Wortstellung (Word Order)
|Verb Position||Inverted Word Order|
|Pronouns and Nouns||nicht/kein|
1. Word order in German is more flexible than in English. In particular, sentences need not begin with the subject (see "inverted word order" below). There are strict rules determining the position of the verb, and there are a few other rules to bear in mind, but in general once you have put the verb(s) in the right place and chosen between "subject first" and "inverted" word order, there will often be a number of acceptable ways for you to arrange the rest of the sentence.
2. The main rules for verb position are:
- In general, the verb should be in position 2
- The coordinating conjunctions und, aber, oder, denn & sondern occupy position 0 ==> you will generally want e.g. "und"; then something in position one; then the verb.
- If the verb is in two parts, the conjugated part goes in position two, and the "generic part" (infinitive or past participle) goes at the end of the clause.
- After a subordinating conjunction (dass, weil, wenn, als, ob...) and in a relative clause, the verb comes at the end.
- After a subordinate clause, the subsequent main clause begins with the verb.
- Infinitives with or without "zu" always come at the end of the clause.
3. A main clause may start with almost any sentence element other than the verb (except in questions). If it does not start with the subject, then the subject will come right after the verb. This is called inverted word order. It is good style in German to take advantage of this flexibility: a text in which every clause begins with the subject sounds unsophisticated and mechanical. Inverted word order is not possible in subordinate clauses. There, the subject will always come right at the beginning, immediately after the initial subordinating conjunction, relative pronoun or question word.
4. You should learn the coordinating, two-part, and subordinating conjunctions. These are essential for expressing all but the simplest ideas, and crucial to understanding German sentences.
5. Expressions of time generally precede expressions of manner, which generally precede expressions of place: "time/manner/place."
6.Two main rules govern the position of nouns and pronouns in the sentence:
- Accusative and dative pronouns generally come "as soon as possible" (ASAP) after the subject, both in main clauses and in subordinate clauses.
- In addition,
nouns and pronouns, which precede...
7. In this context, you should review the information on negation and the position of "nicht."
- Salz bitte Pay attention to what the sentences mean, so that you'll get the joke :) Das ist der Witz des Tages vom 30.8.2002.
- Die Stasi hilft This one's very simple. Pay attention to what the sentences mean, so that you'll get the joke :) Das ist der Witz des Tages vom 10.8.2002.
- Der kluge Hund Slightly more difficult. Pay attention to what the sentences mean, so that you'll get the joke :) Das ist der Witz des Tages vom 5.8.2002.
- Drill 1 Use this to practice which conjunctions are coordinating and which are subordinating, and to familiarize yourself further with their meanings, which are included with each question.
- Drill 2 Use this to practice the meanings of the conjunctions. Click on the "weiter" button to move between the items (numbered from 2 to 2h). You can keep clicking "weiter" and start again from the beginning until you feel like you've mastered the meanings of the conjunctions.
- Was ist logisch? Practice the meanings of the conjunctions by choosing logical completions to various sentence beginnings.
Wortstellung mit Konjunktion Choose the correct word order for the descriptions of the photos in this exercise.
- Dumme Fragen Antworten Sie "Nein" auf die dummen Fragen, die der Computer Ihnen stellt!
Practice Exercises on Other Sites
- Als/Ob/Wenn/Wann Fill in the correct conjunctions in a series of statements. This exercise, compiled by Dr. Olaf Böhlke at Creighton
University, includes detailed feedback for each item.
