So you have taken some German grammar lessons online, learned your German vocabulary and can decline articles and pronouns and conjugate verbs. Now all that’s left is stringing everything together into understandable sentences.
But how can you learn to navigate the complicated word order in German?
As it is in English, so it is when speaking German: if the order of the words is too wrong, the meaning of the sentence is lost and all you get is gibberish.
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Surely if, when learning German, you stick to a simple Subject + Verb + Object sentence, people will understand what you mean, even if it’s not 100% perfect German grammar?
Yes and no. You will probably have trouble balancing vocabulary and grammar in any case, and even an advanced German scholar will sometimes get his cases wrong. And that’s where it gets a little tricky. If you have to choose (and when you are just starting to learn a foreign language, you will), it’s easier to remember word order once than the proper gender of hundreds of words. Get their placement right in the sentence, and most Germans might not even hear that you used the wrong gender or case.
In some cases, word order determines the meaning of a sentence. This is especially true of questions – think of the difference in meaning between the English sentences:
This is a fairytale.
Is this a fairytale?
All the words remain the same, but a change in word order makes the second one into a question, while the first is an assertation.
Also, using a participle right after an auxiliary verb (see further below) is sure to out you as an “Ausländer”! Place your words correctly in a sentence and your German acquaintances are sure to be impressed.
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Good news for English speakers! In German grammar, the basic sentence structure in a normal main clause is refreshingly like English:
Subject + Verb + Object
“Die Ritterin tötet einen Drachen.”
The female knight kills a dragon.
Also similar to English, the indirect object in German generally comes before the direct object. Where English would say:
The squire gave the (female) knight a lance, German says:
Subject + Verb + Indirect Object + Direct Object
Der Knappe gibt der Ritterin eine Lanze.
Because it uses cases, word order is a bit more fluid in German than in English. Photo credit: MsAnthea via VisualHunt / CC BY-ND
This said, the existence of cases in the German language makes word order a bit more fluent than in English, which has confused more than one student of German. For, no matter the word order, the cases will still tell you the noun’s role in the sentence. Generally, this means that a noun can be brought to the beginning of the sentence to emphasise its importance.
Der Knappe gibt der Ritterin eine Lanze.
The squire gives the female knight a lance.
Subject + Verb + Indirect Object + Direct Object
Eine Lanze gab der Knappe der Ritterin.
A lance is what the squire gave the knight.
Direct Object + Verb + Subject + Indirect Object
Der Ritterin gab der Knappe eine Lanze.
The knight was the one to whom the squire gave the lance.
Indirect Object + Verb + Subject + Direct Object
English sometimes does this, too – in poetry (“dark was the night…”). But as you can see from the English translations, English often needs to add a word or two for it to work – you couldn’t say: “The lance gave the squire”. You might, of course, say: “The lance the squire gave to noble knight”, or “To noble knight the squire a lance did give” – but these are all rather uncommon phrases in modern English speech, and we don’t recommend using them in casual conversation!
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However, in German sentence structure, things are slightly different with personal pronouns.
If ONLY the indirect (dative) object is a pronoun, the word order remains the same:
Er gibt ihr die Lanze.
Subject + Verb + Indirect Object (pronoun) + Direct Object (noun)
He gives the lance to her.
As you can see, the German word order is slightly different than in English sentences having a pronoun as an indirect object!
However, the accusative pronoun comes before the dative object, even if both are pronouns:
Er gibt sie der Ritterin.
Subject + Direct Object (Pronoun) + Indirect Object (noun)
He gives it to the knight.
Er gibt sie ihr.
Subject + Direct Object (pronoun) + Indirect Object (pronoun)
He gives it to her.
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You will notice that putting an object in first place does not change the place of the verb in a German sentence. Instead, the subject is shunted to a place behind the verb, leaving the verb always in second place.
Many German verb tenses rely on the formula:
auxiliary verb (sein or haben) + infinitive or participle
This is similar to several English tenses, such as the continuous tenses, for example (I went vs. I was going).
However, whereas your English lessons at school will have taught you to keep the parts of an English verb together (with the occasional exception of adverbs), German verbs are not as tightly knit. Even in a simple sentence, a German verb can and must be split:
Der Drache hat geschlafen.
The dragon was sleeping.
This subject and verb phrase is simple. However, once we start adding objects, it’s important to remember that while the auxiliary verb remains in second place, the second part of the verb (whether it be an infinitive or a participle) will go to the end of the sentence, no matter what:
Der Ritter hat den Drachen geweckt.
The knight woke the dragon.
Der Ritter hat den Drachen mit einer Tasse Kaffee geweckt.
The knight woke the dragon with a cup of coffee.
Der Ritter hat den Drachen zum Kämpfen um acht Uhr mit einer Tasse Kaffee geweckt.
