German Word Order: Your Essential Guide

Just when German is starting to make sense, you’re thrown another curveball: the elements of German sentences can move around … a lot.

We’re not used to this! To our English brains, having words swap places in a sentence drastically changes what is being said (including the option of the final result being utter nonsense).

So, when we try to translate a German sentence word-for-word into English, we can end up with some wonky, confusing sentences. It’s easy to feel lost, fast.

Thankfully, there are some handy principles and patterns that govern German word order. There are just FOUR sentence patterns used and a handful of rules governing other word order nuances.

You’ll learn:

  • how word order works in English vs. German
  • the correct positioning of German ‘slots’
  • what clauses are and why it matters
  • why ‘time manner place’ is too simplistic (but the real rule is easier!)
  • when & how to use the subordinating sentence pattern
 
 

Section 1 – The Basics:
Getting the hang of German word order.

The word order differences between English and German are due to these languages belonging to entirely different categories of language — analytic and inflected, respectively.

English uses very rigid word order because it must, in lieu of other grammar components which were erased from the language over the centuries.

But German has relatively flexible word order because it can — certain grammar elements, i.e. the case system & declensions, make that possible!

So, what is word order exactly and how does it function in English vs. German?

What is word order?

‘Word order’ refers to a set of rules that determine how we can properly construct sentences in order to convey our desired meaning.

As surely comes as no surprise at this point, there are different word order patterns in English vs. German. As per usual, English has simpler sentence structure options while the possibilities in German are more numerous and complex.

While this means that there’s, again, some new principles to learn in order to master German sentence structure, I personally really appreciate the additional creativity of German sentences and I hope you’ll learn to find it fun, too!

On a meta-level, there are FOUR word order patterns used for sentences as a whole and then additional rules governing the word order of particular elements within the sentence.

Here are the four patterns:

  1. standard
  2. inverted
  3. transposed
  4. subordinated
 

In order to understand the super-nuanced details of word order, we need to first take a step back and afford ourselves a bird’s eye view of these meta German sentence structure patterns (<– if you haven’t already read this ‘starter guide’ to German word order, stop and read this first before continuing here!).

As always, you can leverage your advantages as an adult learner of German by comparing English & German grammar structures, so …

English & German Word Order, Compared

Check out these examples of German sentences and their word-for-word English translations:

Pattern #1 (Standard): Ich wollte meine Oma anrufen.
(I wanted to call my grandma.)

Pattern #2 (Inverted): Wollte ich meine Oma anrufen
(‘Wanted I my grandma to call?’)

Pattern #3 (Transposed): Meine Oma wollte ich anrufen
(‘My grandma wanted I to call.’)

Pattern #1 + #4 (Standard + Subordinating): Ich wollte meine Oma anrufen, weil ich sie liebe!
(I wanted to call my grandma ‘because I her love!’)

WHOA. Notice how it’s ONLY pattern #1 that translates cleanly into English. When we translate patterns #2-4 word-for-word, the English versions sound very weird. Let’s look at this more closely!

Pattern #1: Standard

The standard pattern in either English or German can be broken down into FOUR positions:

ENGLISH: SUBJECT + VERB + MORE VERBS + MORE NOUNS
GERMAN: SUBJECT + VERB + MORE NOUNS + MORE VERBS

NOTE: the ‘subject’, ‘verb’, and ‘more verbs’ are ALL color-coded pink because they make up a complete, standard clause (more on that below) and pink, specifically, is the color I use to denote the nominative case and the verb(s) paired with it.

Notice, too, of course, that German & English swap around the ‘more nouns’ and ‘more verbs’.

Example:

I want to bake my neighbor a cake.
Ich möchte meinem Nachbarn einen Kuchen backen.

NOTE: after the nominative [subject] noun is accounted for in English, any additional nouns will be objective nouns, which I color-code green (these split into the accusative and dative cases in German, which I color-code yellow and orange, respectively; but we’ll utilize the English concept of the objective case for now).

We can fancy-up these sentences with adverbs and adjectives that still fall under the general noun or verb headings:

I want to quickly bake my kind neighbor a large cake.
Ich möchte meinem netten Nachbarn schnell einen großen Kuchen backen.

