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How to Learn German: Constructing Sentences & Word Order

By Sonia, published on 29/09/2017 Blog > Languages > German > Learning German: Sentence Structure Made Easy

So you have taken some German grammar lessons online, learned your German vocabulary and can decline articles and pronouns and conjugate verbs. Now all that’s left is stringing everything together into understandable sentences.

But if what order is sentence words of the wrong?

As it is in English, so it is when speaking German: if the order of the words is too wrong, the meaning of the sentence is lost and you get is gibberish.

Find out more about learning German online.

The Right Word Order in German for Main Clauses

In German grammar, the basic sentence structure in a normal main clause is refreshingly like English:

Subject + Verb + Object
“Die Ritterin tötet einen Drachen.”
The female knight kills a dragon.

Also similar to English, the indirect object in German generally comes before the direct object. Where English would say:

The squire gave the (female) knight a lance, German says:
Subject + Verb + Indirect Object + Direct Object
Der Knappe gibt der Ritterin eine Lanze.

The standard order of words in Gerrman can be switched about. Because it uses cases, word order is a bit more fluid in German than in English. Photo credit: MsAnthea via VisualHunt / CC BY-ND

Learn how German and English contrast here.

The Placement of Nouns in German Sentences

This said, the existence of cases in the German language makes word order a bit more fluent than in English, which has confused more than one student of German. For, no matter the word order, the cases will still tell you the noun’s role in the sentence. Generally, this means that a noun can be brought to the beginning of the sentence to emphasise its importance:

Der Knappe gibt der Ritterin eine Lanze.
The squire gives the female knight a lance.
Subject + Verb + Indirect Object + Direct Object

Eine Lanze gab der Knappe der Ritterin.
A lance is what the squire gave the knight.
Direct Object + Verb + Subject + Indirect Object

Der Ritterin gab der Knappe eine Lanze.
The knight was the one to whom the squire gave the lance.
Indirect Object + Verb + Subject + Direct Object

How To Structure German Sentences When Using Pronouns

However, in German sentence structure, things are slightly different with pronouns.
If ONLY the indirect (dative) object is a pronoun, the word order remains the same:

Er gibt ihr die Lanze.
Subject + Verb + Indirect Object (pronoun) + Direct Object (noun)
He gives the lance to her.

Thowever, the accusative pronoun comes before the dative object, even if both are pronouns:

Er gibt sie der Ritterin.
Subject + Direct Object (Pronoun) + Indirect Object (noun)
He gives it to the knight.

Er gibt sie ihr.
Subject + Direct Object (pronoun) + Indirect Object (pronoun)
He gives it to her.

The Place of the Verb in German Main Clauses

You will notice that putting an object in first place does not change the place of the verb in a German sentence. Instead, the subject is shunted to a place behind the verb, leaving the verb always in second place.

Knowing Where the Adverbs Go When Writing or Speaking German

Once you introduce adverbs, the cosy little place beside the verb becomes even more coveted. In sentences with only direct objects, the adverb always comes directly after the verb:

Subject + Verb + Adverb Direct Object

Der Knappe reicht schnell die Lanze.
The squire quickly hands over the lance.

BUT it comes AFTER the Indirect Object:

Subject + Verb + Indirect Object + Adverb + Direct Object

Der Knappe reicht der Ritterin schnell die Lanze.
The squire quickly hands the lance to the knight.

AND it comes AFTER any objects if they are pronouns.
The word order remains the same if only the dative (indirect object) is a pronoun:

Der Knappe reicht ihr schnell die Lanze.
The squire quickly hands her the lance.

Subject + Verb + Indirect Object (pronoun) + Adverb + Direct Object

If only the accusative object is a pronoun, it follows it but slips before the indirect (dative) object:

Der Knappe reicht es schnell der Ritterin.
The squire quickly hands it to the knight.

Subject + Verb + Direct Object (pronoun) + Adverb + Indirect Object

If both objects are pronouns, the adverb slips to last place:

Der Knappe reicht es ihr schnell.
The squire quickly hands it to her.

What to do if you have several adverbs in a sentence?

German generally puts them in the following order: TIME – MANNER – PLACE

Die Ritterin gallopierte sofort mit angelegter Lanze zum Schlafort des Drachens.
Subject + Verb+ Adverb time + Adverb manner + Adverb place

The knight immediately galloped lance down to the dragon’s sleeping place.

Adding adverbs to a German sentence is complicated. Adverbs make life more complicated for German sentences. Photo credit: t cory via VisualHunt / CC BY-ND

How the German Language Builds Subordinate Clauses

In the German language, as in English, if a sentence is made up of two clauses, these are often linked by conjunctions.

If both sentences can stand alone, they are both main clauses and the conjuctions linking them are called co-ordinating conjunctions (such as “und”, “oder” and “dann”). The word order of either clause is not influenced by the existence of the conjunction; it is treated as though it weren’t there:

Ihr Pferd war schnell und ihre Lanze war scharf.
Her horse was quick and her lance was sharp.