The knight woke the dragon to fight at eight o’clock with a cup of coffee.
And so on.
This rule applies to regular verbs, irregular verbs, verbs in the past, present or future tense, verbs in the active or in the passive voice – as soon as you have an auxiliary verb, the participle goes to the end of the sentence.
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In a verb tense with several auxiliary verbs, the second auxiliary verb goes to the end of the sentence AFTER the participle:
Ich bin getötet worden.
I was killed.
Ich bin von einem Ritter mit einer Lanze getötet worden.
I was killed by a knight with a lance.
The placement of the German verb is one of the most difficult aspects of word order for someone who speaks the English language as their mother tongue. It often makes, not just speaking, but also understanding German difficult. Remember: the rest of the verb is coming! Just wait for it…
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Once you introduce adverbs, the cosy little place beside the verb becomes even more coveted. In sentences with only direct objects, the adverb always comes directly after the verb:
Subject + Verb + Adverb Direct Object
Der Knappe reicht schnell die Lanze.
The squire quickly hands over the lance.
BUT it comes AFTER the Indirect Object:
Subject + Verb + Indirect Object + Adverb + Direct Object
Der Knappe reicht der Ritterin schnell die Lanze.
The squire quickly hands the lance to the knight.
AND it comes AFTER any objects if they are pronouns.
However, the word order remains the same if only the dative (indirect object) is a pronoun:
Der Knappe reicht ihr schnell die Lanze.
The squire quickly hands her the lance.
Subject + Verb + Indirect Object (pronoun) + Adverb + Direct Object
If only the accusative (direct) object is a pronoun, it follows it but slips before the indirect (dative) object:
Der Knappe reicht es schnell der Ritterin.
The squire quickly hands it to the knight.
Subject + Verb + Direct Object (pronoun) + Adverb + Indirect Object
If both objects are pronouns, the adverb slips to last place:
Der Knappe reicht es ihr schnell.
The squire quickly hands it to her.
German generally puts them in the following order:
TIME – MANNER – PLACE
Die Ritterin gallopierte sofort mit angelegter Lanze zum Schlafort des Drachens.
Subject + Verb+ Adverb time + Adverb manner + Adverb place
The knight immediately galloped lance down to the dragon’s sleeping place.
As you can see, the same rules apply whether we are talking about a simple adverb or an adverbial phrase.
Adverbs make life more complicated for German sentences. Photo credit: t cory via VisualHunt / CC BY-ND
In the German language, as in English, if a sentence is made up of two clauses, these are often linked by conjunctions.
If both sentences can stand alone, they are both main clauses and the conjuctions linking them are called coordinating conjunctions (such as “und”, “oder” and “dann”). The word order of either clause is not influenced by the existence of the conjunction; it is treated as though it weren’t there:
Ihr Pferd war schnell und ihre Lanze war scharf.
Her horse was quick and her lance was sharp.
But if one of the sentences can’t stand on its own, it is a subordinate clause. They can be adverbial, or they can function as a direct object to the verb.
They are often introduced by a subordinating conjunction such as “weil”, “ob”, “wann” etc.
An adverbial clause explains something about the main clause:
Der Drache sah die Ritterin nicht kommen, weil es noch geschlafen hat.
The dragon did not see the knight coming because it was still sleeping.
In learning German, object clauses mostly come after the verbs “wissen”, “fragen” and other verbs indicating knowledge (or lack of it). They are usually introduced with “dass”.
Der Drache wußte nicht, dass es bald tot sein wird.
The dragon didn’t know that it would soon be dead.
Die Ritterin erfuhr bald, dass Drachen einen leichten Schlaf haben.
The knight soon found out that dragons are light sleepers.
Conjunctions for adverb clauses include:
Conjunctions for object clauses are:
The conjunctions ALWAYS come at the beginning of the subordinate clause:
Der Drache wachte auf, WEIL er ihr Pferd wiehern hörte.
(MC) The dragon woke up (SC) BECAUSE it heard her horse whinny.
Er fragte sich, WAS dieses Geraucht macht.
(MC) It asked itself (SC) WHAT made that noise.
As an observant student of German, you might have noticed that in ALL subordinate clauses, the verb comes at the very end. If the verb has an auxiliary, the auxiliary verb comes after the main verb:
Er hob seinen Kopf hoch, damit er sehen konnte, was sich ihm näherte.
He raised his head to see what was approaching him.
Even when battling dragons, make sure you put the verb at the end of German subordinate clauses.
Photo credit: Brenda-Starr via Visualhunt.com / CC BY-NC-ND
The exception is in verb cases with more than one auxiliary verb – modal verbs and verbs that take a second infinitive such as “lassen” – in the perfect and past perfect. In such cases, the auxiliary verb sneaks up the line to just before the participle or infinitive:
Sie hätte ihr Pferd gleich umdrehen müssen.
