How to ask questions in German – part 2

Hello everyone,

and welcome to another part of the German is Easy Learn German online course – the course that is not coarse!

German is Easy… because our puns are 30% lamer than those of competing courses.

… … … sorry… … …
Soooo…  today we’ll do the second part of How to ask Questions in German. Last time, we learned everything about questions that have a question word… so questions like:

  • Who am I?
  • Why are we?
  • What is reality?
  • When does the milk expire?

If you have doubts about those questions check out part 1 here (disclaimer: the questions given here are merely examples. None of the above questions will be answered or discussed in the linked post)
Today, we’ll talk about the other main type of questions… the ones without question words …

  • Is there such thing as reality?
  • Is there a reason for our being here?
  • Can reality be defined by an individual?
  • Does milk expire?

We will talk about those questions and learn how to build them, which is ridiculously simple unless your native language is English… then, it is kind of like throwing a ball with the left hand :).
Also, we’ll look at some useful patterns and finally we’ll talk about an incredibly common way of answering yes or no questions… it’s super easy and it’ll make you sound super native. So… let’s dive right in, shall we?

Yes or No questions

Questions without question-word are also called  yes or no question Because technically, you can answer those questions with just yes or no… or their synonyms like nope, nah, uh uhhh, pshhh, tsss and so on.

  • “Do you know where I can find an ATM around here?”
    “Affirmative!”

Sure… by human standards this question is not properly answered … humans with all their unspoken implied meanings and their subtext…but from a logical point of view it is.
So… there are 2 differences between yes or no question and w-questions. One is the way in which they are put into indirect speech. We’ll talk about that in part 3. The other difference is the structure and there German and English follow the same basic principle:

First, there comes a verb

But that’s where the commonalities end. In English it works similar to the w-questions. Roughly the system is this: there is an elite group of verbs, called “the Skulls”. They all have secret tattoos and only they can start a question. All the normal verbs have to call on to do . But to do itself is not part of the elite so to do also calls itself if it wants to form a question and also to have, usually part of the elite sometimes acts as normal verb and then needs to d… it is really confu… uh sophisticated. German is much more simplerer. In German all verbs are equal. So every verb can be used to start a question. So whatever it is  just put it first, and that’s it…

As we can see, sometimes the German and the English question look the same and sometimes they are totally different. So obviously you cannot just translate word by word. Basically, what you have to do is you take a simple statement

just switch around the subject and the verb and you’ve got a question…

And it doesn’t matter what tense or mode or whatever… it ALWAYS works that way:

Now… I am sure for native speakers of English this structure sounds a bit silly but maybe that can even help to remember how it works… because there isn’t much to understand. I do believe though that if you have the English system hard wired in your brain this will take a while to get used to. Just let me stress again: DON’T try to translate a given English question word by word. Why not? Well, there are sooo many differences … the use of the tenses is different,

  • Ich wohne seit 20 Jahren in Berlin…. uses present tense
  • I have been living in Berlin for 20 years…uses perfect tense (with progressive aspect)

the way the tenses are built is different

  • Marie ist zum Supermarkt gegangen…. uses to be as helper verb
  • Marie has gone to the supermarket…. uses to have as helper verb

AND as we have seen, the way yes or no questions are formed is different… so the chance that the German question will contain the same words is in fact not that high, and the chance that both questions look the same is even notter that high. Let’s look at an example… with the verb schlafen:

  • Did you do sleep?
  • Have you slept?
  • Were you sleeping?

All those 3 will translate to this question in German:

Why? Because we are talking about the past, we use spoken past, schlafen builds its spoken past with haben and the normal statement would be:

What doesn’t matter is how the English sentence looks.
So… what you should do to train yourself and see how it works is to form a statement in German first and then make it into a yes or no question by simply doing the switcheroo of subject and the verb that comes after. So …  here is the general structure for a German yes or no question and the respective statement:

  • [Subject]       [conjugated verb]   [all boxes in some order]   [left overs from verb][side sentence with dass or stuff like that].
  • [conjugated verb]    [subject]    [all boxes in some order]    [left overs from verb][side sentence with dass or stuff like that] ?

