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