She ought to have turned her horse around immediately.
Sie dachte, dass sie ihr Pferd gleich hätte umdrehen müssen.
She thought that she should have immediately turned her horse around.
While subordinate clauses usually come after the main clause, they can also come first. When you learn German, it is important to remember that they take the place of a noun or adverb, and as such, are considered part of the sentence and modifies word order in a complex sentence.
What does this mean?
It means that if you decide to put the subordinate clause first, the next thing to come in the main clause is the VERB. The subordinate clause takes up the first position in the sentence, so the verb comes in second, and THEN the subject.
In English, subordinate clauses at the beginning of a sentence don’t affect word order in the main clause.
Weil sie so schnell reitete, wusste die Ritterin nicht, ob sie noch rechtzeitig bremsen kann.
(SC1)Because she was going so fast, (MC) the knight didn’t know (SC2)if she would be able to brake.
Here we have two subordinate clauses. The first was shifted to the beginning of the sentence, so in the main clause the verb comes before the subject. The second is in its usual place after the main clause, and everything stays the same.
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The imperative is used to give an order or instructions; it is one of the few verb tenses that is only conjugated in the second person (singular and plural) and the first person plural. In German grammar, the imperative is also conjugated in the third person plural – though purely as the formal version of the second person, rather than a true third person.
In German imperative sentences, the verb comes first – as indeed, it does in English grammar:
“Halte dich fest!”
“Töte den Drachen!”
Kill the dragon!
There are two types of questions:
Will the knight prevail? How does she do it? There are two ways to ask questions in German, and a different word order for each.
Photo credit: Mario Spann via Visualhunt / CC BY-SA
Question words are used whenever sentences need to be clarified. The answer to a question using a question word is usually an adverb or adverb clause within the answer:
When will the knight arrive?
She will arrive at dawn. (Adverb of time)
How does the knight save herself?
She saves herself by spraying hot sauce into the dragon’s nose. (Adverb of means)
Why does she have hot sauce in her saddlebags?
The knight packed hot sauce because she just came from a chilli cook-out. (Adverb of reason)
Where will she go afterwards?
She’ll go to Disneyland! (Adverb of place)
The only exception is the question word “who” (in German “wer”), where the answer is the predicate of a phrase with “to be” (“sein”):
Who is this mysterious knight?
She is Joan of Arc’s great-grandniece.
In the German language, question words always come at the beginning of the question, and are followed by the verb:
Wie rettet die Ritterin sich?
How does the knight save herself?
In this, German is once again close to English, where a question word is followed by the verb: How are you? Where does this go? How much does this cost?
Some of the most common German question words are:
|English word||German translation||Does it need to be declined?|
|Who?||Wer?||Yes - it's a pronoun, so you should decline it to suit its role in the sentence:
Wer is used for feminine and masculine.
|How many?||Wie viele?||"viele" should agree with the noun it determines.|
|How old?||Wie alt?||no|
|At what time?||Um wieviel Uhr?||no|
As usual, the auxiliary verb is in second place, with the participle coming at the end of the sentence:
Was kann sie tun?
What can she do?
Wie hat sie sich gerettet?
How did she save herself?
English generally needs to use “do” to ask a yes or no question (Do you want the last piece of cake? Do you tango?) or “will” for actions taking place in the future (Will Manchester United win the next game? Will I ever understand German word order?).
However, you will be happy to learn that German does not. In fact, you can take any perfectly normal sentence and simply flip the verb to first position to make it into a question:
Der Drache schnappt zu. -> Schnappt der Drache zu?
The dragon snaps his jaws. -> Does the dragon snap his jaws?
And, of course, two-part verbs remain much the same, with the participle at the end:
Sie kann sich retten. -> Kann sie sich retten?
She can save herself. -> Can she save herself?
Der Knappe rettet sie in letzter Minute. -> Rettet der Knappe sie in letzter Minute?
The squire saves her at the last minute. -> Will the squire save her at the last minute?
As you can see, German sentence structure is similar to English in many instances – making it all the more important that you learn and remember those cases where it isn’t! Sometimes, it is more flexible – long live German cases! – but in others it is more rigid and inflexible. Don’t get hung up on those that seem illogical to you – all languages have their oddities, and German is no exception! Yell at your textbook, then accept it, learn it and move on.
The best way to learn German sentence structure is to see it and hear it used constantly – so look for those German books, blogs, podcasts, audiobooks and movies to make German sentences a part of your daily life. And the best way to practice it is to speak – find a language buddy, look for a German language tutor or – why not? – go to Germany for a holiday!
With these rules, you should soon have no trouble crafting credible German sentences. And fight dragons, too.
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