There are TWO meta principles that underpin German sentence structure and then FOUR sentence structure patterns that are derived from them.
Understanding the nuts and bolts of German sentence structure is not only crucial, but also surprisingly straightforward (<– and yet it’s rarely explicitly taught).
Once you understand WHY German sentence structure is what it is, it will make SO MUCH SENSE why you come across sentences built using one of the 4 patterns (<– exhaustive!).
Get excited for German sentence structure to be demystified and to be empowered to actually then properly construct German sentences yourself!
Ready to dive in?! 😀
- how sentence structure works in English vs. German
- why the position of German verbs is crucial
- how the German case system conveys meaning
- the FOUR sentence structure patterns German uses
The Basics of German Sentence Structure.
At the most rudimentary level, a complete sentence is comprised of a SUBJECT NOUN and its conjugated VERB — in other words, someone or something who/that is doing or being something.
A man eats. The glass shattered. Those women are singing. Flowers wilt.
These are all sentences that are as basic as it gets: subject + verb.
If this were all we ever had to deal with, it would be a cinch! But, of course, sentences get longer and more complicated than this (<– especially in German!) and that’s when we need some more help.
On a meta-level, the most important words in any sentence (in English or German or otherwise) are NOUNS.
As you know if you’ve read my guides on the German case system, I like to dissect German sentence structure by putting all nouns into what I call ‘slots’, which then also contain other types of words that get lumped together with nouns.
The first step in understanding German sentence structure (and being able to construct your own sentences!) is to understand the correct order of the SLOTS that any given sentence may use.
And, lucky for us, there is a STANDARD SENTENCE STRUCTURE (<– a default order to the ‘slots’) that is actually shared by both English and German!!!
Before we talk about that ^^ (and the sentence structure patterns that deviate from the norm), we need to make sure we’re on the same page about WHY correct sentence structure is important in the first place (<– and we’ll get pumped about some of the fancy word ordering you’ll learn to do in German — it’s fun!).
Why is sentence structure important?
How you structure a sentence is vital because it impacts the MEANING you convey.
Check out this sentence: The man gives the dog the bone.
We know exactly who is giving what and to whom.
But if we alter the sentence structure — that is, change the word order around (e.g. The dog gives the man the bone)– the meaning of the sentence is also changed.
Sometimes, we can shuffle the word order around to the point that the meaning no longer even makes sense, as in The bone gives the man the dog.
Of course, these examples are in English (<– always the right starting point for understanding German grammar!) … but how does sentence structure function in German??
English and German sentence structure, compared
As the above examples demonstrate, English uses very rigid sentence structure to clearly convey meaning. It’s the very particular, very limited word order possibilities that do the heavy lifting when it comes to communicating who is who and what is what in an English sentence.
This is a crucial point to understand about English because — as you will discover in detail — sentence structure can work very differently in German.
In direct contrast to English, German has more sentence structure options (i.e. relatively flexible word order) because there are other grammar elements used to clearly communicate who is who and what is what in a sentence (for more info, see my guide on Declensions!).
For example, in German, we can say The man gives the dog the bone in three different constellations all while the same meaning stays intact:
Der Mann gibt dem Hund den Knochen.
Dem Hund gibt der Mann den Knochen.
Den Knochen gibt der Mann dem Hund.
I am admittedly a grammar nerd, but stuff like this is rather thrilling to me!
Again, the English equivalents of the 2nd and 3rd variations of the original sentence either change in meaning or become nonsensical, respectively. But in German, it not only works, it’s very common to see these alternative sentence structures used (more on why in a little bit).
Since you’re going to come across lots of German sentences that are ordered ‘strangely’ (from an English standpoint), you need to understand what the German sentence structure options are and when & how to use them.
So, now, the first step is to understand the STANDARD sentence structure used in both English and German (<– woohoo!).
Standard sentence structure pattern
The basic sentence structure pattern — so, the default pattern used in both English and German — can be most simplified to SUBJECT NOUN + VERB + EVERYTHING ELSE. 😉
SUBJECT + VERB + MORE NOUNS.