1. Fundamentally, the verb goes in position TWO. Note that "second position" does not necessarily mean "second word"! Note also that initial elements are not set off by a comma in German:
|Im Sommer (1) habe (2) ich am Wochenende viel Zeit.||In the summer, I have lots of time on the weekend.|
|Oft (1) mache (2) ich dann spontan eine Reise oder ein Soufflet.||Often then (i.e. when I have time in the summer), I'll spontaneously go on a trip or make a soufflet.|
|Heute (1) reise (2) ich nach Ulm||Today, I am travelling to Ulm.|
|Exception: ja, nein, and doch: Ja/Nein/Doch, ich (1) reise (2)
|Yes/No/Oh yes, I'm travelling to Ulm.|
Note that coordinating conjunctions (und, denn, sondern, aber, oder) occupy position 0 [but, after und, the subject can often be omitted because it is understood, so the verb often follows it immediately]:
|Gutenberg erfand [=invented] den Buchdruck,(0) und ((1) er) (2) druckte [=printed] eine 42zeilige [=42-line] Bibel.||Gutenberg invented printing, and (he) printed a 42-line bible.|
|Ich habe nichts erfunden, (0) aber (1) ich (2) lese gern Comics.||I haven't invented anything, but I like to read comics.|
|Ich bin schön, (0) und (1) du (2) bist hässlich.||I'm attractive and you're ugly.|
|Wir haben kein Geld, (0) aber (1) wir (2) sind glücklich.||We don't have any money, but we're happy.|
2. If the verb is split into two (or more) parts, the conjugated part (i.e. the part that has an ending which agrees with the subject) goes in position two, and the "generic" part (infinitives, past participles, separable prefixes) goes to the very end of the clause. This also applies to nouns that are considered to belong to the verb (such as "Tennis" in "Tennis spielen")
|modal + infinitive: Ich muß mit der Gummiente [=rubber duckie] spielen.|
|haben/sein + past participle (Perfect or past perfect tense):
Ich habe zu viel Eisbein [=pork knuckles] gegessen.
|separable prefixes: Wir sehen bei Boris Becker zu Hause
[=at BB's house] fern.
|passive: Das Ei wird viereinhalb Minuten lang gekocht.|
|nouns that are considered to belong to the verb: Meine
Freunde spielen gern jeden Tag drei Stunden Tennis.
|future; subjunctive II with würde; etc....|
3a. In a subordinate/dependent clause, the conjugated verb comes at the end. If the verb is in two parts, the conjugated verb follows the generic part of the verb (separable verbs get reunited at the end of the sentence and have little parties to celebrate, with very tiny little cakes. They watch movies on tiny TVs and eat microscopic bits of popcorn.).
The main types of dependent clauses:
- clauses introduced by subordinating conjunctions: dass, weil, wenn, da, ob, bis, nachdem, bevor, als...
|Ich habe gehört, dass David Hasselhoff ein Brusttoupee
|I've heard that David Hasselhoff wears a chest toupee.|
|Er hat Angst, weil die Kinder von 98 Degrees es stehlen wollen.||He's afraid because the kids from 98 Degrees want to steal it.|
- relative clauses:
|Das ist die Frau, mit der ich auf dem Brandenburger Tor getanzt habe.||That's the woman with whom I danced on the Brandenburg Gate.|
|Die Euphorie, die wir damals gefühlt haben, werden wir nie vergessen.||We'll never forget the euphoria (which) we felt back then.|
- indirect questions (these contain a question word [wer/wo/was/warum/ob (=whether)...]) but no question mark:
|Ich wüßte gern, wo mein Skorpion ist.||I would like to know where my scorpion is.|
|Es interessiert niemanden, warum Barney verbrannt ist.||No one is interested (in knowing) why Barney burned.|
|Niemand kann mir sagen, ob "leichtgläubig" im Wörterbuch steht.||No one can tell me if "gullible" is in the dictionary.|
- infinitive clauses. In the following examples, the infinitive clauses are in italics. Note that only in the first example does the German infinitive clause also translate into an infinitive clause in English:
|Hast du Zeit, meine Hühneraugen [=corns] mit einem Bimsstein [=pumice stone] zu reiben?||Do you have time to pumice my corns?|
|Ich habe keine Lust, dir mit deinen Füßen zu helfen.||I don't feel like helping you with your feet.|
|Du solltest es tun, ohne so viel zu meckern.||You should do it without grousing so much.|
3b. If a sentence begins with a dependent clause, that clause is considered to occupy the first position, the verb follows immediately, and the subject comes after the verb (inverted word order). Thus, the verb ending the initial dependent clause and the verb beginning the subsequent main clause "meet" at the comma between the two clauses, as you can see in the following examples:
|Weil ich müde bin, mache ich viele Fehler.||Because I'm tired, I'm making lots of mistakes.|
|Dass du keine Zeit hast, macht mich sehr traurig.||That you don't have any time makes me very sad.|
3c. In general, the verb follows in position two after a coordinating conjunction [und, denn, sondern, aber, oder]. In fact, however, the rule is that after a coordinating conjunction the sentence continues with the same word order that the previous clause had. Thus if the previous clause was a dependent clause, the verb will stay at the end in the und/denn/sondern/aber/oder clause.