Pattern #2: Inverted

Then, when we use the inverted pattern (#2), we swap around the subject noun & verb and change nothing else:

Do I want to bake my neighbor a cake?
Möchte ich meinem Nachbarn einen Kuchen backen?

Do I want to quickly bake my kind neighbor a large cake?
Möchte ich meinem netten Nachbarn schnell einen großen Kuchen backen?

NOTE: in English, we had to add the conjugated verbs ‘do’ in this instance. For more on the THREE types of present tense verbs in English (but just ONE in German!), read here.

Pattern #3: Transposed

We can use the transposed word order (three different ways!) in German with this particular example, but not in English!

Standard: Ich möchte meinem netten Nachbarn schnell einen großen Kuchen backen.
Transposed 1: Meinem netten Nachbarn möchte ich schnell einen großen Kuchen backen.
Transposed 2: Einen großen Kuchen möchte ich meinem netten Nachbarn schnell backen.
Transposed 3: Schnell möchte ich meinem netten Nachbarn einen großen Kuchen backen.

One key point here is that ONE element at a time (whether a ‘slot’ or an adverb) may be transposed to the front of the sentence for emphasis.

If you think in terms of there being FOUR positions in the sentence, then the 3rd one (‘more nouns’) can break down into 3A, 3B, 3C, etc., giving us these transposed word order formulas:

3A + Verb + Subject + 3B + 3C + More Verbs
3B + Verb + Subject + 3A + 3C + More Verbs
3C + Verb + Subject + 3A + 3B + More Verbs

The transposed pattern in German also includes us moving the subject to the other side of the verb — but note how this DOESN’T happen in English:

I’m visiting my grandma tomorrow → Tomorrow, I’m visiting my grandma.

This starts to touch upon 2 principles concerning the subject noun & the verb that underpin word order in both German and English (although the application is somewhat different!)

Pattern #4: Subordinating

In German, this word order pattern is headed up by either a relative pronoun (see chart below) or a subordinating conjunction (see list below).

Here is the pattern #4 formula:

Relative Pronoun / Subordinating Conjunction + Subject + More Nouns + More Verbs + Verb

Examples:

…die ich in der Stadt gesehen habe (…who/that I have seen in town)

…weil ich die Katze gesehen habe (…because I have seen the cat)

If we compare pattern #4 to our standard, there are interesting points to notice:

STANDARD: SUBJECT + VERB + MORE NOUNS + MORE VERBS.
SUBORDINATING: Relative Pronoun / Subordinating Conjunction + Subject + More Nouns + More Verbs + Verb

  1. the pronoun / conjunction is inserted in front of the subject
  2. the verb moves from position #2 to the very end of the pattern!

As you’ll see below when we go into even more detail, the subordinating pattern BREAKS the two rules that govern German word order.

Notice in looking at the same examples how this word order pattern in English isn’t so much a new pattern as simply our standard pattern, expanded:

…who/that I have seen in town
…because I have seen the cat

Here we have our standard pattern in English (SUBJECT + VERB + MORE VERBS + MORE NOUNS), with a relative pronoun or a conjunction simply tacked on in front.

Finally, observe that in both German and English, this pattern doesn’t stand alone independently. The … is for the REST of the sentence that the subordinating pattern has to piggyback onto in order to make sense.
This brings us to the more in-depth topic of clauses, which are important to understand in order to help you know when you need to use which of the 4 word order patterns.

Section 2: Putting it into practice
When & how to use German word order

Learn German word order smarter, not harder

German-learners don’t usually know that there are just the FOUR meta word order patterns, nor the underpinning principles that guide them. But you’re learning the smarter, not harder way!

Again, the four patterns used in sentences are:

  1. standard
  2. inverted
  3. transposed
  4. subordinated
 

We need to get slightly technical here by saying that a ‘sentence’ is comprised of one or more distinct sections, which are called CLAUSES.

The most basic clause possible involves simply a SUBJECT NOUN and a VERB, i.e. a person, place, idea, or thing that IS or DOES something:

STANDARD: The plane flies. Some bees are buzzing.
INVERTED: Is the plane flying? Are some bees buzzing?

