German Word Order (Syntax/die Wortstellung)


This summarized version compiled from 4 pages at:  Minor editing to streamline, clarify and reformat, for my own use.

Ich sehe dich.
Der alte Mann
kommt heute nach Hause.
Der alte Mann kommt heute an.
Der alte Mann ist gestern angekommen.
Der alte Mann will heute nach Hause kommen.
Heute kommt der alte Mann nach Hause.
Vor zwei Tagen habe ich mit ihm gesprochen.

No matter which element begins a German declarative sentence (a statement), the verb is always the second element. The subject will either come first or immediately after the verb if the subject is not the first element. This is a simple, hard and fast rule. In a statement (not a question) the verb always comes second. If you don't remember anything else about word order, remember that the verb is always in second place.

Nein, der alte Mann kommt nicht nach Hause.
Maria, ich kann heute nicht kommen.
Wie gesagt, das kann ich nicht machen.

This rule applies to sentences and phrases that are independent clauses. The only verb-second exception is for dependent or subordinate clauses. In subordinate clauses the verb always comes last. (Although in today's spoken German, this rule is often ignored.)

One other exception to this rule: interjections, exclamations, names, certain adverbial phrases - usually set off by a comma. Here, the initial word or phrase (set off by a comma) comes first, but does not alter the verb-second rule.

TIME, MANNER, PLACE (Wann - Wie - Wo)


Another area where German syntax may vary from that of English is the position of expressions of time (wann?), manner (wie?) and place (wo?). In English we would say, "Erik is coming home on the train today." English word order in such cases is place, manner, time... the exact opposite of German. In English it would sound odd to say, "Erik is coming today on the train home," but that is precisely how German wants it said: time, manner, place. "Erik kommt heute mit der Bahn nach Hause."

The only exception would be if you want to start the sentence with one of these elements for emphasis. Zum Beispiel: "Heute kommt Erik mit der Bahn nach Hause." (Emphasis on "today.") But even in this case, the elements are still in the prescribed order: time ("heute"), manner ("mit der Bahn"), place ("nach Hause"). If we start with a different element, the elements that follow remain in their usual order, as in: "Mit der Bahn kommt Erik heute nach Hause." (Emphasis on "by train" - not by car or plane.)

Substandard German: Some German-speakers these days ignore the verb-last rule, particularly with weil (because) and dass (that) clauses. You may hear something like "...weil ich bin müde" (because I'm tired), but it's not good German! One theory says this bad-German trend comes from the influence of English, but in any case it is not acceptable German. Your German should reflect the word order rules outlined on this page!

What is a subordinate clause? It is that part of a sentence—in English or German—that cannot stand by itself and is dependent on another part of the sentence, the main clause. That makes the clause subordinate. A subordinate clause is introduced by a subordinating conjunction (dass, ob, weil, wenn, usw.) or in the case of relative clauses, a relative pronoun (den, der, die, welche, usw.). The conjugated verb is placed at the end of a subordinate clause (“post position”).

Another thing you should know is that German sometimes prefers to avoid subordinate clauses by using alternatives, especially in spoken German. But that is another lesson we'll have to deal with in the future. In any case, you still need to know how German subordinate clauses work, since they are encountered frequently, especially in written and printed German, and in some common phrases.

Here are some examples of subordinate clauses in German and English, with the verb in red and the subordinate conjunction in blue. Notice that each German subordinate clause (in bold type) is set off by a comma. Also notice that the German word order is different from that of the English and that a subordinate clause may come first or last in a sentence.

CONJUNCTION FIRST, VERB LAST   German subordinate clause always starts with a subordinating conjunction and ends with the conjugated verb.
Subordinating Conjunctions
als - as, when
bevor - before
bis - until
da -as, since (because)
damit - so that, in order that
dass - that
ehe -before (re old Engl. "ere")
falls - in case
indem -while
nachdem -after
ob - whether, if
obgleich - although
obschon - although
obwohl - although
seit/seitdem - since (time)
sobald - as soon as
sodass / so dass - so that
solang(e) - as/so long as
trotzdem -despite the fact that
während - while, whereas
weil -because
wenn - if, whenever

Note: All of the interrogative words (wann, wer, wie, wo, usw.) can also be used as subordinating conjunctions.

Ich weiß nicht, wann er heute ankommt.
I don't know when he arrives today.

Als sie hinausging, bemerkte sie sofort die glühende Hitze.
When she went out, she immediately noticed the intense heat.

Es gibt eine Umleitung, weil die Straße repariert wird.
There's a detour because the road is being repaired.

Das ist die Dame, die wir gestern sahen.
That's the lady (that/whom) we saw yesterday.

It is always set off from the main clause by a comma, whether it comes before or after the main clause. The other sentence elements, such as time, manner, place, that we discussed in Part One fall into the normal order. The ONE thing you must remember is that when a sentence starts with a subordinate clause, as in the second example above, the very first word after the comma (before the main clause) MUST be the verb! In the example above, the verb bemerkte was that first word. (Note the differences between the English and German word order in that same example.)

Another type of subordinate clause is the relative clause, which is introduced by a relative pronoun. (As in the previous English sentence!) Both relative clauses and subordinate clauses with a conjunction have the same word order. The last example in the sentence pairs above is actually a relative clause. A relative clause explains or further identifies a person or thing in the main clause.

One important aspect of learning to deal with subordinate clauses is to be familiar with the subordinating conjunctions that introduce them.

All of the subordinating conjunctions listed in this chart require the conjugated verb to go at the end of the clause they introduce.  Another technique for learning them is to learn the ones that are NOT subordinating, since there are fewer of those. The coordinating conjunctions (with normal word oder) are: aber, denn, entweder/oder (either/or), weder/noch (neither/nor), and und.

Some of the subordinating conjunctions can be confused with their second identity as prepositions (bis, seit, während), but this is usually not a big problem. The word als is also used in comparisons (größer als, bigger than), in which case it is not a subordinating conjunction. As always, you have to look at the context in which a word appears in a sentence.