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German Word Order

If you already know some German you've probably found

 

that German sentences have a very different structure

 

compared to English or your mother tongue.

 

Maybe you've even heard of scary terms such as

fear not, It will all become clear

Master
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Can't read it all now? Here's a convenient free PDF version that you can take anywhere. It contains all of the content below plus Two Further Tips not found in the post.

Verb in Second Position

German is known for putting the verb (=the activity that you're doing in the sentence) at the end but that's not the ‘prime directive’ as it were.

 

In a normal straight forward sentence - also known as a main clause -

 

the verb is in position 2.

 

Or in other words, the second thing you say. We call this

 

the second idea in a sentence.

 

Let me show you what I mean:

position 1 position 2   position 3          position 4 

   Ich      gehe     am Freitag  in Urlaub.

(I'm going on holiday on Friday. What about you? Oh no sorry, that's just the meaning of this sentence.)

 

gehen, to go, is the verb (=the activity you're doing) 

 

And it is in position 2

 

So far so normal.

But you don’t have to start with ich.

 

You could start with am Freitag.

 

But the verb gehe stays put where it is, in second position.

 

So the sentence becomes:

   position 1     position 2    position 3      position 4 

See how the word gehe stayed in the same place there?

The word ich went from first to third place.

That's because the second idea in a sentence is always the verb.

 

Nothing but the verb can go into position 2. 

Because ich and am Freitag swapped positions this is called

The Inversion.

Really what happens is that everything pivots around the verb which always stays in the same place.

The Inversion

Am Freitag    gehe     ich      in Urlaub.

And that is true for every 'normal sentence' 

(grammar speak: for every main clause) :

the conjugated verb is always in

second position.

The reason why we say ‘second idea’ or second position and not ‘second word’ is because as you can see am Freitag is two words but they make one idea.

 

We keep them together and then say the verb as the second idea.

 
 

Quizz:

Put these words in the right order:

Time to practice:

Start each sentence with

Am Wochenende

Am Wochenende  - ins Kino  - ich  - gehe

Am Wochenende  - lange  -  ich - schlafe

Am Wochenende  - ich -  frühstücke -  groß

Quizz Answers:

(highlight text to reveal)

Am Wochenende gehe ich ins Kino.

Am Wochenende schlafe ich lange.

Am Wochenende frühstücke ich groß.

at the weekend I go to the cinema

at the weekend I sleep in.

at the weekend I have a big breakfast. 

Okay cool, you‘ve got this.

 

It’s counterintuitive though, right?

 

It takes a lot of practice.

 

Most of my students still forget every now and then.

 

So if you do too, that is completely normal.

I don’t know any other language that does this. If you do please let me know!

I talk about the five exceptions to this rule when you do NOT invert, and why,

 

like after words like und and aber,

 

in the PDF that goes with this post.

 

You can download it here.

 

It’s free.

Two verbs  in one sentence

You are not confined to one verb per sentence,

 

you can have as many verbs as you like!

 

For example in English, “I’m going swimming later” has “going” and “swimming” – both are verbs.

 

Or: "I cannot come to the meeting." What are the verbs?

'Can' and 'come', right?

In German, these sentences have two verbs as well.

 

The first verb, the conjugated one, goes in position 2 (the above still applies)

 

and the other verb goes at the end of the sentence.

It's not conjugated, it  stays in its neutral form,

 

called the infinitive (with EN at the end).

That means,

 

I’m going swimming later becomes:

 

I go later swim (there's no "-ing" in German):

 

ich gehe später schwimmen.

 

I cannot come to the meeting becomes:

 

I cannot to the meeting come:

 

ich kann nicht zu der Besprechung kommen.

First verb in position 2, the other verb at the end of the sentence. 

Time to practice:

Quizz 1:

Put these words in the right order:

gehe -  am Samstag -  einkaufen -  ich

Quizz 1 Answers:

(highlight text to reveal)

There are two possibilities:

ich gehe am Samstag einkaufen.

 

Or,

if you want to incorporate the inversion:

 

am Samstag gehe ich einkaufen.

 

(I‘m going shopping on Saturday)

Quizz 2:

translate this sentence:

I’d like to speak with you.

Auf Deutsch?

Quizz 2 Answers:

 

I’d like: ich möchte

 

with you: mit Ihnen

 

to speak: sprechen.

 

Ich möchte mit Ihnen sprechen.

Verb Kickers

There are words that kick the verb

 

from the second position

 

to the end.

 

These words are officially called

 

subordinating conjunctions

 

but I call them

 

verb kickers.

There are quite a lot of these but

 

here are the 3 most important ones:

 

wenn – when/if (yes, when and if is the same word in German!)

 

dass – that (I call this the double s dass)

 

weil – because

Here is how it works:

Take a sentence without a verb kicker, e.g.