At the heart of things, we’re STILL using this basic clause (subject + verb) even when we add in embellishments (e.g. adjectives & adverbs) to fancy-up the [standard] sentence:

His brand-new car positively shines! The bitingly cold northerly wind is blowing.

Sentence patterns #1, 2, and 3 all exist as just SINGLE clauses (regardless of how basic or fancy they may be), which can be split into up to FOUR positions, which we started looking at earlier:

ENGLISH: SUBJECT + VERB + MORE VERBS + MORE NOUNS.
GERMAN: SUBJECT + VERB + MORE NOUNS + MORE VERBS

So, even a longer sentence (that involves info in ALL of these four positions) is still a SINGLE clause:

English: I wanted to call my grandma.
German: Ich wollte meine Oma anrufen.

But we can ADD to these single clauses (making the sentence richer & more complex), by including pattern #4 ‘subordinating’ clauses:

Pattern #1: Ich wollte meine Oma anrufen. (I wanted to call my grandma.)
Pattern #1 + #4: Ich wollte meine Oma anrufen, weil ich sie liebe! (I wanted to call my grandma ‘because I her love!’)

We need to further sink our teeth into how to IDENTIFY & LABEL clauses within a sentence so that you can know which of the 4 patterns to use, when, and how!

How to dissect German word order

OK, so we’ve seen above that rather than letting German word order remain a perplexing enigma, we can parse out 4 exhaustive patterns used for German clauses:

  1. standard
  2. inverted
  3. transposed
  4. subordinated

Before we can really dig into these 4 patterns, we need to look more closely at clauses. Let’s check out an English example first:

The woman who I met yesterday told me that she and her family just moved to town.

OK, so, in this English sentence it’s VERY unclear where the separate clauses are. Precisely because the concept of clauses is generally not so important in English as it is in German, there’s no reason to make the different clauses stand out.

To help you out, here’s the same sentence now color-coded to show the different clauses:

The woman who I met yesterday told me that she and her family just moved to town.

So there are THREE clauses in this sentence: the pink (which includes the one green word), the red, and the maroon.

Do you know which one is the STANDARD clause? Right! The woman … told me.

Both the red and the green clauses are pattern #4 subordinating clauses.

Before we further analyze the sentence (which we’ll do in the ‘Digging Deeper’ section below), first note how German makes these same clauses very obvious because clauses — which, again, always use one of 4 patterns — are crucial elements in German sentences:

Die Frau, die ich gestern kennengelernt habe sagte mir, dass sie und ihre Familie neulich hierher umgezogen sind.

Do you see how, in German, the clauses are set apart by commas? Sweet! That’s going to make it a lot easier to identify separate clauses, which will then help us be able to determine which of the 4 word order patterns we need to use for each one.

But, first, we need to finally discuss the 2 principles that underpin our 4 patterns! Understanding the ‘whys’ will make it SO much easier to apply the patterns correctly.

Two German Word Order Rules

Here, again, are the FOUR German sentence structures (comprised of 1+ clauses!):

  1. standard
  2. inverted
  3. transposed
  4. subordinated
 

The key to understanding firstly the standard word order pattern and then the 3 deviations from it is recognizing either the changed position of the finite verb (i.e. the verb that has been conjugated to ‘agree’ with the subject noun) and/or the changed position of the subject noun.

These are the TWO underlying rules that each pattern either follows, bends or breaks:

  1. The subject noun (always in the nominative case) MUST be right next to the finite verb.
  2. The finite verb MUST be the 2ND element (or ‘in the 2nd position’) in the sentence.
 

What is the finite verb, you ask? Here is our standard formula with that specification added:

SUBJECT + FINITE VERB + MORE NOUNS + MORE VERBS

It’s helpful to note that in English, we have these EXACT SAME 2 rules and –as we’ve seen above — English also has standard, default sentence pattern #1 … but pattern #2 in English is slightly altered, pattern #3 is rare, and pattern #4 doesn’t really exist as such!

Let’s look now at each pattern again, but in more detail.

Word Order Pattern #1: Standard

In a standard sentence in BOTH English AND German, the subject noun (i.e. nominative case) comes first, followed by the finite (a.k.a. conjugated) verb.

All other information (e.g. accusative case, dative case, adverbs, etc.) comes after those 2 elements (<– we’ll look at word order details for these elements below in the digging deeper section, including the departures between English & German at this point).