|Wir tanzen, weil wir froh sind und die Musik schön ist.||We're dancing because we're happy and because the music is
|Ich habe John Travoltas Anzug aus Saturday Night Fever gekauft,
obwohl ich kein Geld habe und der Anzug sehr teuer ist.
|I bought John Travolta's suit from Saturday Night Fever,
even though I don't have any money and the suit is very
German sentences need not start with the subject, since the case system helps to differentiate the sentence subject from the direct, indirect and genitive objects. When this happens, inverted word order is used: the subject follows the verb. The following are equivalent:
|Wir fahren heute nach Köln.||Heute fahren wir nach Köln.|
|Wir kaufen in der Stadt ein.||In der Stadt kaufen wir ein.|
Inverted word order is used to emphasize parts of the sentence other than the subject.
There can be no inverted word order in dependent clauses.
In dependent clauses, the subject will always follow immediately after the initial subordinating conjunction, relative pronoun or question word (infinitive clauses don't have a subject--that's why they're not mentioned here). See above for examples.
There are exceptions to this rule, but generally expressions of time precede expressions of manner, which precede expressions of place:
|Wir fliegen im Sommer (time) mit Lufthansa (manner) nach Wien (place).||In the summer we are flying to Vienna with Lufthansa.|
|Wir sind immer (time) gern (manner) dort (place).||We always enjoy being there.|
Indefinite time precedes specific time:
|Wir gehen immer um sechs Uhr spazieren.["um
sechs" is more specific than "immer"]
|Wir gehen morgen früh um sechs Uhr spazieren.["um
sechs" is more specific than "früh," which is more specific than "morgen"]
Manner includes anything that might answer the question "How?"
|Wir gehen oft barfuß in den Park.||We always go to the park barefoot.|
|Dabei schneiden wir uns manchmal leider schlimm die
|In doing so we unfortunately sometimes cut our feet badly.|
|Dann müssen wir im Krankenwagen nach Hause fahren.||Then we have to drive home in the ambulance.|
Accusative and dative pronouns generally come "as soon as possible" (ASAP) after the subject, both in main clauses and in subordinate clauses.
|Seit einer Woche haben wir uns nicht mehr gesehen.||We haven't seen each other for a week.|
|Kannst du mich heute Abend treffen?||Can you meet me tonight?|
|Hast du meine Telefonnummer? Ich weiß nicht mehr, ob ich sie dir gegeben habe.||Do you have my phone number? I can't remember if I gave it to you.|
|Du hast sie mir vor einem Monat gegeben, aber ich habe sie in kleine Stücke gerissen.||You gave it to me a month ago, but I ripped it into little
If a pronoun is preceded by a preposition, however (für mich, bei ihm, nach ihr, unter uns...), then the preposition + pronoun combination actually indicates manner or place and so follows the time/manner/place rule described above. In this case you may find prepositions at or near the end of a sentence:
|Es ist schon wieder ein Paket für dich [purpose] bei mir [place] angekommen.||Another package for you arrived at my place.|
|Ich komme heute Nachmittag [time] mit ihm [manner] zu dir
|I'm coming to your place with it [the package] this afternoon.|
There is one more rule. Don't worry if you have trouble implementing it consciously: this is something students just get used to gradually as they hear and read more German, so we will grade you leniently for a while if you get this wrong: This last rule is that:
nouns and pronouns, which precede...
In the following examples, accusative nouns and pronouns are in italics, and dative nouns and pronouns are in bold type.
|Ich gebe dem Mann das Buch.||==>Wir geben es ihm.|
|Wir zeigen der Frau den BMW.||==>Wir zeigen ihn ihr.|
|Ihr gebt mir den SPAM.|
|Ich gebe ihn dem Hund.|