- Why German Sentence Structure Rules Are Important
- German Sentence Structure Rules for Main Clauses
- German Sentence Structure Rules: The Placement of Nouns
- Sentence Structure in German Using Pronouns
- Placing The Verb in Main German Clauses
- Knowing Where Adverbs Go in Basic German
- How German Sentence Construction Builds Subordinate Clauses
- German Sentence Construction and The Imperative
If you’re reading this, it’s likely that you have already put some time into basic German grammar for beginners. Perhaps you already have a good list of German vocabulary, know how to decline pronouns and articles, and even conjugate verbs.
The good news is that you have already done the basics and all that is left is to join everything together into coherent sentences that make sense to your listener, or reader.
But, unfortunately, sentence structure in German is complicated! Not dissimilar to English, when German sentence construction is incorrect it can lead to a loss of the true meaning and cause much confusion.
Why German Sentence Structure Rules Are Important
If you are learning basic German or practising German grammar for beginners, you probably assume that if you stick to the simple formula of the subject, plus verb, plus object, you are following German sentence structure rules.
Well, yes and no.
You will probably have difficulty balancing grammar and vocabulary in any case, and even an advanced student could sometimes get cases wrong when attempting to stick to German sentence structure rules.
And this is where it can sometimes get a little tricky. Often, when you are learning a foreign language, it may be easier to learn the word order or German sentence structure rules by heart than it is to remember the proper gender of hundreds of words. It’s not easy to get their placement right in a sentence, but often word order, and indeed sentence structure in German can change the meaning of a sentence. This can be especially true with questions. Consider these:
- Is this a fairy-tale?
- This is a fairy-tale.
The words might remain the same, but the order of them can greatly change the entire meaning.
This is exactly the same when it comes to sentence structure in German.
Not only that but using a participle after an auxiliary verb (which is discussed in more detail below) is also a fast way to give away that you are studying German grammar for beginners! But remember, that is ok!
German Sentence Structure Rules for Main Clauses
There is actually some good news for English speakers here too! As you learn German sentence structure, you will find that
Good news for English speakers! In German grammar, the basic sentence structure in a normal main clause is refreshingly like English:
Subject, plus verb, plus object.
Also, in the same way as English, the indirect object in German sentence construction is generally placed before the direct object. Where English would say:
The squire gave the (female) knight a weapon, German would say:
Subject, plus a verb, plus indirect object, plus direct object.
Der Knappe gibt der Ritterin eine Lanze.
German Sentence Structure Rules: The Placement of Nouns
This said, the reality of understanding how cases work when practising German grammar for beginners, can make sentence structure in German a bit more confusing. Regardless of the word order, the cases will dictate the role of the noun in the sentence. This means that a noun actually has the ability to be brought to the beginning of a sentence which is able to emphasis its importance through using sentence structure in German!
- Subject, plus a verb, plus indirect object, plus direct object.
- Direct object, plus verb, plus subject, plus in the indirect object.
- Indirect object, plus verb, plus subject, plus direct object.
English can sometimes do this, too, especially in poetry ("dark was the night...").
This sentence structure in German, when directly translated to English can begin to get complicated because it usually requires additional prepositions for it to work.
Sentence Structure in German Using Pronouns
When it comes to German sentence construction, rules can change slightly when it comes to using personal pronouns.
When only the dative or indirect object is a pronoun, the sentence structure in German remains the same.
Er gibt ihr die Lanze.
Subject, plus a verb, plus indirect object (pronoun), plus direct object (noun)
He gives the lance to her.
As you can see, the German sentence construction is slightly different in English sentences when a pronoun is used as an indirect object.
However, the accusative pronoun is positioned before the dative object, even when both are pronouns:
Er gibt sie der Ritterin.
Subject, plus direct object (pronoun), plus indirect object (noun)
He gives it to the knight.
Er gibt sie ihr.
Subject, plus direct object (pronoun), plus indirect object (pronoun)
He gives it to her.
Placing The Verb in Main German Clauses
As you learn basic German sentence structure rules, you will realise by that placing an object in first place will not alter the position of the verb in German sentence construction. Rather, the subject is shifted to a place after the verb, ensuring that the verb always remains in second place.
