German Word Order

Topics include:

First Sentence Elements

1. The most common first element in a German sentence is the grammatical subject.

Ex: Dieser Zug fährt über Augsburg nach Frankfurt. (This train travels to Frankfurt via Augsburg.)

2. Words modifying the subject are considered part of the first element.

Ex: Der letzte Zug aus München fährt über Nürnberg nach Frankfurt. (The last train out of Munich travels to Frankfurt via Nürnberg.)

3. When German speakers put adverbial expressions or prepositional phrases in first position for the sake of style, the subject moves to a position after the conjugated verb.

(Note: Adverbial first elements are not set off by a comma as they may be in English.)

Ex: In wenigen Minuten wird der Zug Frankfurt errichen. (In a few minutes, the train will reach Frankfurt.)

Ex: Auf unseren Besuch in Frankfurt freuen wir uns sehr. (We are very much looking forward to our visit in Frankfurt.)

4. Direct objects, indirect objects, infinitives, and participles can also occur in first positon, but this is usually only in response to specific questions asking for information.

Ex: Blumen hat er gekauft. (He bought flowers.) (direct object)

Ex: Meinen Eltern schreibe ich. (I am writing my parents.)  (indirect object)

Ex: Essen wollen wir jetzt nicht. (We do not want to eat now.) (infinitive)

Ex: Verstanden habe ich vom Vortrag überhaupt nichts.(I did not understand anything at all of the lecture.)
     (past participle)

5. Ja, Nein, and nouns of address are NOT considered first elements; they are set off by a comma, and the actual sentence begins after the comma.

Ex: Ja, das ist die Liechtensteiner Polka, mein Schatz. (Yes, that is the Liechtenstein polka, my dear.)

Ex: Mein lieber Mann, das würde ich Ihnen nicht empfehlen.(My dear fellow, I would not recommend that to you.)

Position of the Conjugated Verb

1. The second sentence element in a main clause is ALWAYS the conjugated verb, regardless of which element occupies the first position.

  • Ex:  Die Arbeit geht jetzt gut.
           Jetzt geht die Arbeit gut.             (Work is going fine now.)
           Gut geht die Arbeit jetzt.
  • 2. Even if the first sentence element is a subordinate clause, the conjugated verb of the following main clause is still in second position within the overall sentence.

  • Ex:  Weil wir mehr Zeit haben, geht die Arbeit jetzt gut. (Because we have more time, the work is going fine now.)
  • 3. When 2 main clauses are connected by a coordinating conjunction (aber, denn, oder, sondern, and und) the conjunction is NOT considered a first element of the second clause, thus, the position of the conjugated verb in the second clause does NOT change.

  • Ex: Sie studiert in Heidelberg, aber ihre Familie wohnt in Köln. (She is studying in Heidleberg, but her family lives in Cologne.)
  • Subjects, Direct Objects, and Indirect Objects

    1. Generally, Subjects that are NOT in the first position come as close after the Conjugated Verb as possible, followed by indirect and/or direct objects, and then adverbial expressions.

  • Ex: Gestern kaufte Tina ein Geschenk in der Stadt. (Tina bought a present in town yesterday.)
  • 2. Indirect (dative) objects normally Precede direct (accusative) objects.

    Ex: Gestern kaufte Tina ihrer Mutter ein Geschenk. (Yesterday, Tina bought her mother a present.)

    3. An accusative object PRONOUN precedes dative objects, even if the dative object is also a pronoun.

  • Ex: Gestern kaufteTina es ihr. (Yesterday, Tina bought it for her.)
  • 4. A German speaker may regard a direct object noun (but, NEVER a pronoun) as important enough to be a direct compliment to the verb and place it in final sentence position, OR in a position immediately preceding another adverbial compliment..

  • Ex: Tina kaufte ihrer Mutter zum Geburtstag ein Geschenk. (Tina bought her Tina hat ihrer Mutter zum Geburtstag ein Geschenk gekauft. mother a present for her birthday.)
  • Adverbial Expressions after the Verb

    Adverbial expressions NOT in the first position follow the sequence Time, Manner, Place (TMP Rule)

  • Ex: T P

    Peter hat mich heute frühnach Hause gebracht. (Peter brought me home early this morning.)

