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Complex Sentences--Scientific Example

In this section, we will try to develop a strategy for attacking sentences like:

Die Geographie der Pflanzen untersucht, ob diese Pflanzen heißer Klimate, wie Elephantenzähne, Tapier-, Krokodil- und Didelphis-Gerippe, die man neuerdings in Europa entdeckt hat, zur Zeit allgemeiner Wasserbedeckung durch die Gewalt der Meeresströme vom Äquator her in die gemäßigten Zonen angeschwemmt worden sind, oder ob einst diese nördlichen Klimate selbst Pisanggebüsche und Elephanten, Krokodile und baumartiges Bambos-Schilf erzeugten.

Commas
Commas actually do the hardest work for you, because in German, any two clauses are usually separated by a comma. Thus, the commas separate the sentence into its component parts for you. The chief exception is that clauses joined by und or oder are only separated by commas if they are both complete main clauses (i.e. both include a subject and a verb).

Sie fuhren nach Hause und sahen einander dann stundenlang in die Augen
They drove home and then looked in each other's eyes for hours (Common element is sie [they])

Since these combinations of sentences with coordinating conjunctions cause little confusion, we will ignore them; our method will be to separate the sentence into the pieces determined by the commas.

Semicolons

These separate parts of the sentence which could be complete sentences on their own. One can therefore investigate the two parts independently. Semicolons are good friends too....

What can we expect to find?
Commas can indicate the following:

...the main clause(s) (verb in second position).

...subordinate clauses (verb in final position).

        ...relative clauses (these are a type of subordinate clause).

...infinitive clauses. These consist of an infinitive with object(s), or modifier(s), or both):

Ich habe keine Zeit, den Hund zu baden
I have no time to bathe the dog (object)

Wie bringt ihr es fertig, so schnell und so elegant zu essen und gleichzeitig fernzusehen?
How do you manage to eat so quickly and so elegantly and to watch TV at the same time? (modifiers)

Recall the subordinating conjunctions
um...zu = in order to ohne...zu = without... [doing X] (an)statt...zu = instead of [doing X]

Hunde leben, um zu essen
Dogs live in order to eat

Wenige Leute gehen in Deutschland spazieren, ohne in Hundemist zu treten
Few people go for a walk in Germany without stepping in dog mess

Anstatt sich diszipliniert zu duschen, liegen Katzen herum und lecken sich sauber
Instead of showering in a disciplined manner, cats lie around and lick themselves clean

...appositions. These describe a noun, but contain no verbs (this distinguishes them from relative clauses). They are in the same case as the noun:

Rex, der hungrigste Hund der Welt, verlor plötzlich seinen Appetit.
Rex, the hungriest dog in the world, suddenly lost his appetite.

Lisa, seine Besitzerin, hatte sein Essen in die Badewanne gestellt.
Lisa, his owner, had put his food in the bathtub.

Ich gebe Rex, dem hungrigsten Hund der Welt, einen Knochen
I give Rex, the hungriest dog in the world, a bone

...interjections--e.g. ja, oh, eh, nein--these are nothing to worry about

    Oh ja, Rex ist sehr schmutzig.
    Oh yes, Rex is very dirty.

...series. These can be series of clauses, or just of words [no commas before und or oder in a series of words; the rule given above applies for und or oder in a series of clauses]

    Rex isst Hühner, Mäuse, rohe und gekochte Eier, rohe Kartoffeln, und Haare.
    Rex eats chickens, mice, raw and boiled eggs, raw potatoes, and hair.

    Lisa füttert den Hund, versucht ihn zu baden, füttert ihn wieder, und geht dann ins Bett.
    Lisa feeds the dog, tries to bathe him, feeds him again, and then goes to bed.

...commas inserted for clarity where they are grammatically not necessary (there will be an example below).

Finding the main clause(s)

This should be your first step in analyzing a complex sentence. The main clause will have the verb in second position (or in first position for questions, commands etc. as discussed in the "Verb First" handout), whereas dependent clauses will have it in final position.

Exceptions
1. Conditional sentences omitting "if" are dependent clauses with the verb in first position.

Ist Barney böse, so frißt er die lächelnden Kinder
If Barney is mad, he eats the smiling children
2. If speech or thoughts are reported without using the word daß, the verb is in second position, even though the clause containing the reported speech is subordinated to the clause containing the verb of saying or thinking. E.g. in the sentences:
Er sagt, er habe keine Zeit.
"Er sagt" is the main clause; "er habe keine Zeit" is subordinate.

