Really?! You can say that? — German sentence structure

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Really?! You can say that? — German sentence structure

Tell any German speaker that you are learning German and you’re sure to here this phrase: “Deutsche Sprache — schwere Sprache”. There are many reasons why German comes off as more difficult than English. First there are the three genders, then there are the four cases and then of course the verbs. The most important thing to understand though is that they are all connected and make up the entire German language. Unfortunately, you cannot learn one part and forget the other. But the good news is that when you put it together its really a magnificent language that allows for much more wordplay and poetics than English. 

I never want to have children. Children are the most important thing to me.

The other week posters at the tram stops throughout Zurich caught my eye. I read them not wearing any glasses and thought: “That sentence makes no no sense whatsoever.” After seeing about four I finally got it. One part of the text is bold and serves as a common word or phrase that combines two sentences. The poster has two sentences and not one. The magic of German word order.

Let’s look at German word order in simple sentences — that is main clauses. In a previous post, I have already said that German speakers like to place time and the beginning of a sentence, which may explain their reputation as being such a punctual people. Truth is though, you can place any number of things in the first position of a sentence. What does that do? The element that gets placed first is essentially emphasized. Where some people may accuse you of poor word order is if they believe you are emphasizing the wrong element.

So what do we know about word order in English? Let’s take a look:



**As you can see we don’t need to fill in every position in a sentence. But we must remember that those elements have a position if we use them.

Now let’s look at German:

Where as English, Spanish and French are a Place + Manner + Time language, German, like Japanese, is a Time + Manner + Place language in standard form.

English: Peter’s going to Zurich with the train tomorrow.

German: Peter fährt morgen mit der Bahn nach Zürich.

  • Literally: Peter drives tomorrow with the train to Zurich.

Let’s look at some variations of the sentence: “I’ll give you the article in the office tomorrow.”

 *We can also place the direct object after the time and place. Ex. Ich geben dir morgen im Büro den Artikel.

Notice here that we have five variations of the same sentence. If you add manner you can have six, though few sentences will contain all six elements. That said standard sentence structure in German would favour the two highlighted in yellow — Subject or Time first.

Notice that the cases dir (dative) and den Artikel (accusative) tell us that they are not the subject of the sentence, but the indirect object or the direct object. Because we can clearly indicate case in German we have more flexibility in sentence structure and we can emphasize elements by placing them at the start of the sentence.

Let’s look at another example. It was this example that really helped solidify the notion for me because most people interpret the second variation incorrectly.

German sentence structure

Literally: The man shoots the dog with the gun.

In the second variation we see that den Hund is in the accusative and can therefore not be doing the verb. Therefore, der Mann (nominative) is still the one doing the shooting and not the dog.

Another thing to remember is that the verb must always agree with the subject. Therefore, the way the verb is conjugated can help to tell us what the subject is. For instance:

In the first two sentences it is difficult to tell which is the subject and the direct object because both words are singular and neutral. When you read a sentence like this, revert to real world logic to decipher the meaning. If you are writing a sentence where this happens the subject or time should come first (in yellow below).

The second two sentences both work, because die Mädchen is plural and the geben is conjugated for a plural subject.

It is really important to remember that the verb is always in the second position! The second position does not mean the second word, but the second grammatical position. When we say In der Schule that is all one position (place). The subject must always be situated directly before or directly after the verb in a simple sentence.

What do we do when there are two verbs or verb parts? The second verb or verb part closes off the sentence and gets placed at the end.

Steps to better sentence composition:

  1. Practice composing (speaking) in standard sentence structure with the subject first.
  2. Once you feel confident, start putting time first where it makes sense to be clear about the time.
  3. And then move to writing sentences with other elements at the start.
  4. Always remember the verb belongs in the second position
  5. The subject must touch the verb (either before or after).

What part(s) of the sentence are the words in bold serving?

  1. JohnJohn04-01-2013

    In the fourth box from the top, last sentence [Mit dem Gewehr …] the left hand clissification title is ‘time’, but I don’t see time in the sentence anywhere. Is this a typo? Should the classification for the line be ‘Manner’ indication the nature of what is in first position in this sentence?
    Thanks for any clarification.

  2. ChristieChristie04-26-2013

    I find your examples of word order in English confusing. For simple declarative sentences the world order is fixed–more or less. While subject-verb-object is standard and expected, rearranging the order would not make the sentence incomprehensible. As with Yoda-speak in Star Wars, it would simply sound strange. Moreover, for effect, even that simple word order is sometimes inverted: Home go I! But that is unusual, and, as I indicated, typically done for effect. Still, there is nothing that says you cannot use that word order.

    The situation with complex sentences, however, is somewhat different in that almost all of the sentence elements can be moved around. The subject will indeed come before the verb–but it may be separated from the verb by certain adverbs. (I quickly take off my hat and coat.) But beyond that, the second sentence could be spoken or written in several different ways:

    I will give you the report at the office tomorrow.
    Tomorrow I will give you the report at the office.
    Tomorrow at the office I will give you the report.
    I will give the report to you at the office tomorrow. (changing the indirect object to a prepositional phrase)
    I will give you the report tomorrow at the office.
    At the office tomorrow I will give you the report.

    And probably a few other slight variations.

    All of these are acceptable in English, and none of them would raise any eyebrows. Word order in English actually has a great deal of flexibility, although some patterns are almost never used. For example, At the office will give I you tomorrow the report. Although this sentence would be understood–maybe with a bit of difficulty–by a native speaker of English, there most likely would be a presumption that the person saying it was NOT a native English speaker but someone who was translating the typical word order of their native language into English. The meaning of the sentence would change if the nominative pronoun “I” were changed to the objective pronoun “me”: At the office give me you tomorrow the report. Of course, the sentence would become much more ambiguous, perhaps intelligible only by context, if both pronouns were nouns.

    Perhaps it is only because my German is extremely rusty, but I also don’t get the distinction about the poster. The same “trick” can be played in English: I never want to have CHILDREN are the most important thing to me. It doesn’t really make sense as a sentence until you get what is going on–just as in German. But maybe I am missing something.

    • Dear Christie,
      Thank you for your feedback. When giving English examples I do tend to exaggerate them in order to emphasize the fact that unlike what some, including Google translate, think, German and English cannot be translated one-to-one.

      Your examples of English sentences are valid, however, comprehensible does not mean it’s correct. There are many grammatical forms that are acceptable and in fact follow a rule, however, if they are not idiomatic, they are to a degree incorrect.

      The big take aways from this post for most readers is this very simple point:
      – German is a Time, Manner, Place language.
      – English is a Place, Manner, Time language.
      – In German position one is emphasized.
      – When time is in position one, it’s very natural (TMP).
      – In independent German clauses the conjugated verb comes in the second position.

  3. German NewbieGerman Newbie09-27-2013

    Thanks a lot for your posts. They are so much helpful for learning German Grammar. I have a question regarding word order related to adverb of time.

    I read that if the adverb comes in the beginning of the sentence to emphasize it, then the word order is adverb -> verb -> noun -> etc. However I could never see an example where we can have two adverbs of time. For example in my case one is specific time and another is generic; and as per Hammer’s the general precedes the particular in word order. Like: “Jeden Tag am 4 Uhr “. However I am not sure how to place them in the beginning of a sentence which means Ich stehe jeden Tag am 4 Uhr auf.

    Thanks a lot !

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