 

er ist noch im Urlaub

(he’s still on holiday)

 

The verb ist is the second idea as it should be.

 

(Yes, “is/to be” is a verb too.)

 

Now stick a verb kicker in front of that,

er      noch im Urlaub ist

 

Weil kicks the verb ist from second position to the end of the sentence.

 

Everything else stays put, only the verb moves:

weil er noch im Urlaub ist.

So if you want to see a whole sentence I've got one for you:

 

He’s not coming to the meeting because he’s still on holiday.

Auf Deutsch?

Er kommt nicht zu der Besprechung (this is the main clause – verb in second position), weil er noch im Urlaub ist.

Now, you will notice that

 

“Because he’s still on holiday.”

 

is not really a sentence that can stand up by itself.

 

If you said it to someone out of the blue

 

they'd be like, "eh, you what"? 

 

So a clause with a verb kicker is only ever

 

half a sentence.

The same process applies if you stick any other verb kicker in front of the sentence.

 

For example dass:

er      noch im Urlaub ist

 

Being a verb kicker, dass kicks the verb ist from second position to the end of the sentence.

 

Everything else stays put, only the verb moves:

dass er noch im Urlaub ist.

Again, “That he's still on holiday.” needs something that precedes it.

So let’s make the sentence,

 

I didn’t know that he's still on holiday.

Auf Deutsch?

Ich wußte nicht, dass er noch im Urlaub ist

Same thing for all verb kickers.

Or,

in grammar speak,

subordinating conjunctions

kick the verb to the end of the clause

(to the end of their part of the sentence).

er      noch im Urlaub ist

Same thing for wenn:

 

Quizz:

Translate this phrase:

Time to practice:

Gut gemacht!

Well done.

 

Wenn, dass, and weil are the most important verb kickers.

 

Here's a few More:

Question words (“interrogatives”)

 

like was, wann, wo etc.

 

When they are not used in questions

(meaning, when there’s no question mark at the end of the sentence)

they become verb kickers.

 

And all the words you know for “the”.

 

So,

 

der die das den dem etc.

 

These words all mean “the“, yes

 

but they double up to mean "which", too.

 

Then they all called Relative Pronoun and become verb kickers.

That's a topic for another post. 

I explain more about

was, wann, wo

 

and other question words as verb kickers

 

in the PDF about Word Order that goes with this post.

 

You can download it here.

 

It’s free.

It’s okay that he’s not coming to the meeting if he's still on holiday.

I’ll start it for you:

Es ist in Ordnung, dass…, wenn…

Answer:

(highlight text to reveal)

So you have,

 

he’s not coming to the meeting:

 

er kommt nicht zu der Besprechung

 

with the verb kicker dass in front so kick the verb kommt:

dass er nicht zu der Besprechung kommt

 

Es ist in Ordnung, dass er nicht zu der Besprechung kommt

Now the sentence:

 

he is still on holiday:

 

er ist noch im Urlaub.

 

The verb kicker wenn in front kicks the verb ist:

 

wenn er noch im Urlaub ist.

So our piece de resistance is (drum roll)

 

Es ist in Ordnung, dass er nicht zu der Besprechung kommt, wenn er noch im Urlaub ist.

Time  Manner Place

So far we've talked a lot about where the verb goes:

in position 2 and at the end.

What about other words?

The Subject

 

Whoever is doing the verb

 

(the activity in the sentence)

 

is technically called

 

the subject.

 

You can start the sentence with the subject (often the word "ich").

 

If the subject is not first then it comes third.

 

No later. But not second.

 

Remember, 2nd position is reserved for the verb.

See The Inversion above.

So either:

Ich esse morgens immer frische Brötchen.

OR

Morgens esse ich immer frische Brötchen.

In the morning, I always have fresh bread rolls.

Either way, ich is the subject doing the verb (the eating)

Yap, that sounds about right.

That potentially leaves a lot of other words in the middle of the sentence.

 

German is flexible here.

 

Yes, you heard right.

 

You can pretty much do whatever you like here.

 

The guideline is:

 

time - manner - place

Meaning,

 

first you say when you do it (time),

 

then, how you do it (manner)

 

and lastly, where you do it (place). 

Time to practice:

 

Quizz:

Translate this phrase.

Put the words in the right order.

Today, I'm going to work by train.

Auf Deutsch? 

Do as many variations as humanly possible.

Ok, as you can think of.

Answer:

(highlight text to reveal)

The elements are:

heute -  mit dem Zug  - ich  -  zur Arbeit  -  fahre

Try to put them in the best order. 

Ich fahre heute mit dem Zug zur Arbeit.

Heute fahre ich mit dem Zug zur Arbeit.

These two are the most common.

But as long as you said fahre second and ich either first or third, it's all good.