the context it is used in. And as if that wasn’t enough, in German it even depends on where the dummy is to be placed. An object dummy can never be placed in the beginning.
- Es verstehe ich, dass du nicht…. Wrong
A subject-dummy on the other hand works best in first position and may well sound out of place elsewhere
- It would be better for me, if I…
- Es wäre besser für mich, wenn ich….
- Für mich wäre (es) besser, wenn ich…
- Besser wäre (((es))) für mich, wenn ich…
(We can’t really recreate that in English because we can’t move around
the boxes as freely but I hope you get an impression anyway.)
In the first version 1 the es is a must have. Without it the sentence would sound like a question. In version 2 it is a nice-to-have. It sounds a bit better when it’s there but that might just be my personal preference. People use it either way. In version 3 finally it’s a should-probably-better-not-have. It’s not wrong, it just feels much more natural without it.
So the bottom line of all that… the use of a dummy es has a lot to with what’s idiomatic and it differs from German to English. That sucks but the good news is that all you need is a lot of Sprachgefühl. Well, okay I guess that isn’t really good news.
In either case, it’s not a big deal if you miss one or put on in too many. The only phrasing where es really MUST be used is this initial dummy subject we had in the beginning. And that’s exactly the same in English.
- Es ist superschön, dass Deutsch und Englisch in diesem Punkt gleich sind.
- It‘s awesome, that German and English are the same in that regard.
Now, this sentence brings us directly into our next section… because not every es in the beginning is a dummy subject.
es – tasty vanilla filler
When you’re learning German you’ll sooner or later come across a sentence like this:
- Es fährt um 10 ein Zug nach Berlin.
- At 10, there will be a train going to Berlin.
Such a sentence confuses many people. What’s with that es in the beginning. Is it the subject? Is it a translation for there will be?
When you try to look that up online or ask your teacher, chances are that it’ll be called a dummy subject or delayed subject or something. But that’s not really what’s going on. They’re similar but this es should be considered…. pure filler. Let’s take the example and see how we ended up with that. We know that German can move boxes around quite freely.
- [Nach Berlin] fährt [ein Zug] [um 10].
- [Um 10] fährt [ein Zug] [nach Berlin].
- [Ein Zug ] fährt [um 10] [nach Berlin].
All these are fine. However, sometimes the speaker feels like ALL the boxes should come after the verb for, you know, reasons. If we do that we’ll get this.
- ____ fährt [ein Zug] [um 10] [nach Berlin].
And we all know what that means. Grammar-tantrum. And for good reason because if position 1 is empty, the sentence sounds like a question. So we have to fill it and we fill it with the emptiest pronoun possible. Es.
Now you might be asking “Wait a minute… that is exactly the same explanation we had earlier. So why isn’t it a dummy-es?”
That is a good question. The thing is that the dummy-es stands for something. This one, the filler-es, stands for nothing.
“But doesn’t it just stand for train?”
Well, that would make sense but there are good arguments that the es is NOT standing for the subject.
- Three kids have seen the horse.
- [Drei Kinder] haben [das Pferd] gesehen.
- [Das Pferd] haben [drei Kinder] gesehen.
These are the normal versions. WE have two boxes here, the subject (three kids) and the direct object (the horse). Now, because, you know, reasons, we want to have both boxes after the verb. So we have to insert es so as to not have the first spot empty.
- Es haben [drei Kinder] [das Pferd] gesehen.
Es could be standing in for the horse. I mean why not, right? But the sentence wouldn’t change if we the kids see die Kuh (the cow). And then the es cannot stand for it anymore because Kuh is die. So, it’s not a dummy object. If es were the subject the verb should be hat, because es is singular. But the verb is haben, because kids is plural. That is a strong hint that es is NOT the subject.
But a hint alone is not enough. Here’s another example.
- Beim Meeting wurde gestern geredet. wurde gestern gefeiert.
- At the meeting was talked yesterday. (lit)
This is one of those weird subject-less passive constructions German can do. All we have is a location (at the meeting), a time (yesterday) and an activity (to talk) but no subject. Still, we can take this sentence and move all the boxes behind the verb.
- Es wurde gestern beim Meeting geredet.
Now we have an es. But we’ve established that the sentence has no subject and it doesn’t need one. In fact it can’t have one, because reden in active voice can’t really take an object. So cannot be es the subject here. It is really just a filler. Pure structure. Grammar wants position 1 to be filled and so we take the pronoun that carries the least information possible. Es.
These structures with such a filler-es are certainly special but they’re not rare. You can definitely hear them in daily conversations.
There’s one very important caveat to be made though, if you want to build these yourself. This whole “let’s move every box after the verb” only really works fine for impersonal third person statements.
- Es hat jemand Suppe gekocht.
- Es hat mein Bruder Suppe gekocht…. meh
- Es habe ich Suppe gekocht…. WRONG
The first one is fine, the second one is pushing it, the third one broke it. The structure simply doesn’t work when the subject is ich or du. I don’t really know why.
Anyways, English does not have such a filler-es, at least not that I can think of, so some of you are certainly wondering how this filler-es is translated. There is an there are are good translations but often you’ll just have to move the subject first … depends on what’s idiomatic in English.
