Also see: German Word Order - Part 2
The fancy word for it is syntax. Any way you express it, word order (die Wortstellung) in German sentences is both more variable and more flexible than in English.
In many cases, German word order is identical to English. This is true for simple subject + verb + other elements sentences: "Ich sehe dich." ("I see you.") or "Er arbeitet zu Hause." ("He works at home."). This "normal" word order places the subject first, the verb second, and any other elements third.
Throughout this guide, it is important to understand that when we say verb, we mean the conjugated or finite verb, i.e., the verb that has an ending that agrees with the subject (er geht, wir gehen, du gehst, etc.). Also, when we say "in second position" or "second place," that means the second element, not necessarily the second word. For example, in the following sentence, the subject (in blue) consists of three words and the verb (in red) comes second, but it is the fourth word:
With compound verbs, the second part of the verb phrase (past participle, separable prefix, infinitive) goes last, but the conjugated element is still second:
"Der alte Mann ist gestern angekommen."
"Der alte Mann will heute nach Hause kommen."
However, German often prefers to begin a sentence with something other than the subject, usually for emphasis or for stylistic reasons. Only one element can precede the verb, but it may consist of more than one word (e.g., "vor zwei Tagen" below). In such cases, the verb remains second and the subject must immediately follow the verb:
"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.
If you don't remember anything else about word order, remember that the verb is always in second place.
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.) We'll discuss word order in subordinate clauses in Part 2 of this lesson.
One other exception to this rule: interjections, exclamations, names, certain adverbial phrases - usually set off by a comma. Here are some examples:
"Maria, ich kann heute nicht kommen."
"Wie gesagt, das kann ich nicht machen."
In the sentences above, the initial word or phrase (set off by a comma) comes first, but does not alter the verb-second rule.
TIME, MANNER, PLACE
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."
Wann - Wie - Wo
Time - Manner - Place
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.)
These are the essential rules for German word order. We'll discuss a few more details and the verb-last rule for dependent clauses in a future article.
Also see: German Word Order - Part 2
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