German Word Order Explained

Many German students struggle to understand and apply German syntax rules. In what follows, I'm going to explain word order in main and subordinate clauses and provide examples. I hope this makes the topic a little less daunting.


The most important difference between main and subordinate clauses in German is the position of the verbs. In a main clause (an independent sentence that can stand on its own feet), 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 and then moving to more complex ones:


a) Main clauses

Subject + verb + Time/place

Ich arbeite morgen.

Subject + verb + Time/place + Direct Object (AKK)

Ich habe morgen eine Klasse.

time before place after the verb

Subject + 1st verb + Time/place + Direct Object (AKK) + (neg) + 2nd verb

Ich werde morgen Fußball spielen.

Ich kann ihre Reservierung nicht finden.

1st verb is the conjugated verb, 2nd verb always at the end of the sentence

Subject + 1st verb + Indirect object (DAT) + Time/place + Direct object (AKK) + 2nd verb

Paul stellt der Frau die Tasse auf den Tisch

Ich kann dir morgen das Buch geben.


Indirect object - DAT, usually people to whom something is being given or for whom something is being done.

Direct object - AKK, usually things that are given or done (see cases below). For more information on the German cases, 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.


Time/place + Verb + Subject

Morgen arbeite ich nicht.

Außerdem mögen die Deutschen Bier.


Inverted word order if emphasis on first word, usually time/place. Whenever a German sentence does not begin with the subject but with anything else, the verb is still in 2nd position but the subject moves in 3rd. The connectors/inventors, which you’ll find below, fall in the same category and have the same effect on word order.

Common words that cause inversion (also known as “main clause connectors" as they stylistically link two main clauses):

deshalb / also - Therefore, so

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

doch/jedoch

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

manchmal – sometimes

Ich bin oft pünktlich. Manchmal verspäte ich mich.

dort – there

Hier steht ein Schrank. Dort steht ein Tisch.

Danach- afterwards

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


Let's look at subordinate clauses now.


b) Subordinate clauses

Conjunctions

Conjunctions connect main and subordinate clauses. Normally, the main clause comes first and the subordinate clause comes last. The conjunction is then straight after the comma. Subordinating conjunctions send auxiliary (conjugated verbs) to the very end of the subordinate clause, while the rest of the word order stays intact.

[main clause], Conjunction + Subject (after conjunction!) + Time/place + … + Verb + Conjugated Verb (last!).

Ich weiß, dass ich dir gestern in der Schule das Buch gegeben habe. (scenario number 1)

However, for reasons of emphasis, the subordinate clause can also come first, but then subject and verb invert in the main clause.

Dass ich dir das Buch gegeben habe, weiß ich noch genau. (scenario number 2)

Scenario number 1) ____________MAIN CLAUSE_____________ , -------------SUBORDINATE CLAUSE------------

Scenario number 2) ----------------SUBORDINATE CLAUSE--------, _VERB__________________MAIN CLAUSE________

The difference between the above scenarios is that, in scenario number 2, the verb needs to be at the start of your main clause because otherwise the verb would not be in 2nd position. The first position is occupied by the subordinate clause.


List of 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.

,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.

,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.

,obwohl – although

Ich lerne Vokabeln, obwohl ich wenig Zeit habe.

,dass - that (stating one’s opinion, i.e. I think that…, nothing to do with this). You will find a more detailed explanation and more examples on how to use dass in German in another post.

,um….zu + infinitive (end of sentence) - in order to

Ich bin hier, um Deutsch zu lernen.

,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.

,nachdem – after (think “after doing something, I did something else)

Ich gehe ins Büro, nachdem die Deutschstunde beendet ist.

[main clause], nachdem (PP) die Deutschstunde (OBJ) beendet (PP) ist (AUX V).

Do not confuse with nachdem with nach as preposition:

Nach (PREP) der Deutschstunde gehe ich ins Büro.


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.


Finally, the following words, for which I use the acronym ADUSO, link two main clauses and do not change the word order:

Linking words (also known as “coordinating conjunctions”)

main clause + comma + main clause


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

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 my German lessons, check my website below.

On our German language blog, you will find posts 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, separable verbs in German, on relative clauses in German, the difference between language levels from a1 to c2, on how to master verbs with prepositions in German, a review of online German dictionaries, and my answer to the question if it is possible to learn German in one year. There, you will also find our top 5 tips on how to improve your German, a post about the best German songs to improve your German, on how to avoid the most common mistakes in the German language.


You might also be interested in my Ultimate Guide to Learning German. Check it out to learn how to learn German fast.



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