Compound Verbs: Identifying the Place of the Auxiliary Verbs and the Participle
A lot of German verb tenses rely on the following formula to make good sentence structure in German:
Auxiliary verb (haben or sein) plus the infinitive, or a participle.
This is very similar to numerous English tenses, like the continuous tenses. An example of a continuous tense is: I was going, versus I went.
Another major difference between English and German sentence structure rules is regarding the issue of splitting a verb. At school, you would have been taught in English to always keep the different parts of an English verb together, (adverbs provide the occasional exception), however, German verbs are not as strictly knit together. Even with basic sentence structure in German, a verb can and should be split!
Der Hund schlief
The dog was sleeping
Here, the subject and verb expression is simple. However, once objects begin to be added, remember that in terms of German structure rules, the auxiliary verb should remain in second place. In addition, the second piece of the verb, whether that is a participle or an infinitive, always goes to the end of the sentence.
The woman woke the dragon.
Die Frau weckte den Drachen
The woman woke the dragon with a cup of coffee
Die Frau weckte den Drachen mit einer Tasse Kaffee
This is one of the German sentence structure rules that also apply to verbs in the past, present or future tense, verbs in the passive or active voice as well as regular and irregular verbs. As soon as there is an auxiliary verb, the participle takes its place at the end of the sentence.
Another rule to remember as you learn German structure is that in verb tense, if there are several auxiliary verbs, the second auxiliary verb will take its place at the end of a sentence, after the participle:
Sie wurde getötet.
She was killed.
When it comes to German sentence structure rules, correctly placing a German verb can be very challenging for someone who is a native English speaker. It can make speaking, but also understanding German quite difficult!
Knowing Where Adverbs Go in Basic German
As you learn German sentence structure, you will begin to introduce adverbs that belong in that cozy spot just beside the verb. When it comes to sentences with direct objects, German sentence structure rules dictate that the adverb should be placed directly after the verb.
The basic formula goes:
Subject, plus a verb, plus adverb direct object
The soldier hands over the sword.
Der Soldat übergibt das Schwert.
However, it is placed after the indirect object:
Subject, plus a verb, plus indirect object, plus adverb, plus direct object
The soldier quickly hands over the sword to the man.
Der Soldat übergibt dem Mann schnell das Schwert.
Also, remember that it is placed after any objects that are pronouns.
As you learn German sentence structure, there is a lot to remember. For instance, regarding objects and pronouns, German sentence structure rules state that the word order should remain the same only when the indirect object is a pronoun.
The soldier quickly hands him the sword.
Der Soldat gibt ihm schnell das Schwert.
Subject, plus a verb, plus indirect object, plus adverb, plus direct object.
When only the direct (accusative) object is a pronoun, it follows it but comes before the indirect (dative) object:
The soldier quickly hands it to the man.
Der Soldat gibt es dem Mann schnell.
Subject, plus a verb, plus direct object (pronoun), plus adverb, plus indirect object
When both objects are pronouns, then the adverb falls into the last place:
The soldier quickly hands it to her.
Der Soldat gibt es ihr schnell.
How to handle several adverbs in a sentence
This might be more than basic German, but it’s not too difficult to remember. When there are several adverbs in a sentence, German sentence structure rules dictate that they are placed in the following order:
TIME - MANNER - PLACE
Subject, plus a verb, plus adverb time, plus adverb manner, plus adverb place.
How German Sentence Construction Builds Subordinate Clauses
When practising German grammar, you will find that similarly to English, when a sentence is made up of two clauses, then these are linked by conjunctions.
Even in basic German, you will find that if both sentences can exist alone, then they are both main clauses and the conjunctions that link them are called coordinating conjunctions. These could be, dann, oder and und. Here, notice as you are practising German grammar that the word order of either of the clauses is not influenced by the presence of the conjunction; it is actually treated as though it were not there:
Her horse was quick and her sword was sharp.
Ihr Pferd war schnell und ihr Schwert war scharf.
German Subordinate Clauses
However, if one of the sentences cannot exist on its own, then German sentence structure rules will treat it as a subordinate clause. These can be adverbial, or they can also function as direct objects to the verb.
