German sentence structure

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German sentence structure is somewhat more complex than that of many other European languages, but similar to Dutch, with phrases regularly inverted for both questions and subordinate phrases. Generally the main sentence structure rule is that the conjugated verb is always the second element in a main clause or the last element in a subordinating clause. Verbs in the infinitive are generally placed after their respective object.

Main Sentence[edit]

If a verb has a separable prefix, this prefix is moved to the end of the sentence.

Ich werde den Müll wegwerfen. ("I will throw away the rubbish.", literally "I will the rubbish away-throw.")
Ich werfe den Müll weg. (statement) ("I'm throwing away / I throw away the rubbish.", literally "I throw the rubbish away.")
Werfe ich den Müll weg? (question) ("Am I throwing away the rubbish?", literally "Throw I the rubbish away?")
Wirf den Müll weg! (command, familiar form) ("Throw away the rubbish!", literally "Throw the rubbish away!")

Statement[edit]

A simple statement is constructed in the following manner: the subject comes first, then the conjugated verb, then the object and any infinitives or participles.

Ich + den Baum sehen -> Ich sehe den Baum.
("I + to see the tree" -> I see the tree.)
Ein Text + geschrieben werden -> Ein Text wird geschrieben
("A text + to be written -> A text is being written.")
Wir + den Raum verlassen -> Wir verlassen den Raum
("we + to leave the room -> We leave the room.")
Der König + eine Burg bauen lassen -> Der König lässt eine Burg bauen.
("the king + to have a castle built -> The king has a castle built.")

If the conjugated verb has a separable prefix, this prefix stays at the end of the sentence.

Ich + den Müll wegwerfen -> Ich werfe den Müll weg.
("I + to dispose of the trash -> I dispose of the trash.")

In addition, past participles in the perfect tenses fall at the end of the sentence, with the conjugated auxiliary verb (Hilfsverb) in the second position of the sentence.

Conventional German syntax presents information within a sentence in the following order:

  • Wichtigstes (what is the most important thing of the things following? *, **)
  • Was (what? the conjugated verb***)
  • Wer (who? the subject)
  • Wem (to/for whom - dative object)
  • Wann (when - time)
  • Warum (why - reason)
  • Wie (how - manner)
  • Wo (where - place)
  • Wen (whom - accusative object)
  • Wohin/Woher (to/from where)
  • Verb, nochmal (first part of the separable verb)

*The word "da" with the meaning "then suddenly" must take the first place. A "dann", then, does so often, but not necessarily; otherwise, the Subject will do.
**If the verb is most important, the first part of the separable verb is placed here, but even then separated from the second part. If the verb is not separable or periphrastical, the infinitive will do.
***and in this case, a form of "tun" is legitimately inserted for the conjugated verb, as in Arbeiten tun wir. "Working, that's what we do."

Wir gehen am Freitag miteinander ins Kino. Literally,
"We go on Friday together to the movies."

Wegen ihres Jahrestages bereiten wir unseren Eltern einen Ausflug nach München vor. Literally,
We are planning for our parents today because of their anniversary a trip to Munich.

Comparisons can be put after both parts of the verb, or before the place of its later part. So:
Er ist größer gewesen als ich. / Er war größer als ich. "He was greater than me."
OR
Er ist größer als ich gewesen

Additionally, German often structures a sentence according to increasing news value. So:
Wir gehen am Donnerstag ins Kino. We're going to the movies on Thursday. BUT

An welchem Tag gehen wir ins Kino? (On) What day are we going to the movies?

Am Donnerstag gehen wir ins Kino. OR Wir gehen am Donnerstag ins Kino. On Thursday we're going to the movies. OR We're going on Thursday to the movies."

Additionally, when the accusative object is a pronoun, it moves in front of the dative object. Florian gibt mir morgen das Buch. "Florian is giving me tomorrow the book." BUT Florian gibt es mir morgen. "Florian is giving it to me tomorrow."

Inversion[edit]

By an inversion you emphasize a component of the sentence: an adverbial phrase, a predicative or an object, or even an inner verbal phrase. The subject phrase, at the beginning of an indicative unstressed sentence, is moved directly behind the conjugated verb, and the component to be emphasized is moved to the beginning of the sentence. The conjugated verb is always the second sentence element in indicative statements.

