Wortstellung mit Konjunktionen: German word order and a semi-formal grammar

This document is an extension of the excellent work done by Nancy Thuleen at http://www.nthuleen.com/ This document is a Language Gym reference document. Language Gym is a Berlin based language training program that stresses patterns in grammar and speaking through storytelling.

You’ve noticed by now that German can have very different word order than English. Let’s review what we know so far about word order, and then add some new rules.

Key 1a: This key is ‘typed’ so as to be as simple to use as possible. It is ‘version 1’ and will no doubt be refined.

s: subject [noun or a pronoun]
vc: conjugated verb
v: verb, unconjugated or past participle
vf: verb fragment (separating prefix) e.g. ab, aus, auf
obj2: row 2 object, AKK, direct obj [noun or a pronoun], obj2*: an object introduced by an AKK preposition e.g. ‘für dich’
obj3: row 3 object, DAT, indirect obj [noun or a pronoun] obj3*: an object introduced by a DAT preposition e.g. ‘mit ihm’
t: time, m: manner, pl: place : all these elements are in fact adverbs or adverb phases.
adv: an adverb that modifies a verb : e.g. gut geschlafen
adj: adjective (blau, grau, groß, kaput)

1. In normal statements, the conjugated verb is ALWAYS the second element in the sentence. This rule will never change, and it is very strict, so get used to following it! Do remember that an ‘element’ may consist of more than one word: ‘heute Morgen’ for instance, is just one element, as is ‘gestern um 3 Uhr nachmittags’ — both are simply (adverbial) time elements, even though they consist of several words.

A corollary to this rule of “V2” is that almost any element OTHER than the verb can move to the first place in a sentence. If you want to emphasize the time when something happened, start with the time element; if it’s the object that’s important, start with that. But in all cases, no matter what starts the sentence, the verb will be the second element. If the subject is not the first element, then it will be third — the verb and the subject always need to stay close together.

s vc, t, m, pl
Wir gehen heute Abend mit Freunden ins Kino.

t, vc, s, m, pl
Heute Abend gehen wir mit Freunden ins Kino.

s vc obj2 t v
Er hat den neuen Film schon gesehen.

obj2 vc s t v
Den neuen Film hat er schon gesehen.

Please note: in English, we often set off introductory elements with a comma: “Unfortunately, he came too late.” No commas are used in German for these types of statements, it’s simply: “Leider ist er zu spät gekommen.” The only exception here are the words Ja and Nein in answers to questions, which are set off by commas and do not count as ‘elements’ in the sentence: “Ja, ich habe dein Buch.”

2) In a yes/no question, the verb will be in first position. There’s no way around this: if you’re asking a yes/no question, it needs to start with the verb. The subject will be the second element.

vc s t pl ?
Kommt ihr heute zum Unterricht?

vc s t pl v ?
Bist du am Wochenende nach Chicago gefahren?

key 1b
all of key 1a +
qw: question word [wer, was, wo, wann, warum, wie]
?: shows the sentence is a question
neg: negation [nicht, kein* etc.]

3) In a question that has a question word (e.g. who, what, where, when …), the question word is in first position, and the verb is second. The subject is almost always in third position.

qw vc s pl v
Wann kommt der Flug aus München an?

qw vc s pl v
Wen hast du auf der Strasse gesehen?

key 1c
all of key 1b +
c: conjunction
two kinds of conjunction are introducted here c0: co-ordinating conjuction and cN: a subordinating conjunction

4) When connecting sentences with coordinating conjunctions (und, aber, oder, sondern, denn), no change is made in word order from the original. It’s as if the conjunctions are just dropped into the middle of two sentences, so whatever order they had when standing alone, they retain:

s vc v , c0 s vc obj2 v
Michael hat ferngesehen, und ich habe Musik gehört.

qw vc s , c0 qw vc s obj3*
Wer bist du, und was willst du von mir?

5) With modal verbs (können, sollen, möchten, etc.), the modal verb is conjugated to match the subject, and takes the normal verb position (second in statements, first in questions). The infinitive (main) verb moves to the very end of the sentence, with no exceptions.

s vc t p v
Ich kann jeden Abend bis zwei Uhr vor dem Fernseher sitzen.
s(Ich) vc(kann) t(jeden Abend bis zwei Uhr) pl(vor dem Fernseher) v(sitzen).

vc s t obj2 m v
Möchtest du morgen eine Tasse Kaffee mit mir trinken?

6) Similar to #5, in the perfect tense, the helping verb (haben or sein) is conjugated to match the subject, and takes the normal verb position (second in statements, first in questions). The participle (ge-form) of the main verb moves to the very end of the sentence, with no exceptions.

vc s t m pl v ?
Hast du gestern Abend mit deinen Freunden im Restaurant gegessen?

s vc t m pl v
Ich bin gestern zu viel um den Campus gelaufen.
Ich | bin | gestern | zu viel | um den Campus | gelaufen.

