Building Proper German Sentences

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While there are cases in which German and English word order are identical, German word order (die Wortstellung) is generally more variable and flexible than English. A "normal" word order places the subject first, the verb second, and any other elements third, for example: "Ich sehe dich." ("I see you.") or "Er arbeitet zu Hause." ("He works at home.").

Sentence Structure

  • Simple, declarative sentences are identical in German and English: Subject, verb, other.
  • The verb is always the second element in a German sentence.
  • With compound verbs, the second part of the verb goes last, but the conjugated part is still second.
  • German sentences are usually "time, manner, place."
  • After a subordinate clause / conjunction, the verb goes last.

Throughout this article, note that verb refers to the conjugated or finite verb, i.e., the verb that has an ending that agrees with the subject (er geht, wir geh en, du gehst, etc.). Also, "in second position" or "second place," means the second element, not necessarily the second word. For example, in the following sentence, the subject (Der alte Mann) consists of three words and the verb (kommt) comes second, but it is the fourth word:

"Der alte Mann kommt heute nach Hause."

Compound Verbs

With compound verbs, the second part of the verb phrase (past participle, separable prefix, infinitive) goes last, but the conjugated element is still second:

  • "Der alte Mann kommt heute an."
  • "Der alte Mann ist gestern angekommen."
  • "Der alte Mann will heute nach Hause kommen."

However, German often prefers to begin a sentence with something other than the subject, usually for emphasis or for stylistic reasons. Only one element can precede the verb, but it may consist of more than one word (e.g., "vor zwei Tagen" below). In such cases, the verb remains second and the subject must immediately follow the verb:

  • "Heute kommt der alte Mann nach Hause."
  • "Vor zwei Tagen habe ich mit ihm gesprochen."

The Verb Is Always the Second Element

No matter which element begins a German declarative sentence (a statement), the verb is always the second element. If you remember nothing else about German word order, remember this: the subject will either come first or immediately after the verb if the subject is not the first element. This is a simple, hard and fast rule. In a statement (not a question) the verb always comes second. 

This rule applies to sentences and phrases that are independent clauses. The only verb-second exception is for dependent or subordinate clauses. In subordinate clauses, the verb always comes last. (Although in today's spoken German, this rule is often ignored.) 

One other exception to this rule: interjections, exclamations, names, certain adverbial phrases are usually set off by a comma. Here are some examples:

  • "Nein, der alte Mann kommt nicht nach Hause."
  • "Maria, ich kann heute nicht kommen."
  • "Wie gesagt, das kann ich nicht machen."

In the sentences above, the initial word or phrase (set off by a comma) comes first but does not alter the verb-second rule.

Time, Manner, and Place

Another area where German syntax may vary from that of English is the position of expressions of time (wann?), manner (wie?) and place (wo?). In English, we would say, "Erik is coming home on the train today." English word order in such cases is place, manner, time... the exact opposite of German. In English it would sound odd to say, "Erik is coming today on the train home," but that is precisely how German wants it said: time, manner, place. "Erik kommt heute mit der Bahn nach Hause."

The only exception would be if you want to start the sentence with one of these elements for emphasis. Zum Beispiel: "Heute kommt Erik mit der Bahn nach Hause." (Emphasis on "today.") But even in this case, the elements are still in the prescribed order: time ("heute"), manner ("mit der Bahn"), place ("nach Hause"). If we start with a different element, the elements that follow remain in their usual order, as in: "Mit der Bahn kommt Erik heute nach Hause." (Emphasis on "by train" - not by car or plane.)

German Subordinate (or Dependent) Clauses

Subordinate clauses, those parts of a sentence that cannot stand alone and are dependent on another part of the sentence, introduce more complicated word order rules.  A subordinate clause is introduced by a subordinating conjunction (dass, ob, weil, wenn ) or in the case of relative clauses, a relative pronoun (den, der, die, welche). The conjugated verb is placed at the end of a subordinate clause (“post position”). 

Here are some examples of subordinate clauses in German and English. Notice that each German subordinate clause (in bold type) is set off by a comma. Also, notice that the German word order is different from that of the English and that a subordinate clause may come first or last in a sentence.

  • „Ich weiß nicht, wann er heute ankommt.” | “I don't know when he arrives today.”
  • „Als sie hinausging, bemerkte sie sofort die glühende Hitze.” | “When she went out, she immediately noticed the intense heat.”
  • „Es gibt eine Umleitung, weil die Straße repariert wird.” | “There's a detour because the road is being repaired.”
  • „Das ist die Dame, die wir gestern sahen.” | “That's the lady (that/whom) we saw yesterday.”

Some German-speakers these days ignore the verb-last rule, particularly with weil (because) and dass (that) clauses. You may hear something like "...weil ich bin müde" (because I'm tired), but it's not grammatically correct German. One theory blames this trend on English-language influences!

Conjunction First, Verb Last

As you can see above, a German subordinate clause always starts with a subordinating conjunction and ends with the conjugated verb. It is always set off from the main clause by a comma, whether it comes before or after the main clause. The other sentence elements, such as time, manner, place, fall into the normal order. The one thing you must remember is that when a sentence starts with a subordinate clause, as in the second example above, the very first word after the comma (before the main clause) must be the verb. In the example above, the verb bemerkte was that first word (note the differences between the English and German word order in that same example).

Another type of subordinate clause is the relative clause, which is introduced by a relative pronoun (as in the previous English sentence). Both relative clauses and subordinate clauses with a conjunction have the same word order. The last example in the sentence pairs above is actually a relative clause. A relative clause explains or further identifies a person or thing in the main clause.

Subordinating Conjunctions

One important aspect of learning to deal with subordinate clauses is to be familiar with the subordinating conjunctions that introduce them. 

All of the subordinating conjunctions listed in this chart require the conjugated verb to go at the end of the clause they introduce. Another technique for learning them is to learn the ones that are NOT subordinating, since there are fewer of those. The coordinating conjunctions (with normal word order) are: aber, denn, entweder/oder (either/or),weder/noch (neither/nor), and und.

Some of the subordinating conjunctions can be confused with their second identity as prepositions (bis, seit, während), but this is usually not a big problem. The word als is also used in comparisons (größer als, bigger than), in which case it is not a subordinating conjunction. As always, you have to look at the context in which a word appears in a sentence.

  • als -> as, when
  • bevor -> before
  • bis -> before
  • da -> as, since (because)
  • damit -> so that, in order that
  • dass -> that
  • ehe -> before (re old Eng. "ere")
  • falls -> in case
  • indem -> while
  • nachdem -> after
  • ob -> whether, if
  • obgleich -> although
  • obschon -> although
  • obwohl -> although
  • seit/seitdem -> since (time)
  • sobald -> as soon as
  • sodass / so dass -> so that
  • solang(e) -> as/so long as
  • trotzdem -> despite the fact that
  • während -> while, whereas
  • weil -> because
  • wenn -> if, whenever

Note: All of the interrogative words (wann, wer, wie, wo) can also be used as subordinating conjunctions.

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Flippo, Hyde. "Building Proper German Sentences." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Flippo, Hyde. (2020, August 27). Building Proper German Sentences. Retrieved from Flippo, Hyde. "Building Proper German Sentences." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 20, 2023).