"Ich fliege schnell." - "I fly fast." - unstressed
"Schnell fliege ich." - "I fly fast." - stressed 'fast'
"Du bist wunderschön." - "You are lovely." - unstressed
"Wunderschön bist du." - "You are lovely." - stressed 'lovely'
"Ich bin gelaufen." - "I ran." - unstressed
"Gelaufen bin ich!" - "I ran!" - stressed 'ran'

Questions[edit]

Questions may be divided into yes/no questions, asking for the truthfulness of a statement, and specific questions, which ask for a concrete aspect of a statement.

Specific questions are similar to inverted statements. They begin with a question word, then there is the conjugated verb, followed by the subject (if there is one), and the rest of the sentence follows.

Was machst du jetzt? ("What are you doing now?")
Wer geht ins Kino? ("Who is going to the cinema?" -- In this sentence, the interrogative pronoun wer serves as the subject)

Yes/No questions[edit]

See also: yes-no question

This kind of question is similar to the inversion: you put the inflected verb at the beginning of the (not inverted) sentence.

Du kommst. - Kommst du? ("You are coming - Are you coming?")
Ich habe geschlafen. - Habe ich geschlafen? ("I slept - Did I sleep?")
Ich werde das Spiel beenden. - Werde ich das Spiel beenden? ("I'm going to (lit. 'I will') finish the game - Am I going to (lit. 'Will I') finish the game?")
Du wirfst den Torwart raus. - Wirfst du den Torwart raus? ("You are throwing the goalkeeper out - Are you throwing the goalkeeper out?")

Asking for subject or object[edit]

In a normal question, you replace the subject phrase or object phrase with a corresponding interrogative pronoun, then move it to the beginning of the sentence, like an inversion. Theoretically, you must use the interrogative pronoun of welcher, welche, welches or a nominal phrase with the interrogative article.

Du hast deiner Frau einen Ring gekauft. ("You bought your wife a ring.")
- Welchen hast du deiner Frau gekauft? ("Which one did you buy your wife?")
Du hast deiner Frau einen roten Ring gekauft. ("You bought your wife a red ring.")
- Welchen Ring hast du deiner Frau gekauft? ("Which ring did you buy your wife?")
Du hast deiner Frau einen roten Ring gekauft. ("You bought your wife a red ring.")
- Welchen Roten hast du deiner Frau gekauft? ("Which red one did you buy your wife?")
Du hast deiner Frau einen roten Ring gekauft. ("You bought your wife a red ring.")
- Welchen roten Ring hast du deiner Frau gekauft? ("Which red ring did you buy your wife?")

But the usage of this pronoun implies that the speaker knows both the gender and number of the unknown object. So, practically, you replace these pronouns by short forms.

Du hast deiner Frau einen Ring gekauft. ("You bought your wife a ring.")
- Was hast du deiner Frau gekauft? ("What did you buy your wife?")
person thing
nominative wer was
genitive (object) wessen wessen
dative wem wem
accusative wen was

Regardless of whether you use the full pronoun or the short form, the genitive case is practically only used for genitive objects. See Asking for a possessor.

Asking for a predicative[edit]

You ask for a predicative with the either interrogative pronoun Was or, if knowing it is not a nominal phrase, Wie.

Er ist schnell - Wie/Was ist er? ("He's fast - What is he?")
Ein Schmetterling ist ein Insekt - Was ist ein Schmetterling? ("A butterfly is an insect - What is a butterfly?")

You can also use other interrogative pronouns like Wo.

Asking for an adverbial[edit]

It is possible to ask for the adverbial of a predicative, if it is not a nominal phrase (and even for the adverbial of the adverbial etc.)

Der Baum ist 3 Meter hoch.- Wie hoch ist der Baum? ("The tree is three metres tall - How tall is the tree?")

Asking for a possessor[edit]

When searching for the possessor of a nominal phrase, you first act as if you would invert the corresponding statement, placing the noun with the unknown possessor at the beginning. Then give it the possessive interrogative article (wessen for all cases, genders and numbers). Of course, this nominal phrase may not have a genitive possessor.