So, pattern #1, the standard sentence structure is: NOMINATIVE + FINITE VERB +

Examples:

The man sings.
The man singsa song.
The man singshis little baby a song.
The man singshis little baby a song every night before bedtime.

Der Mann singt.
Der Mann singt … ein Lied.
Der Mann singt … seinem kleinen Baby ein Lied.
Der Mann singt … seinem kleinen Baby jede Nacht vor dem Einschlafen ein Lied.

To drill it home, notice that no matter what else is being added (more nouns or more verbs), the standard pattern of NOMINATIVE + FINITE VERB remains the same, as indicated by the color-coding.

Thus, standard pattern #1 is so called because it follows BOTH of our rules:

  1. The subject noun is right next to the finite verb.
  2. The finite verb is the 2nd element in the sentence.

Now, we will see how the remaining 3 word order patterns deviate from our standard pattern by bending or breaking either rule #1 and/or #2.

Word Order Pattern #2: Inverted

This sentence pattern is called ‘inverted’ precisely because the finite verb & nominative case swap places: FINITE VERB + NOMINATIVE CASE + …

Singt der Mann? Singt der Mann ein Lied? Etc.

In this inverted sentence pattern, we see the nominative case still right next to the finite verb (rule #1), BUT the finite verb is no longer in the 2nd position in the sentence (breaking rule #2).

This inverted pattern is used only in TWO instances in German:

  1. Yes / No Questions (as seen above ^^)
  2. Commands (i.e. the ‘imperative’ mood)
 

Yes/No Questions

Observe the subject & verb swap in these examples:

Kommst du mich besuchen? (Will you come visit me?)
Regnet es? (Is it raining?)
Hat das viel gekostet? (Did that cost a lot?)

Note that open-ended questions using ‘question words’ (e.g. who, what, when, where, why, and how) look similar to the transposed pattern (#3) in that the ‘question word’ comes first, then the verb (still faithfully staying in position #2) and then the subject (which is still right next to the verb, just on the other side):

Warum kommst du mich besuchen? (Why are you coming to visit me?)
Wann regnet es? (When [will] it rain?)
Wie viel hat das gekostet (How much did it cost?)

Commands

Geh (du)! (Go!)
Hört (ihr) auf! (Stop!)
Bleiben (Sie) stehen! (Stay!)

NOTE: the subject noun is almost always dropped in German commands.

If it IS added (again, this is rare and for specific purposes), it will be in the 2ND position in the sentence because it’s traded spots with the finite verb, which is usually in the 2nd position, as per our standard pattern!

However, in English commands, if we add in the subject (in English as in German, this is unusual), we still use the standard pattern of NOMINATIVE + FINITE VERB in commands: (you) go!, (you) stop!, (you) stay!

Word Order Pattern #3: Transposed

In this sentence pattern, the finite verb still stays in position #2, but the subject noun is being bumped from its standard position as the first element in the sentence to being behind the verb (which still keeps it next to the finite verb, so we’re ‘bending’ the standard application of rule #1, if you will).

What is being transposed to the front of the sentence (i.e. ‘position 1’)? Answer: any single element from ‘position 3’ in the sentence, which can be an object noun, prepositional phrase, or adverb (<– more details and examples below in the ‘Digging Deeper’ section).

Here’s a simple example:

Tomorrow I will go shopping. (Standard #1 pattern: I will go shopping tomorrow.)
Morgen gehe ich einkaufen. (Standard #1 pattern: Ich gehe morgen einkaufen.)

Take a moment now to notice the discrepancy between English & German here!

In English, we can take the adverb ‘tomorrow’ and place it at the front of the sentence, BUT it’s still followed by our standard pattern of NOMINATIVE + FINITE VERB!

In German, though, we have to honor rule #2 and keep the finite verb as the 2nd element.

This word order pattern (and the 4th) are the most difficult for German-learners because it operates differently from English. But if you can remember Rule #2 about the finite verb being in position #2 in the sentence, you’ll soon have even these new structures under your belt!

Word Order Pattern #4: Subordinating

Finally! The 4th and last sentence structure pattern that German uses is subordinating. 