Sie denkt, sie könne schwimmen.
"Sie denkt" is the main clause; "sie könne schwimmen" is subordinate.

3. Rare: when als is used instead of als ob or als wenn to mean as if, the verb is in second position, even though this als is a subordinating conjunction.
Sie sieht aus, als hätte sie viel getrunken
She looks as if she had drunk a lot

Example

Let us return to our sample sentence, numbering the parts separated by commas:

(1) Die Geographie der Pflanzen untersucht, (2) ob diese Pflanzen heißer Klimate, (3a) wie Elephantenzähne, (3b) Tapier-, (3c) Krokodil- und Didelphis-Gerippe, (4) die man neuerdings in Europa entdeckt hat, (5) zur Zeit allgemeiner Wasserbedeckung durch die Gewalt der Meeresströme vom Äquator her in die gemäßigten Zonen angeschwemmt worden sind, (6) oder ob einst diese nördlichen Klimate selbst Pisanggebüsche und Elephanten, (6a) Krokodile und baumartiges Bambos-Schilf erzeugten.

First, look for the main clause(s). This should have the verb in second position. This is only true of (1), where "Die Geographie der Pflanzen" (answering the question: "Was?") occupies first position, and is followed by the verb "untersucht." The main clause is therefore

(1) The geography of plants examines

Subordinated to it is (2), which is introduced by the subordinating conjunction ob:

(2) whether these plants from hot climates

Now (3a) - (3c) clearly form a series. They contain no verb, and constitute an apposition giving more information about "Pflanzen heißer Klimate," in this case, that these plants are like the various animal parts named in the series [because they all come from tropical climates, but this is not explicitly stated here]:

(3a) - (3c) like elephant teeth, tapir, crocodile and didelphis skeletons

Next, (4) is a relative clause subordinate to (3):

(4) which have recently been discovered in Europe

After that, (5) finally continues the subordinate clause (2), which was interrupted by the apposition (3) and the relative clause (4) that referred to the apposition:

(5) were carried by the current [=angeschwemmt worden sind] from the equator to the temperate zones by the power of the ocean currents at the time of general water-covered-ness [i.e.when (almost) everything was covered with water]

Then comes (6), introduced by the coordinating conjunction oder combined with the subordinating conjunction ob: thus (2) [with all of its subsequent parts] and (6), the two alternatives being considered by the geography of plants, form a series coordinated by oder. The comma setting off (6a) just indicates another series of plants and animals:

(6) + (6a) or whether these northern climates once themselves [=selbst] generated pisang bushes and elephants, crocodiles and tree-like bamboo reeds.

One can now put the pieces together into an elegant translation:

Die Geographie der Pflanzen untersucht, ob diese Pflanzen heißer Klimate, wie Elephantenzähne, Tapier-, Krokodil- und Didelphis-Gerippe, die man neuerdings in Europa entdeckt hat, zur Zeit allgemeiner Wasserbedeckung durch die Gewalt der Meeresströme vom Äquator her in die gemäßigten Zonen angeschwemmt worden sind, oder ob einst diese nördlichen Klimate selbst Pisanggebüsche und Elephanten, Krokodile und baumartiges Bambos-Schilf erzeugten.

The geography of plants examines whether these plants from hot climates, like elephant teeth, tapir, crocodile and didelphis skeletons, which have recently been discovered in Europe, were carried by the current from the equator to the temperate zones by the power of the ocean currents at the time when almost everything was covered with water, or whether these northern climates once themselves generated pisang bushes and elephants, crocodiles and tree-like bamboo reeds.

A diagram of this sentence might look as follows:

(1) Die Geographie der Pflanzen untersucht,

(2) ob diese Pflanzen heißer Klimate,
(3a) wie Elephantenzähne, (3b) Tapier-, (3c) Krokodil- und Didelphis-Gerippe,
(4) die man neuerdings in Europa entdeckt hat,
(5) = (2) continued: zur Zeit allgemeiner Wasserbedeckung durch die Gewalt der Meeresströme vom Äquator her in die gemäßigten Zonen angeschwemmt worden sind,

(6) oder ob einst diese nördlichen Klimate selbst Pisanggebüsche und Elephanten, (6a) Krokodile und baumartiges Bambos-Schilf erzeugten.


Summary
You will find this process increasingly easy with practice. The moral of the story for now is: use the commas to separate out the clauses, look for the main clause, and then work piece by piece.



   
 

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