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German Word Order Explained: Mastering German Syntax!

Updated: Jan 20

Many German students struggle to understand where to place words in a sentence. In what follows, I will explain German syntax rules in both main and subordinate clauses, accompanied by numerous examples. I hope this will make the subject a lot less daunting. And if German word order feels like a puzzle to you right now, rest assured that you will acquire the rules that enable you to assemble the pieces with confidence.







The Difference between Main and Subordinate Clauses in German


The most important difference between main and subordinate clauses in German is the position of the verbs. In a main clause (an independent and completed sentence), the conjugated verb is second and the main verb, if there is one, is at the end. By contrast, in a subordinate clause (a dependent sentence that provides additional information), the verbs are at the end with the conjugated verb being last.


Let's look at main clauses first, starting with very simple sentences before moving to more complex ones.


a) Main clauses in German


Subject + conjugated verb + time +place

Ich arbeite heute im Garten


Starting with the subject in first position and the conjugated verb in second, the time is placed before the location. After the conjugated verb, the two can't be reversed.


Subject + conjugated verb + time + direct Object + place +main verb

Ich werde morgen eine Klasse in der Schule besuchen.


If there are two verbs in a German sentence, the conjugated or auxiliary verb is second and the main verb at the end of the sentence. Direct objects (accusatives) are placed between the time and the location.

Subject + conjugated verb+ indirect object + time + direct object +place (+main verb)

Paul stellt der Frau gerade die Tasse auf den Tisch

Paul wird der Frau morgen die Tasse auf den Tisch stellen.


In sentences with both, an indirect and a direct object, the dative normally comes first as the language prioritises people over things. For more information on the German cases and one exception to this rule, check out my article on the topic.


If a sentence is even more complex with several adverbs, the rule is that the adverbs should be in the following order after the verb: temporal (wann?)- kausal (warum?)-modal (wie?)-lokal (wo?) or tekamolo. For instance:


Ich bin gestern (te) wegen einer Verspätung der U-Bahn (ka) mit einem Taxi (mo) zu meinem Büro (lo) gefahren.


If you are wondering where to place "nicht" and "kein in German, check out our post on this topic.


Inversion


For reasons of emphasis, words such as adverbs of time or location can be placed at the start of a sentence. Whenever a German sentence does not begin with the subject but with anything else, the conjugated verb is still in second position but the subject moves in third. This is called an inversion of subject and verb. Let's rephrase one of the aforementioned examples.


Time +conjugated verb+ subject + place

Heute arbeite ich im Garten.


Here, the emphasis is on the time when the action takes place. If you wanted to emphasise the location, the sentence would read


Place +conjugated verb +subject + time

Im Garten arbeite ich morgen.


While the time must be placed before the location in the middle of a sentence, the location can be moved to the front for reasons of emphasis.


Questions


With regard to questions, we have to distinguish between questions with a question word and so-called yes/no-questions. While the former follow the main clause rules, according to which the conjugated verb is second, yes/no begin with the conjugated verb.


Question word +conjugated verb +subject + direct object

Wo lernst du Deutsch?


Conjugated verb +subject +direct object

Sprechen Sie Deutsch?


Yes or no questions therefore invert subject and verb.


Main clause connectors


Main clause connectors (also known as "Verbindungsadverbien") fall into the same category and have the same effect on word order. They stylistically link two main clauses and invert subject and verb. Common examples are


Deshalb /also - Therefore, so

Ich habe morgen früh eine Besprechung. Deshalb/Also gehe ich heute früh schlafen.


Deshalb is not to be confused with weil. Check out my blog post on the difference between deshalb and weil in German.


Doch/jedoch- however

Er war erkältet. Jedoch wollte er den Unterricht nicht verpassen.


Dann - then

Er hat seine Hausaufgaben gemacht. Dann ist er ins (in das) Bett gegangen.


Danach- afterwards

Er hatte zunächst seinen wöchentlichen Deutschunterricht. Danach ging er einkaufen.


Daraufhin- in response

Sie las, dass ihr Flug sich um zwei Stunden verspäten wird. Daraufhin ärgerte sie sich über die Fluggesellschaft.


Außerdem- in addition, additionally

Die Deutschen trinken viel Kaffee. Außerdem mögen die Deutschen Bier.

Trotzdem- nonetheless

Sie sollte schlafen. Trotzdem sieht sie weiter fern.


On the difference between trotzdem and obwohl, check out my separate blog post.


Schließlich- finally

Sie hat lange an dem Projekt gearbeitet. Schließlich ist sie fertig.


Meiner Meinung nach/nach meiner Meinung- in my opinion

Meiner Meinung nach war Brexit ein großer Fehler.


Normalerweise- normally

Normalerweise kauft sie samstags ein.


Zum Glück/glücklicherweise- fortunately

Sie hatte ihre Kreditkarte verloren. Zum Glück wurde sie gefunden.


Leider- unfortunately

Leider hat er den Termin verpasst.