Ich habe das Auto des Chefs gesehen. - Wessen Auto hast du gesehen? ("I saw the boss's car - Whose car did you see?")
Ich habe sein Auto gesehen - Wessen Auto hast du gesehen? ("I saw his car - Whose car did you see?")
Ich habe sein Auto gesehen - Wessen hast du gesehen? ("I saw his car - Whose did you see?")
(Wessen is no longer an article, but a pronoun)

Usage is the same for both unknown possessive articles as for unknown genitive possessors.

Asking for an adverb[edit]

First the interrogative pronoun (Wie), then the conjugated verb, next the subject, then the rest of the sentence.

Der Vogel fliegt schnell am Himmel - Wie fliegt der Vogel am Himmel? ("The bird flies quickly in the sky - How does the bird fly in the sky?")

If the adverb describes another adverb or an adjective:

Der Vogel fliegt ungeheuer schnell - Wie schnell fliegt der Vogel? ("The bird flies amazingly quickly - How quickly does the bird fly?")

Asking for position or adverbial clause[edit]

Developing the question for an adverbial phrase may be slightly more complicated.

Theoretically, like the other specific questions, the unknown position is inverted to the beginning of the sentence. Whereas the pre- or post- position remains, the nominal part is replaced either by an interrogative pronoun or by a nominal phrase having the interrogative article.

Er sah den Vogel auf dem Baum. - Auf welchem Baum sah er den Vogel? ("He saw the bird in the tree - In which tree did he see the bird?")
Dein Hund wurde in diesem Jahr geboren. ("Your dog was born this year")
- In welchem Jahr wurde dein Hund geboren? ("Which year was your dog born?")

Practically, the person asking the question will know neither the gender of the noun, nor the number of the noun, nor even the kind of preposition, before he hears the answer. So a short form is used instead in nearly every case. These short forms are also the only way to ask for an adverbial clause or for a proposition.

Er sah den Vogel auf dem Baum. - Wo sah er den Vogel? ("He saw the bird in the tree - Where did he see the bird?")
Dein Hund wurde damals geboren. - Wann wurde dein Hund geboren? ("Your dog was born at that time - When was your dog born?")

Some interrogative pronouns: Wo, Woher, Wohin, Wann, Wieso, Weshalb, Warum, Weswegen.

Commands[edit]

For a command, take the imperative form of the conjugated verb from the infinitive and put it at the beginning of the sentence followed by the corresponding personal pronoun. There also must be an exclamation point at the end of the sentence to make it a command. The separable prefix, if there is one, remains at its old place, separated. In the literary language it is possible to leave the verb at the second place.

If the verb changes the vowel in the second and third person singular, the vowel is also changed in the second person singular of the imperative.

The 2nd person plural pronoun is always omitted. In archaic language, or to emphasize who is ordered for the action, the 2nd person singular pronoun may be left.

Das Tier verfolgen - Verfolge (du) das Tier! ("to trail the animal - Trail the animal!")
Das Tier verfolgen lassen - Lass(e) (du) das Tier verfolgen! ("to have the animal trailed - Have the animal trailed!")
wegfahren - Fahr(e) (du) weg! ("to drive away - Drive away!")
jemanden mitnehmen - Nimm (du) jemanden mit! ("to give someone a lift - Give someone a lift!")

Note that an "'e"' may be added on to the end of the command form, but only if the verb does not have a stem-change. This is a result of the spoken language and has no difference in meaning. Schreib das Wort auf! means the same as Schreibe das Wort auf! ("Write the word down!")

*Lese das Buch!, though very common in spoken language, is considered incorrect because the stem changes from les to lies in the command form. Lies das Buch! ("Read the book!") (singular) and Lest das Buch! (plural) are correct.

There are no imperative forms for first person plural and second person formal. The first and third person plural of the conditional of the present (this is mostly the same form as the indicative aside from sein 'to be' for which seien is used) is used (but not for tun 'to do' for which tun is used). You must put it to beginning of the sentence, separate the separable prefix before that, and place the personal pronouns wir or Sie directly after it.

wegfahren - Fahren wir weg! (Let's drive away!) - Fahren Sie weg! (You) Drive away!
froh sein - Seien wir froh! (Let's be glad!) - Seien Sie froh! Be glad!