7)Separable prefixes are a little confusing to explain, but generally easy to use. The prefix is removed from the verb when it is conjugated, and the prefix is moved to the end of the sentence. When the verb appears in the infinitive form (for instance with a modal verb), then the prefix is not removed, it stays attached. And in the participle (ge-form) of the verb, it is attached before the -ge-.

s vc obj2 v, c0 s vc obj2 vf
Du räumst dein Zimmer auf, und ich nehme den Müll (=trash) aus.

vc s obj2 pl v ?
Soll ich Wein für die Party mitbringen?

vc s t pl v
Hast du schon dein Zimmer aufgeräumt?

That’s what you should know already. Let’s practice a little to solidify these rules. Make complete sentences out of the following elements:

1. s vc t neg
fernsehen / ich / heute Abend / nicht .

2. s vc m pl v
nach Chicago / Claudia / möchten / mit uns / mitfahren .

* es gibt: an expression: is there/there is: here ‘es’ is the subject’ and ‘ein Quiz’ is an obj2.

3. vc s obj2 t
geben / es / ein Quiz / morgen ?

Now we need to learn a major component of German word order: subordinating conjunctions. Unlike the conjunctions you already know (und, aber,etc.), these new conjunctions will change the word order in your sentences, so you always need to be aware of them. The subordinating conjunctions that you need to know for now are:

‘subordinating’ conjunctions are referred to as: cN

dass: that
weil: because
ob if: whether

There are many more conjunctions like this in German, which you will pick up along the way. Some other frequent conjunctions are as follows.

wenn: when/if
bevor: before
damit: so that
obwohl: although
während: while
bis: until

When you use any of these conjunctions, the conjugated verb that follows the conjunction will move to the very end of the clause — even AFTER any infinitives or participles. Observe the following examples:

vc s, cN s t obj2 v
Weißt du, ob wir heute Unterricht haben?

s vc neg v , cN s adj v
Ich kann nicht kommen, weil mein Auto kaputt ist.

s vc, cN s t v vc
Er sagt, dass ich zu spät gekommen bin.

s vc neg , cN s adj v vc
Ich glaube nicht, dass ich gut kochen kann.

Please note that the commas are required in German. The comma always occurs immediately before the conjunction.

There are two pitfalls to be avoided here. One is forgetting to move the verb — just pay attention to the conjunction, and move the verb appropriately. But the other pitfall is moving the WRONG verb: notice that in the part of the sentence BEFORE the conjunction, the word order is completely normal. It’s only the part of the sentence AFTER the conjunction that changes at all.

Let’s try a few simple examples. Combine the following sentences using the conjunctions indicated. In all cases, the first sentence is merely repeated as an introduction (with a comma after it).

1. s v. s v t > s v , cN s t v
Er sagt. Er kommt heute um 10 Uhr. (dass)

2. s v. s v pl > s v , cN s pl v
Sie fragt. Du bleibst zu Hause. (ob)

3. s v obj2 . s v t > s v obj2 . s t v
Ich nehme den Bus. Es regnet heute. (weil)

Now, what happens with modals and participles? As you saw in the examples above, the modal verb or helping verb is the one that moves to the end; everything else in the sentence, including the other main verbs, stay in the same place. So let’s try a few sentences with modals and participles.

1. Er kann nicht kommen. Er muss lernen. (weil)

2. Ich weiß nicht. Ich kann mit euch gehen. (ob)

3. Sie hat gesagt. Sie hat ihre Hausaufgaben nicht gemacht. (dass)

The last thing to add in are separable-prefixes. When a verb with a prefix is moved to the end of the sentence, the separable prefix is reattached, e.g.

Er sagt, dass er den Wein mitbringt.

Ich weiß nicht, ob er sein Zimmer aufräumt.

Try a few sentences with separable-prefixes.

1. s v adj . s v obj2 vf > s v adj , cN s obj2 v

Es ist gut. Du rufst mich an. (dass)

2. s v neg . s v pl m > s v neg , cN s pl m v

Wir wissen nicht. Sie leben in einem Haus zusammen. (ob)

3. s v adj . s v t > s v adj , cN s t v

Ich bin froh. Ihr kommt vorbei. (dass)

Finally, let’s expand by adding a few more conjunctions. You will recognize these words as “question words” that you’ve already been using in asking questions. However, when you use them in reported questions (‘She asked who I was’), then they function just like the subordinating conjunctions above.

wann: when
warum: why
was: what
wer: who
wo: where
wie: how
wie viel: how much

When combined into a reported question, the verb following the conjunction is moved to the end, just like with the conjunctions weil, dass, ob, etc. Observe:

s v , qw s pl v
Er fragt, wie das Wetter in Berlin ist.

Let’s try some reported questions. Take the questions here and turn them into reported questions by prefacing them with the statement given.

qw v s > s vc v , qw s v

»Wie viel kostet das Buch?«
 Ich möchte wissen, …

This document was written to support Language Gym — Berlin. A program to learn English based on grammar patterns and oral story telling. That is version 1 of the semi-formal grammar for German word order. Comments and improvements to peterjmerrick@gmail.com. Peter Merrick PhD Software Engineering, BSc. Hons Computer Science University of East Anglia. If you like this work please subscribe. Visit the website to join the program or the mailing list. Thanks.