Auf der einen Seite/auf der anderen Seite, einerseits/andererseits- on the one hand/on the other hand

Auf der einen Seite wohnt er gern in Großbritannien, auf der anderen Seite reist er gern in andere Länder.

Let's look at subordinate clauses now.

b) Subordinate clauses in German


Conjunctions

Subordinate clause conjunctions connect main and subordinate clauses. Normally, the main clause comes first and the subordinate clause comes last. The conjunction follows straight after the comma sending the conjugated verb to the very end of the subordinate clause, while the rest of the word order stays intact. I explain German comma rules in a separate blog post.


Scenario I


Subject+conjugated verb...(+main verb), conj.+subject ... + main verb+conjugated verb


main clause , subordinate clause

Wir besuchen den Deutschunterricht, weil wir unser Deutsch verbessern möchten.


However, for reasons of emphasis, the subordinate clause can also come first, but then subject and verb invert in the main clause because of the main clause rule that the conjugated verb must be second.


Scenario II


conj.+subject ........ +main verb+conj. verb, conj. verb+ subject+... (+main verb)

Subordinate clause , main clause

Weil wir unser Deutsch verbessern möchten, besuchen wir den Deutschunterricht.


While in scenario I the conjugated verbs in both clauses are as far apart from each other as they could be (second in the main clause and at the end in the subordinate clause), in scenario II the conjugated verbs are only separated by a comma. This is why this scenario is often referred to as verb, verb.


List of the most common subordinating conjunctions


weil/da* - because *only in a subordinate clause (da= there in a main clause)

Ich gehe heute früh schlafen, weil/da ich morgen früh eine Besprechung habe.


Read our post on the difference between weil and da for more information.


als - when, but only in the past for one-time actions that are completed

Als ich das Haus verlassen habe, hat es geregnet.


wenn – if or whenever for actions that are recurring

Wenn du oft lernst, verbessert sich dein Deutsch.


Since students often find the difference between "als" and "wenn" in German quite confusing, I have written a separate post explaining the difference.


sogar wenn/auch wenn - even if/though

Ich gehe in die Universität, sogar wenn ich krank bin.


falls- in case

Falls Sie morgen Zeit haben, würde ich gern mit Ihnen reden.


Are you wondering when to use wenn rather than falls? We have a separate post answering this question.


ob – whether

Ich weiß nicht, ob die Medizin wirkt/hilft.


You will find some more tips on when to use wenn, falls, ob in another post. Ob is used in indirect questions.


obwohl/obgleich– although

Ich lerne Vokabeln, obwohl ich wenig Zeit habe.


dass - that. You will find a more detailed explanation and more examples on how to use dass in German in another post.


Ich denke, dass Brexit Großbritannien schadet.


um….zu - in order to

Ich bin hier, um Deutsch zu lernen.


There are other conjunctions that are used with the infinitive at the end of the sentence rather than the conjugated verb, such as ohne...zu and statt...zu.


damit - so that

Ich bin hier, damit ich Deutsch lerne.


Another confusing pair of subordinate clause conjunctions are"um...zu" and "damit". Check out my post on the difference.


indem- by

Sie erweitert ihren Wortschatz, indem sie regelmäßig Vokabeln lernt.


während- during/while

Während du arbeitest, koche ich etwas.


solange- as long as

Solange wir weiter an unserem Deutsch arbeiten, machen wir Fortschritte.


seit/seitdem- since

Seit er 5 Jahre alt war, lebte er in Deutschland.


Confusingly, some German words such as "seit" can follow different grammar rules.


bis- until

Bis ich einschlafe, lese ich oft etwas.


bevor- before

Ich lese ein Buch, bevor ich schlafe.


nachdem – after doing something

Ich gehe ins Büro, nachdem die Deutschstunde beendet ist.


Many students of the language get confused about the difference between nachdem and danach, as well as bevor and vorher. Check out my post on the topic if you're one of them. In a separate blog post, you can also learn about je...desto/umso, which many struggle with.


Coordinating conjunctions


The following words, for which I use the acronym ADUSO, link two main clauses and do not change the word order. They are therefore called coordinating conjunctions.


aber - but

Ich arbeite hart, aber ich entspanne mich im Urlaub.


denn – because

Ich gehe zum Deutschunterricht, denn Deutsch macht Spaß.


und – and

Ich spiele Gitarre und Klavier (no comma necessary—enumeration).


sondern – but (following a negative statement). Read our post about the difference between aber and sondern.

Ich trinke keinen Tee, sondern einen Kaffee.


oder – or

Am Wochenende arbeite ich oder ich faulenze.



I hope this summation of German syntax rules clarifies German word order. To find out more about our German lessons and small German classes in London check our website.


On our German language learning blog "Auf Deutsch, bitte!", you will find comprehensive explanations of German grammar- from adjective declensions in German, the German cases, German pronouns generally and mir vs. mich in particular and many other topics. So check out our posts.


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