Relative clauses and clauses headed up by a subordinating conjunction are the top examples of instances in which we need to use this particular pattern.

This pattern breaks BOTH of our rules!

The subject noun and finite verb are separated from each other (breaking rule #1) because the subject noun stays in its standard position as element #1, but the finite verb moves to the very end of the clause (and is therefore breaking rule #2 about ‘always’ being in the 2nd position in the sentence).

Let’s revisit this sentence briefly:

Die Frau, die ich gestern kennengelernt habe, sagte mir, dass sie und ihre Familie neulich hierher umgezogen sind.

(The woman who I met yesterday told me that she and her family just moved to town.)

Here, both the German red-coded clause (which is a relative clause) and the German maroon-coded clause (headed up by the subordinating conjunction ‘dass’) have the finite verbs (‘habe’ and ‘sind’, respectively) kicked to the very end of the clause, which makes these 2 clauses fit word order pattern #4: subordinating.

When to use which pattern?

The whole point of having a standard pattern (#1) is that it’s what we default to unless we have a clear reason not to!

So, you need to use standard default word order pattern #1 unless…

  1. you’re asking a question or giving a command (use pattern #2)
  2. you want to emphasize one of the components of position 3’s ‘more nouns’ (use pattern #3)
  3. you’re adding information that starts with a relative pronoun or subordinating conjunction (use pattern #4)

Now, you need to fully understand what comprises the ‘more nouns’ (Position 3) and ‘more verbs’ (Position 4) sections!

Digging Deeper

Let’s kick this off by looking at all our word order formulas again:

1: SUBJECT + VERB + MORE NOUNS + MORE VERBS
2: VERB + SUBJECT + MORE NOUNS + MORE VERBS
3: MORE NOUNS (A) + VERB + SUBJECT + MORE NOUNS (B, C, ETC.) + MORE VERBS
4: … PRONOUN / CONJUNCTION + SUBJECT + MORE NOUNS + MORE VERBS + VERB

You have covered A LOT of ground already, but we still need to dig deeper into the exact contents of position 3 (more nouns) and position 4 (more verbs) and also the particular word order to use within these positions.

Word Order of ‘Position 3’ Contents in a German Clause

Here is an example from above with some prepositional phrases added:

GERMAN: Ich möchte meinem netten Nachbarn am kommenden Sonntag schnell mit meiner Mama bei ihr zuhause einen großen Kuchen backen.

WORD-FOR-WORD TRANSLATION: I would like my nice neighbor this coming Sunday quickly a large cake with my mother at her house to bake.

AUTHENTIC ENGLISH: I would like to quickly bake a large cake with my mother at her house for my nice neighbor this coming Sunday.

There is a very large ‘position 3’ in this standard-pattern-#1 sentence!

Remember that our word order pattern is this:

SUBJECT + VERB + MORE NOUNS + MORE VERBS

And each of these categories ^^ is a ‘position’ in the sentence:

SUBJECT (1) + VERB (2) + MORE NOUNS (3) + MORE VERBS (4)

So, what all can be put into position 3 (more nouns)?

‘More Nouns’ can include any (or all!) of these components:

direct objects, indirect objects, prepositional phrases, adverbs

We see EACH of these possible ‘position 3’ components in our example sentence:

Ich möchte meinem netten Nachbarn am kommenden Sonntag schnell mit meiner Mama bei ihr zuhause einen großen Kuchen backen.

meinem netten Nachbarn = indirect object (dative)

am kommenden Sonntag = dative prepositional phrase (time)

schnell = adverb (manner)

mit meiner Mama = dative prepositional phrase (manner)

bei ihr zuhause = dative prepositional phrase (place)

einen großen Kuchen = direct object (accusative) 

A shortcut way to think about the contents of each of 4 positions in a German sentence is this:

  • Position 1 is filled just with the subject noun (in the nominative case, always!)
  • Position 2 is filled just with the conjugated / finite verb (so, literally just one word!)
  • Position 4 is for additional verbs in various forms (infinitive here ^^)
  • So, we can think of position 3 as being the ‘catchall’ position for everything else. 🙂 
 

That leaves us with only the problem of needing to know in what ORDER to put the various components of position 3.