Note that imperatives must have the same word order as yes/no questions.

Actual commands are often given as a simple unconjugated infinitive. This is inevitable in the military (excepting the formal commands Rührt euch and Richt't euch), but is not restricted to it.

In Linie antreten! (Line up! to soldiers) but also
Warm anziehen und den Schlüssel nicht vergessen! (Put some warm clothes on and do not forget your key; a mother to her child)
Hey, nicht faulenzen, arbeiten! (Hey yo, do not laze around, get some work done!, normal imperative would be very odd)

The military command "Stillgestanden", Freeze!, oddly even takes the perfect participle for an imperative.

Subordinate clauses[edit]

A subordinate clause (Nebensatz) is always incorporated in a main sentence (or another subordinate clause). Any part of the main clause can be replaced by it, but some conjugated verb must remain. However, subclauses are generally moved to the end of the sentence if it can be done without inconvenience, and if they do not take the first place because of importance. As for its word order, it differs in two things only from a main clause:

1. In general, it begins with a special word, a 'subordinating conjunction' or a relative pronoun, setting it into relation with the encompassing sentence.
2. The verb is, without separation, sent to the place where the first part of a separable verb would be in a main clause, i. e. at the end of the sentence.

Ich nehme das frühere Flugzeug, damit ich heute noch ankomme. = "I'll take the earlier plane so that I arrive even today."

Question words (in the following example, 'wohin') have the same effect as subordinating conjunctions within a sentence.

Wohin ist er gelaufen? Niemand wusste, wohin er gelaufen ist. ("Where did he run (to)? No one knew where he ran (to)."—Note that, unlike in English, a subordinate or dependent clause is always separated from the independent clause (Hauptsatz) by a comma.)

Oddities:

1. Final clauses can be replaced by an "um-zu"-infinitive, if the subject is identical; in practice, um behaves as conjunction, and the infinitive, with a zu, as conjugated verb, and the subject falls away.

Wir haben genug Geld, um diese CD zu kaufen. = Wir haben genug Geld, damit wir diese CD kaufen. "We have enough money to/that we buy this CD."

2. In conditional phrases, the conjunction wenn may be left out in the main clause and the verb put into its place. In this case, so replaces dann in the subordinate clause.

Hast du genügend Geld, so no "dann" in this case kannst du diese CD kaufen. = Wenn du genügend Geld hast, dann kannst du diese CD kaufen. "If you have enough money, then you can buy this CD."

3. Indirect speech may behave as subclause in relation to the main clause, but the conjunction (which would be "dass") may be left out and then its word-order is as in main clauses.

Er sagte, er sei mit der Arbeit fertig. = Er sagte, dass er mit der Arbeit fertig sei. = "He said (that) he had finished his work."

4. Denn, by custom translated into English as for, is in practice just an equivalent to weil "because", but it requires a main-clause word-order and may even take a semicolon instead of a comma.

Er kommt nicht zur Arbeit, denn er ist krank. (He doesn't come to work, for he's ill.) = Er kommt nicht zur Arbeit, weil er krank ist. = "He doesn't come to work because he's ill."

To confuse things, in some dialects weil has the role which denn has in Standard German. However this doesn't mean they generally neglect the subclause word order, since other conjunctions meaning the same, i. e. da "as" or even a "deswegen weil" (literally: because of that because) take ordinary subclauses even there.

Subordinate sentence structure[edit]

Just as in English, a subordinate clause may be used at the beginning or end of a complete expression, so long as it is paired with at least one independent clause. For instance, just as one could say either:

I will go with you, if I can. or If I can, I will go with you.

so you can also say in German:

Ich komme mit, wenn ich kann. or Wenn ich kann, komme ich mit.

Note, however, that in German when the independent clause comes after a subordinate clause the conjugated verb comes before the subject. This arises from the basic rule that always places the conjugated verb in a sentence in the second position, even if that puts it ahead of the sentence's subject.