- Es kommt ein Sturm.
- There’s a storm coming.
- Es wurden vier berühmte Gemälde gestohlen.
- There were four famous paintings being stolen… not really (or is it?)
- Four famous paintings were stolen.
So that was the filler-es and the big question that remains is
WHY? (imagine an echoe)
Why would German do that? Why would it move everything after the verb and then introduce a filler-es that means nothing and stands for nothing? And the answer is… no idea. German does it because it’s possible, I guess. And it’s not limited to a certain register of language. You can find examples in technical writing, in political talk, in the super market but also in novels and poetic lyrics.It’s even in a song title of a famous German Schlager.
- Es fährt ein Zug nach nirgendwo.
- There’s a train going to nowhere.
And I think we’ve actually deserved some corny Schlager because… we’re done. This was our detailed look at th
“NOT SO FAST!!”
What? Who… who said that??
“It was I, it”
Uhm … what?!
“It, you idiot. I’m it. It the ubiquitous. And you forgot about me. “
Oh… oh my goodness you’re right. I’m so sorry.
Damn… I guess Schlager will have to wait a little longer. I really thought we were done.
“Well, sorry man, for raining on your parade like that.”
Nah… it’s okay. It’s just what you do.
The es around us
German and English both have this weird es that we use mainly in context of weather.
- Es regnet.
- It is raining.
- Es ist warm.
- It’s warm.
- Morgen wird es schön.
- Tomorrow it‘ll be nice.
These were all more or less about climate but it’s not limited to weather.
- It seem like you’re hungry.
- Es sieht so aus als ob du hungrig bist.
And in German it is also part of another a few very common structures
- In dem Film geht es um 5 Heere und einen Hobbit.
- The movie is about 5 armies and a hobbit.
- Um die Ecke von mir gibt es einen Spätie, der viele verschiedene coole und rare Biersorten hat.
- Around the corner from where I live, there’s a convenience store (night store) that has various cool and rare kinds of beer.
The German versions have a quite different structure than the English ones. The es is the subject in both cases. In the first one es “walks” around the topic of the movie and in the second one es, whatever it is, “gives” us this cool store. Thank you, es, by the way! I really appreciate it.
Now, in all these examples this es has a clear role (subject) but it doesn’t stand for anything… or at least it is totally subjective what it stands for. Like
“What is raining?”
“What do you mean… it, I guess.”
The word is pure function and because it doesn’t stand for anything, not all languages have it. In Italian for example you’d just say
This makes perfect sense and it just sounds incomplete because of the grammar we’re used to in German and English.
Is this es really so different from the others? Well, they’re all close to each other. Like the pronoun and the dummy-es this weather-es has a grammatical function (in this case: subject), like the filler-es it doesn’t stand for ANYTHING. But unlike the dummy and the filler, it doesn’t disappear just because you change around stuff.
- Es ist heute schön draussen.
- Heute ist es draussen schön.
- It‘s nice outside today.
- Today it‘s nice outside.
But hey … I actually just got a call from the “who-cares”-police. And they’re right. You don’t need to be able to tell the different “es”s apart and analyze what they are grammatically. I just thought it would be good to give you an overview over the different things es can do and about the filler-es in particular because that is confusing for many people. A quick recap. Es can be:
- a pronoun for anything with a das, not to be used for die or der, no matter you’re talking about
- a pronoun for facts
- a dummy pronoun for sentences, usage highly depends on context
- a function-less and meaningless filler in the beginning of a sentence simply because the speaker chose to cram all the information after the verb.
- the weird es that makes our weather and “gives” us cool convenience stores
And now you can forget everything :).
Everything deleted? Good.Perfect time for a
Es- surprise quiz: Are you nerd enough?!
Which es are you dealing with? Will it stay in the sentence when the order is changed? (normal pronoun, sentence pronoun (dummy subject/object), filler, rain-“es”)
- Es ist warm in Berlin.
rain-es, In Berlin ist es warm.
- Es kommt ein Star nach Berlin.
filler, Nach Berlin kommt ein Star.
- Es geht darum, dass du nie abwäschst.
rain-es. Darum, dass du nie abwäschst geht es.
- Es ist schade, dass du nie abwäschst.
sentence pronoun/dummy subject, Schade ist ((((es)))), dass du nie abwäschst.
- Es gibt hier ein leckeres Bier.
rain-es, Hier gibt es ein leckeres Bier.
- Es heißt Störtebecker und ich trinke es echt gerne.
regular pronoun; Störtebecker heißt es und ich trinke es echt gerne.
- Es hat jemand angerufen.
filler; Jemand hat angerufen.
- Es hat viele Leute gestört, dass der Film so leise war.
dummy subject; Dass der Film so leise war, hat viele Leute gestört.
As always the solutions are in blinding yellow. Just mark them to read them. And don’t worry if you didn’t get everything correct. It’s really not that important.
If you have any questions about today’s post or if you have come across and es that you can’t really make sense of, just leave me a comment.
And now turn up the volume and enjoy some German Schlager*… from the 70s. I think Scarlett Johansson’s older sister is in the background…. gee,she has no sense of rhythm whatsoever.
(*Warning: video might lead to fremdschämen. Watch at your own peril)
Till next time :)