Frank buys a present.
Frank buys Sally a present.
Frank buys Sally a coffee every September.
Frank buys Sally a coffee every September for her birthday.
The big takeaway here is that we can have MULTIPLE slots that fall under the ‘MORE NOUNS’ section in any given sentence! This will become especially relevant when we talk about the TRANSPOSED sentence structure pattern below.
First, let’s look at an overview of ALL the exhaustive sentence structure patterns used in German:
FOUR German sentence structure patterns
These are the FOUR German sentences patterns:
We mentioned the standard sentence structure already. Below, we’ll take a cursory look at the inverted and transposed patterns. First, though, let’s talk about the PRINCIPLES that underpin German sentence structure so that we can master these patterns efficiently and effectively!
Learn German word order smarter, not harder
There are TWO principles at play in the standard sentence structure.
It’s valuable to know what they are because then you can clearly see how the remaining patterns #s 2-4 in some way bend or break the rules.
As always, understanding WHY German grammar is what it is is the first step to understanding HOW to correctly use German grammar!
PRINCIPLE #1: The subject noun (nominative case) MUST be next to the verb.
PRINCIPLE #2: The verb MUST be the 2nd element (a.k.a. in the 2nd position).
Do you see how these 2 principles are perfectly reflected in our simplified standard sentence pattern?
SUBJECT + VERB + MORE NOUNS
Now it’s time to look at examples and talk about HOW you can know WHEN to use WHICH German sentence structure pattern!
When & how to use German word order
The short of the story is that the STANDARD sentence structure is what you default to unless you meet specific criteria that REQUIRE you to use pattern 2, 3, or 4 (<– all can be categorized as ‘exception’ or ‘deviant’ patterns).
PATTERN 2 is used primarily when you’re asking a yes / no question.
PATTERN 3 is used when there’s an element in the sentence you want to emphasize.
PATTERN 4 is used in a dependent, a.k.a. subordinating clause.
That established, we’ll look here at some details of patterns 2 & 3 (and save #4 for this guide).
Sentence Structure Pattern #2: inverted
OK, let’s revisit our standard pattern, but expand it slightly before we use it as our springboard for the remaining patterns:
Standard German sentence structure: SUBJECT + VERB + MORE NOUNS + MORE VERBS.
The 2nd pattern (inverted) very simply swaps around the SUBJECT and VERB, primarily when asking a YES / NO question:
VERB + SUBJECT + MORE NOUNS + MORE VERBS.
Spielst du Klavier?
Möchtest du mitfahren?
Hättest du deine Oma vom Flughafen anrufen?
Notice in these examples the fact that the ‘more nouns’ and ‘more verbs’ are OPTIONAL (<– remember: a sentence may be as simple as JUST subject + verb!) and the one may be present without the other.
Sentence Structure Pattern #3: transposed
OK! So, this pattern swaps around the MORE NOUNS and the SUBJECT:
Standard German sentence structure: SUBJECT + VERB + MORE NOUNS + MORE VERBS.
Transposed German sentence structure: MORE NOUNS + VERB + SUBJECT + MORE VERBS.
This pattern is often used in German (but rarely in English and with greater restrictions) and specifically in order to EMPHASIZE a ‘MORE NOUNS’ element (<– more below).
Look again at this standard sentence pattern example from earlier:
Ich hätte meine Oma vom Flughafen angerufen, aber …
(I would have called my grandmother from the airport, but …)
Now look at it with a TRANSPOSED structure:
- Meine Oma hätte ich vom Flughafen angerufen, aber …
- Vom Flughafen hätte ich meine Oma angerufen, aber …
We have TWO options in German because we can take EACH of the ‘MORE NOUNS’ individual elements and move them (always just ONE at a time) to the FRONT of the sentence in order to emphasize that element.
#1 emphasizes that we would have called our grandmother (not someone else).
#2 emphasizes that we would have called from the airport (not from somewhere else).