Clauses with dass[edit]

Subordinate clauses beginning with dass [thus, so, that] enable the speaker to use statements like nominal phrases or pronouns. These sentences are singular, neuter and either nominative or accusative. However, the verb must go at the end of the sentence. Ich denke, dass er ein Vater ist.

Dass Spinnen keine Insekten sind, ist allgemein bekannt. ("It's well known that spiders are not insects.")
Ich weiß, dass Spinnen keine Insekten sind. - Ich weiß das. ("I know that spiders are not insects - I know that.")

Indirect questions with ob[edit]

Whereas the word dass indicates that the statement is a fact, ob starts an indirect yes/no question.

Ich weiß nicht, ob ich fliegen soll. ("I don't know whether I should fly.")

Specific indirect question[edit]

Relative clauses[edit]

The outer nominal phrase the relative clause relates to can be any nominal phrase in any case. The clause begins with a form of the relative pronoun derived from and largely identical to the definite pronoun (der/die/das), or the interrogative pronoun (welchem/welcher/welches), the remaining words are put after it. Using the interrogative pronoun without good cause is considered typical for legalese language.

Der Mann, der/welcher seiner Frau den Hund schenkt (nominative subject)("The man who gives his wife the dog")
Der Hund, den/welchen der Mann seiner Frau schenkt (accusative object) ("The dog which the man gives his wife")
Die Frau, der/welcher der Mann den Hund schenkt (dative object) ("The woman to whom the man gives the dog")
Der Mann, der/welcher ich bin (predicative noun) ("The man I am")

The outer nominal phrase can also be the possessor of a noun inside. You use the genitive case of a relative pronoun matching the outer nominal phrase in gender and number.

Der Mann, dessen Auto auf der Straße parkt ("The man whose car is parked on the street")
Die Person, deren Auto ich kaufe ("The person whose car I am buying")
Das Auto, dessen Fahrer ich helfe ("The car whose driver I am helping")
Die Kinder, deren Lehrer ich kenne ("The children whose teacher I know")

Prepositions/Postpositions are attached to these phrases in the relative clause if necessary.

Das Haus, in dem ich lebe ("The house I live in")
Die Person, derentwegen ich hier bin ("The person I am here because of")
Das Haus, durch dessen Tür ich gegangen bin ("The house whose door I came in by")

If the relative pronoun is identical to the definite article several identical forms may follow each other.

Der, der der Frau, der ich schon Honig gegeben hatte, Honig gab, muss mehr Honig kaufen ("The man who gave honey to the woman I had already given honey to, has to buy more honey")

Such constructions are generally avoided by using forms of welch- as relative pronouns.

Der, welcher der Frau, welcher ...

or rather

Derjenige, welcher der Frau, der ich ...

Otherwise, welcher is rarely used (never in the genitive), and without a difference in meaning. If the relative pronoun refers to a thing as yet unknown or a whole sentence and not a part of it, was is used instead, always equivalent here to an English "which".

Der Chef stellte einen Arbeiter ein, was diesen sehr gefreut hat. - "The manager hired a worker, which the latter was very happy about."

From sentences such as this

In dem Geschäft, wo ( or in dem) man auch Brot kaufen kann, kaufe ich Bier. - "In this shop where you also can buy bread I am buying beer."

one may understand why colloquial usage extends this to other quasi-locational prepositional expressions

Die Zeit, wo (= in der) wir Rom besucht haben, war sehr schön. - "The time lit. where we visited Rome was really fine." Regular "in der", literally "in which", would translate to a "when" in English.

and then, in slang, to all relative clauses:

Der Mann, wo bei Siemens arbeitet, hat an der Technischen Universität studiert. "The man where works at Siemens's has graduated from the Technical University."

Bavarians never use this form. Southern Germans have constructed a double form "der wo, die wo, das wo" which, however, is almost necessary in Bavarian dialect. "Wo" may here be replaced by "was", which for undiscoverable reasons seems to occur mostly in the feminine genus.

Adverbial clauses[edit]

An adverbial clause begins with a conjunction, defining its relation to the verb or nominal phrase described.

Als ich auf dem Meer segelte ("When/As I was sailing on the sea")

Some examples of conjunctions: als, während, nachdem, weil.