It would be rare to have a position 3 so jammed packed as in this example sentence above, but if you do have all those elements, this is the standard order you’d need to use:

Indirect Object (Dative) + Time + Manner + Place + Direct Object (Accusative)

The indirect and direct objects go into their respective ‘slots’ with either determiners and/or adjectives also present. Time / Manner / Place [TMP] can be comprised of prepositional phrases (which then also go into ‘slots’) or just adverbs, which stand alone. 

NOTE: if you have multiple ‘time’ aspects, you need to list them from less to more specific, e.g. am Mittwoch um 18 Uhr.

NOTE: while this is the standard word order for the contents of ‘position 3’ in a given sentence, keep in mind that you can change the emphasis of the sentence not only by using the transposed sentence structure pattern #3, as discussed much earlier, but also by utilizing essential the opposite option of placing the desired element at the very END of position 3!

For example, if I wanted to emphasize WHEN I’m making this cake, I could take the standard sentence and change it into either of these 2 versions:

STANDARD: Ich möchte meinem netten Nachbarn am kommenden Sonntag schnell mit meiner Mama bei ihr zuhause einen großen Kuchen backen.

TRANSPOSED (A): Am kommenden Sonntag möchte meinem netten Nachbarn schnell mit meiner Mama bei ihr zuhause einen großen Kuchen backen.

TRANSPOSED (B): Ich möchte meinem netten Nachbarn schnell mit meiner Mama bei ihr zuhause einen großen Kuchen am kommenden Sonntag backen.

This said, note that there is a preference for using our traditional transposed (A) pattern! The (B) option is grammatically correct and might be seen occasionally, but the (A) variant is much more common and thus more authentic. 

Contents of ‘Position 4’ (more verbs!) in a German Clause

Hopefully our meta- word order pattern is very familiar by now, but here it is again:

SUBJECT + VERB + MORE NOUNS + MORE VERBS

For example:

Der Mann hätte seinem kleinen Baby ein Lied singen wollen, aber …
(The man would have liked to sing his little baby a song, but …)

Remember that the standard sentence structure in English flips around the ‘more nouns’ and ‘move verbs’ positions as you can see in the example above.

OK, so what in a GERMAN sentence qualifies as more verbs

There are 3 categories of verbal material that typically come in this position 4 in a clause:

  1. verb infinitives (e.g. singen, wollen)
  2. past participles (e.g. gesungen, gewollt)
  3. separable prefixes (e.g. an, ab, auf, aus)

For comparison, English will also use verb infinitives or past participles in the ‘more verbs’ category, but there are no separable prefixes in English and –instead– English makes use of present participles (e.g. going, singing, eating, etc.), which don’t exist in German!

Since German is our focus, let’s continue looking at the same example from above:

We see verb infinitives in position 4:

Der Mann hätte seinem kleinen Baby ein Lied singen wollen, aber …

Here, if we alter the sentence, we can have a past participle in position 4:

Der Mann hat seinem kleinen Baby ein Lied gesungen.
(The man sang his little baby a song).

Finally, with more verbal changes still, this example that utilizes a separable prefix (from the infinitive “vorsingen”, which means to perform a song):

Der Mann singt seinem kleinen Baby ein Lied vor.
(The man performs a song for his little baby).

Word Order of Adverbs

The short of the story with adverbs is that you can usually insert them in front of any adjective or verb or or use them as Time Manner Place info-bits:

Examples:

The very handsome man … (the adverb ‘very’ is ‘modifying’ the adjective ‘handsome’)
The man quickly eats. (the adverb ‘quickly’ modifies the verb ‘eats’)
The man eats exclusively with his cat. (the adverb ‘exclusively’ modifies the prepositional phrase ‘with his cat’, which describes the manner in which he eats). 

In English, adverbs almost always end with -ly, which makes them easy to identify (e.g. quickly, exclusively, slowly, painfully, beautifully, etc.).

In German, many adverbs are identical to what I call ‘root adjectives’, for example:

schnell- = fast (adj., adv.)
ausreichend- = adequate (adj.), adequately (adv.)
umfassend- = extensive (adj.), extensively (adv.)
grob- = rough (adj.), roughly (adv.)

So, the adverbs would exist just so; but the adjectives would have to take declensions where the (-) is. 

Relative Pronouns Chart