NOTE that in English, we could accomplish these same purposes by still using the standard sentence structure and simply inflecting our voices differently in order to emphasize either ‘MORE NOUNS’ element.
NOTE furthermore that precisely because German makes use of this transposed sentence structure, inflection stays neutral!
We can use the transposed sentence structure with yes/no questions, too, which generally expresses incredulity:
Klavier spielst du?! (not some other instrument)
Deine Oma hättest du vom Flughafen angerufen?! (not someone else)
Vom Flughafen hättest du deine Oma angerufen?! (not from somewhere else)
The transposed sentence structure is used frequently in German and there is a common mistake that English-speakers often make (<– keep reading!)
What are ‘more nouns’ & ‘more verbs’?
Before we look at examples, let’s quickly define what can be included under the headings ‘more nouns’ and ‘more verbs’:
- ‘more nouns’ can include a direct object noun (accusative case), an indirect object noun (dative case), and/or nouns that are part of prepositional phrases in either the accusative or dative case.
- ‘more verbs’ can include infinitives, past participles, or (in German) separable prefixes.
OK, this is a bit dry and heady, so let’s look at an example to make this more tangible!
The man wants to eat cake.
Der Mann will Kuchen essen.
English & German Sentence Structure Nuances
So, notice the standard sentence structure used above ^^ in both English & German, but with one important difference at play: English & German SWITCH the order of the ‘more nouns’ and ‘more verbs’!
English Standard Sentence Structure: SUBJECT + VERB + MORE VERBS + MORE NOUNS.
German Standard Sentence Structure: SUBJECT + VERB + MORE NOUNS+ MORE VERBS.
Expanded ‘slot’ content
Notice below how we can expand the ‘slots’ with the nouns to include additional words (such as adjectives), but how this DOESN’T change our standard sentence structure!
The tall, rich, depressive man wants to eat a tiny piece of deliciously moist chocolate cake.
Der große, reiche, depressive Mann will ein kleines Stück fantastisch saftigen Schokokuchen essen.
What I’m not telling you
So, now, let’s address the elephant in the room by saying that…
1) YES, there are still more elements to the ‘everything else’ than just more verbs or more nouns and
2) YES, there are super-nuanced details involved in the precise ordering of especially the slots of ‘more nouns’ when you have multiple ‘slots’ as in the following example:
I would have called my grandmother from the airport, but …
Ich hätte meine Oma vom Flughafen angerufen, aber …
but, in English, not …
I would have called from the airport my grandmother, but …
however, in German, that rearrangement is OK:
Ich hätte vom Flughafen meine Oma angerufen, aber …
We talk elsewhere about the other elements (e.g. adverbs and particles) and get into the nuances of word order here.
The absolute biggest mistake German-learners make when it comes to sentence structure is neglecting principle #2: the verb must be in the 2nd position of the sentence!
This is easy with the standard, default pattern because the order of the subject and verb are the same in German as in English — so our instincts serve us well there.
Example: The man sings a song.
It’s also OK with the inverted pattern used for asking questions (<– again, because it lines up with English), although students can struggle with which version of the present tense to use in German (<– there are 3 options in English, but just 1 in German and it’s not the same one that we prefer to use in English).
ENGLISH: Is the man singing a song?
GERMAN: ‘Sings the man a song?’
BUT … the transposed pattern! That’s where students get thrown off.
In English, we kinda sorta use the transposed pattern, but just with time adverbials:
At 10 AM I’m flying to Germany.
Tomorrow I’m flying to Germany.
Next week I’m flying to Germany.
But but!!! The big difference here is that AFTER the time adverbials, the word order remains SUBJECT + VERB, whereas in German, the subject and verb must be SWAPPED so that the verb remains in position #2!
Um 10 Uhr fliege ich nach Deutschland.
Morgen fliege ich nach Deutschland.
Nächste Woche fliege ich nach Deutschland.
German-learners are tempted to use the same word order as in English, which is terribly wrong:
Um 10 Uhr ich fliege nach Deutschland. Morgen ich fliege nach Deutschland. Nächste Woche ich fliege nach Deutschland.