As an intermediate or advanced German student, you’ll eventually come across something called either Nomen-Verb-Verbindung or Funktionsverbgefüge. So, what do these mean?
Well, think about the English phrase “to ask a question.” In this construction, “to ask” is a verb and “question” is a noun. We need a combination of both of these parts to get our point across, and you can’t say it in any other way. For example, you can’t say “to make a question” or “to put a question.” The latter expression is actually the literal translation from German, eine Frage stellen, and in English it sounds strange. By the same token, “to ask a question” would sound weird if literally translated into German: eine Frage fragen. It would also be absolutely wrong.
So, how do you know which verb is required? And are there any strategies for learning them?
Learning the structure
Generally, when you learn this structure, you are presented with a list of noun-verb-combinations and… that’s it. You have to figure out on your own how to get them into your head. And this list can be pretty long. You can find an example here.
After you have skimmed through it, you might say something along the lines of: “Oh my goodness, how will I ever be able to learn all that stuff? It seems completely random, there’s no way I can remember all that.” It’s true, the list does look like it’s quite arbitrary. However, it’s actually not random and there are some rules that can help you memorize them.
When we start learning a language, we usually go for the meaning first. Words with a clear, distinct meaning like “house,” “dog” and “eat” are much easier to learn than words for which the meaning is not so clear. This is because we don’t instinctively think that these words will add information to what we have to say. However, they are quite often required.
This is exactly the case that we will learn about today. The verbs that we will discuss are the so-called functional verbs. They get their name from the fact that they have a function, but virtually no meaning. For example, the meaning of eine Frage stellen is derived from the noun Frage. In fact, the combination has more or less the same meaning as the verb fragen.
So, why do we need both the functional verb and the regular verb? Often times, the meaning between the two is slightly different. Other times, there is no single verb with the same meaning. And finally, these combinations are frequently part of the written language, so they are often more formal.
Examples of functional verbs
So, the question then becomes, which verbs are used with a particular noun?
There are three parts to this answer. First of all, most of verbs that are used are basic verbs. These include:
The good news is that this group is quite limited.
Secondly, you can order these verbs by putting them into groups. This is because their meaning does in fact play a part, thus it is not entirely true that they have no meaning. They simply aren’t used with their usual meaning, but they still convey a part of it.
For example, stellen (to put) is an action verb because it usually conveys that an action is being performed. So, which nouns can be combined with stellen?
Combination #1: einen Antrag stellen (to make an application, to apply for)
- Sie brauchen ein Visum. Haben Sie schon einen Antrag gestellt? (You need a visa. Did you apply for it?)
- Haben Sie schon das Visum beantragt? (Did you apply for the visa?)
In this case, the verb beantragen has the same meaning as our functional verb.
Combination #2: zur Diskussion stellen (to bring up for discussion)
Combination #3: in Frage stellen (to contest, to question something)
- Er stellt immer alles in Frage (He always questions everything).
Combination #4: zur Rede stellen (to take somebody to task, to confront)
- Wir müssen ihn morgen zur Rede stellen (Tomorrow, we must confront him).
Combination #5: zur Verfügung stellen (to provide)
All of these combinations express actions performed by a person. Let’s compare the combinations zur Verfügung stellen (to provide) and zur Verfügung stehen (to be available). In the first one, somebody actively provides something. In the second, that same something is simply available. For example:
- Die Universität stellt den Studenten Computer zur Verfügung.
- Den Studenten stehen Computer zur Verfügung.
As you can see, the first sentence describes an action. The second one is just a description of a situation or, in other words, the result of an action.
Let’s see some other examples:
- in Aussicht stehen (with the prospect of)
- in Verbindung stehen (to be in contact with)
- unter Strafe stehen (to be illegal, to be subject to penalties)
- in Zusammenhang stehen (to be related/connected/associated with)
- unter Druck stehen (to be under pressure)
- unter Einfluss stehen (to be under the influence)
- unter Beobachtung stehen (to be/remain under observation)
The last two combinations can also be reworded using the passive voice:
- unter Einfluss stehen – beeinflusst werden (to be influenced)
- unter Beobachtung stehen – beobachtet werden (to be observed)
So, stehen can also have a passive meaning (as opposed to an action). However, the N-V-combinations seen here and the passive voice do not have the exact same meaning. We can see the difference when we look at the distinct situations in which they are used.
- Er steht unter Alkoholeinfluss.
We can’t say: Er wird vom Alkohol beeinflusst.
- Der Prozess wird durch viele Faktoren beeinflusst.
