One confusion in terms of German word order for many students of the language is the difference between subordinating and coordinating conjunctions. While the former appear at the start of a subordinate clause (i.e. a dependent clause that cannot be used in isolation) and send the conjugated verb to the end, coordinating conjunctions link two main clauses (that is, independent clauses that do not require any other clause) and do not change the word order. This post focuses on the latter and explains how to use them.
One fundamental principle in German syntax is that the conjugated verb needs to be in second position, unless you phrase a yes or no question. Coordinating conjunctions are another exception to this rule because they are followed by the subject and the conjugated verb. So they link two sentences without having an impact on the sequence of words in a German sentence. In short, they represent position 0, the subject in position 1 and the conjugated in position 2. Let's look at some examples.
aber - but
Ich reise gern nach Köln, aber sie fliegt lieber nach Berlin (I like to travel to Cologne, but she prefers to fly to Berlin)
position 0 - 1- 2
Sie spielt gern Tennis, aber sie macht lieber Yoga (She likes to play tennis, but she prefers to do yoga)
denn – because
Ich gehe zum Deutschunterricht, denn Deutsch macht Spaß (I go to my German lessons because German is fun)
Wir wohnen in London, denn London ist eine fantastische Stadt (We're living in London because London is a fantastic city)
One common confusion to be mindful of is between denn vs. dann.
und – and
Ich spiele Gitarre und Klavier (I play the guitar and the piano)
Ihr reist gern und spielt gern Fußball (You all like to travel and play football)
Interestingly, we don't use a comma before und. I explain German comma rules in another post.
sondern – but, following a negative statement
Ich trinke keinen Tee, sondern einen Kaffee ( I don't drink tea but coffee)
Du lernst nicht Spanish, sondern Deutsch (You don't learn Spanish but German)
A more detailed explanation of the difference between aber and sondern can be found on our blog.
oder – or
Am Wochenende mache ich oft Sport oder ich treffe mich mit Freunden (At the weekend, I often do sports or meet friends)
Sie trinken gern Wein oder (sie trinken gern) Bier (They like to drink wine or beer)
While the above conjunctions are the most common ones, we also have some compound conjunctions in German that are trickier to use, which is why I have dedicated a blog post to that topic. Two examples are
Ich schaue entweder einen Film oder ich lese ein Buch.
(Either I watch a movie or I read a book)
Sie geht entweder ins Fitnessstudio oder zu ihrem Yogakurs.
(She either goes to the gym or her yoga course)
Weder..noch - neither…nor
Ich esse weder Fleisch noch Fisch.
(I neither eat meat nor fish)
Er möchte weder nach Spanien noch nach Italien fliegen.
(He neither wants to fly to Spain nor to Italy)
As the examples have shown, coordinating conjunctions link two main clauses without changing the word order.
Of course, there are other rules that determine the sequence of words within a main clause, such as tekamolo, but coordinating conjunctions should be learned first. The acronym by which many of my students remember the most important ones is ADUSO- the first letters of "aber", "denn", "und", "sondern" and "oder". Nowadays, "entweder... oder" and "weder...noch" are mostly used in formal correspondence.
One final thing to note is that coordinating conjunctions are not used at the beginning of sentences. This is just a convention, though, just like English native speakers don't start sentences with "but".
On our German language blog, you will find posts on the difference between weil, da and denn, on the conjugation of regular and irregular verbs in the present tense in German, the rules on the perfekt tense in German, on how to use nicht and kein in German, an explanation of German pronouns generally and mir vs. mich in particular. You might also be interested in my Ultimate Guide to Learning German. Check it out to learn how to learn German fast.