    Ex: M P

    Peter hat mich in seinem Autonach Hause gebracht. (Peter brought me home in his car.)

    Ex:  T M P

    Peter hat mich heute frühin seinem Autonach Hause gebracht.(Peter brought me home early this morning in his car.)

  • The Position of Verbal Complements

    1. In German, the most important information complementing or completing the idea of the conjugated verb tends to be in final position within a sentence. Such elements are called verbal complements.

    2. The most common verbal complements are seperable prefixes, past participles, and infinitives.

  • Ex: Sie schriebt seinen Namen auf. (She writes down his name.) (seperable prefix)

    Ex: Wir haben keine Blumen im Garten gefunden.(We found no flowers in the garden.) (past participle)

  • Ex: Wir werden viele Gäste zur Party einladen. (We will invite many guests to the party.) (infinitive)

  • Ex: Die Katze hat alles aufgefressen. (The cat ate everything.) (seperable prefix + past participle)

  • 3. Verbal complements such as predicate nominatives and adverbs modifying the verb also belong in the final position, BUT in front of any seperable prefixes, past participles, or infinitives in final position.

  • Ex:   Er wurde nach vielen Jahren Chef der Firma.
            Er ist nach vielen Jahren Chef der Firma geworden.(He became head of the firm after many years.)
            (Predicate Nominative)
  • Ex: Sie haben die neuen Wörter auswendig gelernt.  (They have learned the new words by heart.) (adverb)

  • Positions of the Conjugated Verb in Questions

    1. The conjugated verb takes the first position in yes-no questions, followed immediataely by the subject.

  • Ex: Geht die Arbeit jetzt gut? (Is the work going well now?)
  • 2. The conjugated verb follows an interrogative word or expresstion.

  • Ex: Was macht die Arbeit so schwer? (What makes the work so difficult?)
  • Ex: Bei was für einer Firma arbeitest du? (For what sort of company do you work?)

  • 3. In indirect questions, the question itself is a subordinate clause and the verb stands in final position within this clause.

  • Ex: Sie fragt, bei was für einer Firma du arbeitest. (She asks what sort of company you work for.)
  • Positions of the Conjugated Verb in Dependent Clauses

    1. The conjugated verb occupies the final position in subordinate clauses, even if the subordinate clause comes first in the sentence.

  • Ex: Wir kennen niemanden dort. (We don't know anyone there.) (main clause)
  • Ex: Wir gehen nicht zur Party, weil wir niemanden dort kennen. (We are not going to the party, because we don't know anyone there.) (subordinate clause)

  • Ex:  Weil wir niemanden dort kennen, gehen wir nicht zur Party. (Because we don't know anyone there, we are not going to the party.) (subordinate clause)

  • 2. The conjugated auxiliary verb in a subordinate clause follows final position elements such as infinitives and past participles.

  • Ex: Sie gingen heim, nachdem sie Lebensmittel eingekauft hatten. (They went home after they had shoppped for    groceries.)
  • 3. The conjugated auxiliary verb in a subordinate clause precedes a double infinitive in final position.

  • Ex: Wir wissen, daß er sie hat besuchen wollen. (We know that he had wanted to visit her.)
  • 4. As in English, the subordinating conjunction [daß - that] may be omitted. When this happens, the second clause is considered a main clause and the verb stays in second position.

  • Ex:  Ich weiß, daß er lieber zu Hause ißt. [I know (that) he prefers to eat at home.]
           Ich weiß, er ißt lieber zu Hause.
  • Relative Clauses

    A relative clause is a subordinate clause; the conjugated verb occupies the final position within this clause.

  • Ex: Menschen, die Sport treiben, bleiben fit. (People who engage in sports stay fit.)
  • Position of Nicht

    The postion of nicht is determined by various elements in the sentence.

  • Nicht always follows:
  • Nicht preceeds most other kinds of elements:
  • Note: If several of the above elements occur in a sentance, nicht usually precedes the 1st one.

    Created by Esther Hillmann. 1999 2000
    Foreign Language Lab, University of Houston