We can’t say: Der Prozess steht unter dem Einfluss vieler Faktoren.
Another functional verb that is used to describe a situation is, obviously, sein.
- in der Lage sein (to be able to)
- zu Ende sein (to be over/finished)
- sich im Klaren sein über (to be aware of)
- im Irrtum sein (to be in the wrong)
- auf dem Laufenden sein (to keep up, to be up to date)
- in Mode sein (to be in fashion / popular)
- im Recht sein (to be in the right)
- in Bewegung sein (to be in motion)
Let’s compare these three:
- in Bewegung sein – in Bewegung kommen – in Bewegung bringen
Can you sense the difference between them?
in Bewegung sein is used to describe a situation in which someone or something is already moving. For example:
- Er ist immer in Bewegung (He is always on the go).
in Bewegung kommen, on the other hand, refers to a changing state, such as when one actually starts moving:
- Die Sache kommt langsam in Bewegung (Slowly, the thing starts to move).
in Bewegung bringen means that somebody has caused the movement. For example:
- Er bringt die Sache langsam in Bewegung (Slowly, he makes things hum).
Some clarification from further examples
In order to make this a little bit clearer, let’s have a look at some other combinations using kommen.
Combination #1: in Frage kommen (to be possible)
- Können wir heute Abend ins Kino gehen? – Das kommt nicht in Frage (Can we go to the movies tonight? – That’s not possible).
Combination #2: zum Vorschein kommen (to appear, to emerge)
- Bei dem neuen Projekt sind viele Probleme zum Vorschein gekommen (Many problems emerged during the new project).
Combination #3: zum Ausdruck kommen (to be expressed)
- In dem Brief kamen seine Gefühle gut zum Ausdruck (His feelings were expressed very well in the letter).
And now, here are some combinations with bringen.
Combination #1: zum Ausdruck bringen (to express)
- Er brachte seine Gefühle zum Ausdruck (He expressed his feelings).
Combination #2: zu Ende bringen (to bring to an end to, conclude)
- Wir müssen dieses Projekt bald zu Ende bringen (We must conclude the project soon).
Combination #3: in Verlegenheit bringen (to embarrass, to cause inconvenience)
- Er hat mich sehr in Verlegenheit gebracht (He embarrassed me a lot).
Another functional verb, treffen, often refers to some sort of a conclusion.
- eine Abmachung treffen (to make an arrangement)
- eine Entscheidung treffen (to make a decision)
- eine Wahl treffen (to make a choice)
- Vorsorge treffen (to take precautions)
One more typical functional verb is nehmen:
- Abschied nehmen (to bid farewell)
- Anstoß nehmen (to take offence, to object)
- Einfluss nehmen (to influence)
- in Kauf nehmen (to accept something undesirable)
- Rücksicht nehmen (to be considerate, to have regards for)
In terms of meaning, what is the relationship between the N-V-combination and the verb itself? It is hard to say, as you can see from the following examples:
Abschied nehmen sometimes can be replaced with verabschieden. However, it is more formal. On the other hand, Anstoß nehmen can’t be replaced by anstoßen (to launch, to bump, to clink glasses). Einfluss nehmen means beeinflussen, but in Kauf nehmen has nothing to do with kaufen. Rücksicht nehmen has the same meaning as berücksichtigen, however, it is not used in the same circumstances. Specifically, the N-V-combination is generally used with people, while the verb is used with facts, conditions, etc.
Last but not least, something must be said about the grammar of N-V-combinations. This is because they have some special features.
First, the noun and the verb are joined together very tightly. So much so that the noun itself can’t be changed. In most cases, it can’t be made into a plural: Wahlen treffen and Vorsorgen treffen are not correct.
Second, when a preposition is part of the combination, we can’t ask for the noun. For example:
Incorrect: Wohin hat er mich gebracht? In Verlegenheit.
Third, the verb can’t be used with another object in the same sentence:
Incorrect: Er hat mich in Verlegenheit und dann nach Hause gebracht.
Fourth, for those N-V-combinations that contain a preposition, the negation is made with nicht:
- Er ist nicht auf dem Laufenden.
When there is no preposition, kein- is used:
- Der Preis spielt keine Rolle.
Fifth, the word order follows the sentence brackets. This means that the verb is placed in the second position and the noun is usually placed in the last.
- Er bringt dieses Thema morgen zur Sprache.
Incorrect: Er bringt zur Sprache morgen dieses Thema.
Hopefully, by the time you learn these structures, you will be able to confidently guess which verb goes with which noun.