German Word Order: How to Avoid a Common Mistake
In this article I’d like to talk about a mistake that I hear every day, even from advanced speakers. I think it’s quite easy to avoid this mistake, you just have to be aware of it, and it makes a big difference. But first, let’s have a look at the word order in a typical German sentence.
Subject – Verb – Object
The subject is in the first position, the verb is in the second position and then comes the object. To refresh your memory, the subject usually performs an action, the verb is the action itself and the object is affected by the action.
Ich esse einen Apfel.
(I eat an apple)
Du kaufst ein Buch.
(You buy a book)
You can see that the subject is in position number 1, and the verb is in position number 2. That’s the important rule and I repeat: The verb is ALWAYS in the second position. That’s what I would like you to keep in mind.
OK let’s have a look at another sentence structure:
Adverb – Verb – Subject – Object
This one does not start with the subject, but with an adverb. And do you see what’s happening here? The verb and the subject switched places. Why? Because according to the rule the verb has to be in the second position. So the adverb is here in position number one, the verb in position number 2, then comes the subject – it has to be together with the verb, either right before or right after it, and then the object.
Heute esse ich einen Apfel.
(Today I eat an apple)
But what we actually say is ‘Today eat I an apple’, with the verb in the second position.
The mistake that I’m talking about is that many German learners do not switch the subject and the verb when the sentence doesn’t start with the subject and they say “Heute ich esse einen Apfel” in the usual English word order. But unfortunately that is wrong.
Mein kleiner Bruder isst eine Pizza.
(My little brother eats a pizza)
I chose this example to show you that the first position in a sentence doesn’t necessarily mean the first word in a sentence. Because here the subject is ‘My little brother’ (Mein kleiner Bruder) and it has 3 words. The verb – isst – is in position number two. And now let’s see what happens when I start the sentence with ‘Manchmal’ (sometimes).
Manchmal isst mein kleiner Bruder eine Pizza.
(Sometimes my little brother eats a pizza).
The verb and the subject switched places so that – according to the rule – the verb stays in the second position in the sentence.
Du hast einen Orangensaft getrunken.
(You drank an orange juice)
This is an example using the past tense, and the conjugated verb here is ‘hast’.
And if we want to emphasize that you drank the orange juice yesterday, we say:
Gestern hast du einen Orangensaft getrunken.
(Yesterday you drank an orange juice). And again, ‘hast’ and ‘du’ switch position.
The same rule is also applied to modal verbs, such as können (can, or -to be able):
Ich kann die Berge sehen.
(I can see the mountains)
Normalerweise kann ich die Berge sehen.
(Usually I can see the mountains)
Here, the change in the word order is triggered because the sentence starts with ‘usually’ and not with the subject.
OK so far we’ve seen only simple sentences, now let’s have a look at some more complex ones, with subordinate clauses:
Ich lese ein Buch.
(I read a book – or – I’m reading a book, in German there is no difference)
Ich mag Geschichte, deshalb lese ich ein Buch.
(I like history, therefore I’m reading a book)
You see that in the subordinate clause the verb and the subject switched places so that the verb remains in the second position.
Sie geht spazieren.
(She’s going for a walk)
Es regnet, trotzdem geht sie spazieren.
(It’s raining, nevertheless she’s going for a walk)
And again, the same thing happens in the subordinate clause, ‘geht’ comes before ‘sie’.
Du spielst Tennis. Du spielst Basketball.
(You play tennis. You play basketball)
Zuerst spielst du Tennis, dann spielst du Basketball.
(First you play tennis, then you play basketball)
We connected the two sentences with first and then – These words take the first position and that’s why the verb has to follow immediately in order to stay in the second position.
As you know, the exception proves the rule and that’s why I’d like to show you some exceptions:
The words aber (but), und (and) and denn (because) are considered position “zero” and do NOT change the word order:
Er kommt aus London, aber er studiert in Zürich.
(He comes from London, but he studies in Zurich)
Sie spielt Gitarre und er singt in einer Band.
(She plays the guitar and he sings in a band)
Ich rufe dich an, denn ich möchte mit dir sprechen.
(I’m calling you because I’d like to talk to you)
In all three examples the word order remains first subject, then verb.
And last but not least I’d like to mention that there is another exception. Some words, such as ‘dass’ (that), ‘weil’ (because) and ‘als’ (when in the past) send the verb to the end of the sentence rather than just switching the position with the subject.
So basically the most important insight that I would like you to take from this article is that when you don’t start a sentence with the subject, you need to change the word order. If you do this, it shows that you’re really taking your German seriously.
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