Word order

The fancy word for word order is syntax. Any way you express it, word order in German sentences is both more variable and more flexible than in English. In many cases, German word order is identical to English. This is true for simple subject + verb + other elements sentences:

Ich sehe dich.
I see you.


Er arbeitet zu Hause.
He works at home.

This normal word order places the subject first, the verb second, and any other elements third.

Verb second

Throughout this guide, it is important to understand that when we say verb, we mean the conjugated or finite verb, i.e., the verb that has an ending that agrees with the subject (er geht, wir gehen, du gehst, etc.). Also, when we say in second position, we mean the second element, not necessarily the second word.

For example, in the following sentence, the subject consists of two words and the verb comes second, but it is the third word:

Der Mann fährt ins Büro.
(The man drives to the office.)

With compound verbs, the second part of the verb phrase (past participle, separable prefix, infinitive) goes last, but the conjugated element is still second:

Der Mann kommt heute an.
(The man will arrive today.)
Der Mann ist gestern ins Büro gefahren.
(Yesterday, the man drove to the office.)

However, German often prefers to begin a sentence with something other than the subject, usually for emphasis or for stylistic reasons. Only one element can precede the verb, but it may consist of more than one word (e.g., vor zwei Tagen below). In such cases, the verb remains second and the subject must immediately follow the verb:

Heute kommt der Mann an.
(The man will arrive today.)
Vor zwei Tagen ist der Mann ins Büro gefahren.
(Two days ago, the man drove to the office.)

No matter which element begins a German declarative sentence (a statement), the verb is always the second element. The subject will either come first or immediately after the verb if the subject is not the first element. This is a simple, hard and fast rule. In a statement (not a question) the verb always comes second. If you don't remember anything else about word order, remember that the verb is always in second place.

This rule applies to sentences and phrases that are independent clauses. The only verb-second exception is for dependent or subordinate clauses. In subordinate clauses the verb always comes last. One other exception to this rule: interjections, exclamations, names, certain adverbial phrases - usually set off by a comma. Here are some examples:

Maria, ich kann heute nicht kommen.
(Maria, I cannot come today.)
Wie gesagt, ich kann heute nicht kommen.
(As I said before, I cannot come today.)
Nein, der Mann fährt heute nicht ins Büro.
(No, the man won't drive to the office today.)

In the sentences above, the initial word or phrase (set off by a comma) comes first, but does not alter the verb-second rule.

Time, manner, place

Another area where German syntax may vary from that of English is the position of expressions of time (when?), manner (how?) and place (where?). In English we would say:

Erik is coming home on the train today .
place manner time

English word order in such cases is place, manner, time... the exact opposite of German.

In English it would sound odd to say

Erik is coming today on the train home .
time manner place

, but that is precisely how German wants it said:

Erik kommt heute mit der Bahn nach Hause .
time manner place
when how where

The only exception would be if you want to start the sentence with one of these elements for emphasis.

Heute kommt Erik mit der Bahn nach Hause .
time manner place

(emphasis on today).

But even in this case, the elements are still in the prescribed order: time (heute), manner (mit der Bahn), place (nach Hause). If we start with a different element, the elements that follow remain in their usual order, as in:

Mit der Bahn kommt Erik heute nach Hause .
manner time place

Mit der Bahn kommt Erik heute nach Hause. (emphasis on by train - not by car or plane)

Verb last

What is a subordinate clause? It is that part of a sentence - in English or German - that cannot stand by itself and is dependent on another part of the sentence, the main clause. That makes the clause subordinate. A subordinate clause is introduced by a subordinating conjunction (dass, ob, weil, wenn, etc.) or, in the case of relative clauses, a relative pronoun (den, der, die, welche, etc.). The conjugated verb is placed at the end of a subordinate clause (post position).

Here are some examples of subordinate clauses in German and English. Notice that each German subordinate clause is set off by a comma. Also notice that the German word order is different from that of the English and that a subordinate clause may come first or last in a sentence.

    Ich weiß nicht, wann er heute ankommt..
    (I don't know when he arrives today.)

    Es gibt eine Umleitung, weil die Straße repariert wird..
    (There's a detour because the road is being repaired.)

    Das ist die Dame, die wir gestern sahen..
    (That's the lady (whom) we saw yesterday.)

    Als sie hinausging, bemerkte sie sofort die glühende Hitze..
    (When she went out, she immediately noticed the intense heat.)

As you can see above, a German subordinate clause always starts with a subordinating conjunction and ends with the conjugated verb. It is always set off from the main clause by a comma, whether it comes before or after the main clause. The other sentence elements, such as time, manner, place, fall into the normal order.

One thing you must remember is that when a sentence starts with a subordinate clause, as in the last example above, the very first word after the comma (before the main clause) must be the verb! In the example above, the verb bemerkte is that first word. (Note the differences between the English and German word order in that same example.)

Another type of subordinate clause is the relative clause, which is introduced by a relative pronoun. Both, relative clauses and subordinate clauses with a conjunction have the same word order. The third example in the sentence pairs above is actually a relative clause. A relative clause explains or further identifies a person or thing in the main clause. One important aspect of learning to deal with subordinate clauses is to be familiar with the subordinating conjunctions that introduce them.

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