So … verb first, subject second and you will NEVER have to add anything just because it is a questi… hold on… my red exception phone is ringing… damn it.. I gotta take this real quick… hey John man, how are you?… oh … oh cool… and how many pounds did you lose with this new method… really, THAT many … wow, that is absolutely amazing… but anyway… what exception do you have for me, I hope it’s not something serious because this is for beginners and they mustn’t know that there are exceptions to everything…. oh… sentence struc… ohhhhhhh…… … … … ooookaaaayyy… well, I guess I should mention it … thanks man, and now work ‘dem abs … hahaha… yeah bye….
All right… so John my exception watch dog just called and brought something to my attention with regards to the general structure I just gave you because in fact the subject doesn’t always have to come after the verb… sometimes it comes very very late:

There are verbs for which the subject will come very late in a sentence… but don’t worry, I mentioned it just to give you the whole picture… the only verb of that kind that you need as a beginner is gefallen.

Gefallen  is basically to like with the roles reversed. So Berlin is the subject and you are the “object”. And still… questions with gefallen often start like this:

All right. Cool. So we’re already pretty much talking about important structures but there is one last general thing that I would like to mention:
In German, people usually raise their voice toward the end of the question… it is not something that ALWAYS has to be done but raising the pitch of your voice is certainly a feature of an every day question so you should start getting used to it if it works differently in your mother tongue.

  • raise your voice toward the end

But now on to some structures…

some important structures

I told you to switch around subject and verb. But what if there is no subject… like those things:

If you want to make those into a question just do the same you did before… do the switch.

Note that the question is NOT “bist du…”!!!… the literal translation of the question is this:

  • Is it cold/warm/boring to you?

The it is just missing in the German sentence. So get used to the pattern “Ist dir…“.
Then, the next thing beginners have trouble with is the German version of “there is”… in German, we use geben (to give) and we say:

Now… if we want to make that into a question, what do we have to do? Exactly THE SWITCH :)

The last structure that often throws off beginners is the gern-structure also known as the gern-thing. Without going into it too deep… adding gern to a verb changes the meaning from doing the action to like doing the action.

  • Du hörst gern Musik.
  • You like listening to music.
  • Ich esse Pizza.
  • eat pizza.

All right.
So now we’ve learned how to ask yes or no question. Let’s top this of with an incredibly useful way of responding that will make you sound like a native for a second.

One super useful way of answering

Simply saying yes or no might sound a little dry. Also the chances that the other person misunderstands acoustically are kind of high. What if the other person clanks with the pan right when you say ja… then you’ll have to repeat EVERYTHING. How boring. So, maybe to circumvent this, or maybe because they just want to say something people like to add a little more text to their answers even if a simple ja or nein contain all the information… so, here is what people do a lot:

This looks weird at first because the verb comes before the subject. But what we have is actually a shortened version of this:

  • Ja. Das hab’ ich.
  • Ja. Das bin ich.

These are normal German sentences and the das refers to the activity in question. People rarely say the das but they feel it. This pattern is really really common and sometimes it is even kind a must-do. You can’t say this:

  • Bist du noch in der Bar?”
    “Ja, ich bin.”… is wrong

This doesn’t work because “Ich bin” is NOT a complete sentence unless you’re philosophizing. If you say just “Ich bin” everyone else is like “You are WHAT?”. So in oder to make this work you would have to add for example a dort (there) .

But trust me…

  • Ja, bin ich.

is much more natural.
And what if the answer is no? Simply add a nicht to the whole thing?

Now, since it seems to be kind of  like saying “Yes, I do” in English… does this system work for every verb? No. It does work for all modal verbs and for some basic too.

It also works for haben and sein no matter if they are “real verbs” or just a helper for the spoken past.

As for the rest of the verbs people tend to use machen….

but also this doesn’t really always work. I think it is mainly used for questions that are in fact friendly commands…

So… I’d say use it this way of answering for haben, sein and the modal verbs and don’t use it for the rest :).

All right. I think we can wrap it up here. So today, we’ve talked about how to ask the questions that don’t have a question word in German. It is pretty simple. They start with the verb but unlike English you can use ANY verb… Just take a statement put the verb first and you have a yes-or-no question. For native speakers of English this will take a while to get used to but you have to admit that it is really straight forward.
In part 3 we will take a look at indirect question including polite forms of asking things and we will talk about affirmative questions in German.
If you have any questions (with or without question word :) or suggestions just leave me a comment. I hope you liked it and see you next time.

Click here to download all audio files (zip-archive, mp3 files)