Learning German: Subordinate Clauses

But if one of the sentences can’t stand on its own, it is a subordinate clause. They can be adverbial, or they can function as a direct object to the verb.

An adverbial clause explains something about the main clause:

Der Drache sah die Ritterin nicht kommen, weil es noch geschlafen hat.
The dragon did not see the knight coming because it was still sleeping.

In learning German, object clauses mostly come after the verbs “wissen”, “fragen” and other verbs indicating knowledge (or lack of it).

Der Drache wußte nicht, dass es bald tot sein wird.
The dragon didn’t know that it would soon be dead.

Die Ritterin erfuhr bald, dass Drachen einen leichten Schlaf haben.
The kight soon found out that dragons are light sleepers.

German conjunctions and their place in the sentence

Conjuctions for adverb clauses include: weil, obwohl, damit, trotzdem, dann, wenn and others.

Conjunctions for object clauses are: dass and ob, wer, wieso, wieviel…
The conjunctions ALWAYS come at the beginning of the subordinate clause:

Der Drache wachte auf, WEIL er ihr Pferd wiehern hörte.
(MC) The dragon woke up (SC) BECAUSE it heard her horse whinny.

Er fragte sich, WAS dieses Geraucht macht.
(MC) It asked itself (SC) WHAT made that noise.

The Placement of Verbs in German Subordinate Clauses

As an observant student of German, you might have noticed that in ALL subordinate clauses, the verb comes at the very end. If the verb has an auxiliary, the auxiliary verb comes after the main verb:

Er hob seinen Kopf hoch, damit er sehen konnte, was sich ihm näherte.
He raised his head to see what was approaching him.

Important German lesson: verbs are at the end of subordinate clauses. Even when battling dragons, make sure you put the verb at the end of German subordinate clauses.
Photo credit: Brenda-Starr via Visualhunt.com / CC BY-NC-ND

The exception is in verb cases with more than one auxiliary verb – modal verbs and verbs that take a second infinitive such as “lassen” – in the perfect and past perfect.  In such cases, the auxiliary verb sneaks up the line to just before the participle and infinitive:

Sie hätte ihr Pferd gleich umdrehen müssen.
She ought to have turned her horse around immediately.

Sie dachte, dass sie ihr Pferd gleich hätte umdrehen müssen.
She thought that she should have immediately turned her horse around.

Learn more about German Verbs in this dedicated blog

Where Does the Subordinate Clause Go in German Grammar?

While subordinate clauses usually come after the main clause, they can also come first. When you learn German, it is important to remember that they take the place of a noun or adverb, and as such, are considered part of the sentence and influence word order.
What does this mean?

It means that if you decide to put the subordinate clause first, the next thing to come in the main clause is the VERB. The subordinate clause takes up the first position in the sentence, so the verb comes in second, and THEN the subject.

Weil sie so schnell ging, wusste die Ritterin nicht, ob sie noch rechtzeitig bremsen kann.
(SC1)Because she was going so fast, (MC) the knight didn’t know (SC2)if she would be able to brake.

Here we have two subordinate clauses. The first was shifted to the beginning of the sentence, so in the main clause the verb comes before the subject. The second is in its usual place after the main clause, and everything stays the same.

Find your German language course London.

Use the Imperative in a German Sentence

In imperative sentences expressing an order or instructions, the verb comes first:

“Halte dich fest!”
Hang on!

“Töte den Drachen!”
Kill the dragon!

Learn How To Ask a Question in German

There are two types of questions: questions that need a question word and questions that can be answered yes or no.

The word order for questions in German is different if there is aquestion word. Will the knight prevail? How does she do it? There are two ways to ask questions in German, and a different word order for each.
Photo credit: Mario Spann via Visualhunt / CC BY-SA

Sentence Structure With German Question Words

In the German language, question words always come at the beginning of the question, and are followed by the verb:

Wie rettet die Ritterin sich?
How does the knight save herself?

As usual, the auxiliary verb is in second place and the participle last:

Was kann sie tun?
What can she do?

How To Build Yes/No Questions in German

Where English generally needs to use “Do” to ask a yes or no question, you will be happy to learn that German does not. In fact, you can take any perfectly normal sentence and SIMPLY FLIP THE VERB TO FIRST POSITION to make it into a question:

Der Drache schnappt zu. -> Schnappt der Drache zu?
The dragon snaps his jaws. -> Does the dragon snap his jaws?

And, of course, two-part verbs remain much the same, with the participle at the end:

Sie kann sich retten. -> Kann sie sich retten?
She can save herself. -> Can she save herself?

Der Knappe rettet sie in letzter Minute. -> Rettet der Knappe sie in letzter Minute?
The squire saves her at the last minute. -> Does the squire save her at the last minute?

With these rules, you should soon have no trouble crafting credible German sentences. And fight dragons, too.

Discover the best books and resources for learning German at all levels.

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