They are often presented by what is called subordinating conjunction like weil, ob or wann.
An adverbial clause always clarifies something about the main clause:
The dog did not see the man coming because it was still sleeping.
Der Hund sah den Mann nicht kommen, weil er noch schlief.
In learning German grammar for beginners, you will find out that object clauses are usually placed after the verbs wissen, fragen or other verbs that indicate knowledge or the lack thereof!
The dog did not know that it would soon be dead.
Der Hund wusste nicht, dass er bald tot sein würde.
More German Sentence Construction: Subordinating Conjunctions
In practising German grammar for beginners you will find that conjunctions for adverb clauses can include:
Conjunctions for object clauses include:
In German sentence construction, conjunctions are always placed at the beginning of the subordinate clause.
(Main Clause) The cat woke up (Subordinate Clause) because it heard her kitten meow.
Die Katze wachte auf, weil sie ihr Kätzchen miauen hörte.
German Subordinate Clauses and The Placement of Verbs
As an attentive student of German, you might have observed that in every subordinate clause, the verb is placed at the very end. When the verb has an auxiliary, then the auxiliary verb is placed after the main verb:
She raised her head to see what was approaching her.
Sie hob den Kopf, um zu sehen, was sich ihr näherte.
The exception is when verb cases have more than one auxiliary verb - modal verbs and verbs which take a second infinitive like lassen in the past and perfect tense. In these cases, the auxiliary verb is pushed up in order and is placed just before the participle or infinitive:
Er hätte sein Pferd sofort umdrehen müssen.
He ought to have turned his horse around immediately.
Er dachte, er hätte sein Pferd sofort umdrehen sollen.
He thought that he should have immediately turned his horse around.
If any of this sounds too challenging or confusing to try and grasp on your own, why not consider the help of a private German tutor near you?
German Grammar for Beginners: Figure out the Subordinate Clause
As learn German sentence structure, you will find out that subordinate clauses, are usually placed after the main clause, but they can come first.
When you learn basic German, it is key to remember that these actually replace nouns or adverbs, as such, they modify German sentence structure in a complex sentence. considered part of the sentence and modifies word order in a complex sentence.
What does this mean?
Basically, it means that when you decide to place the subordinate clause first, the next thing to be placed in the main clause will be the verb. The subordinate clause will take up the first position in a sentence, so that the verb is placed second, and then the subject.
When it comes to English, subordinate clauses that are at the beginning of a sentence don't end up affecting the word order in the main clause.
Weil sie so schnell unterwegs war, wusste die Königin nicht, ob sie bremsen könnte.
Because she was going so fast the queen didn't know if she would be able to brake.
In this case, there are two subordinate clauses. The first is shifted to the sentence beginning so that in the main clause the verb is placed before the subject. The second clause is in its normal place after the main clause, and all remains the same.
German Sentence Construction and The Imperative
The imperative is used to give an order or instructions; it is one of the few verb tenses that is only conjugated in the second person (singular and plural) and the first person plural. In German grammar, the imperative is also conjugated in the third person plural - though purely as the formal version of the second person, rather than a true third person.
In German imperative sentences, the verb comes first - as indeed, it does in English grammar:
Halte dich fest!
Töte den Drachen!
Kill the dragon!
Learn How to Ask a Question in German
There are two types of questions:
- questions that require a question word, and
- questions that can be answered by yes or no
German Sentence Structure with Question Words
Question words are used when sentences need clarification. The answer to a question using a question word is typically through using an adverb or adverb clause in the answer:
Wann wird die Königin ankommen?
When will the queen arrive?
Sie kommt im Morgengrauen an.
She’ll arrive at dawn. (Adverb of time)
Wie rettet sich die Königin?
How does the queen save herself?
Sie rettet sich, indem sie die Nase des Drachen mit Soße besprüht.
She saves herself by spraying sauce the dragon's nose. (Adverb of means)
Warum hat sie Soße in der Tasche?
Why does she have sauce in her bag?
Die Königin verpackt Sauce, weil sie von einem Grill kam.
The queen packed sauce because she came from a braai. (Adverb of reason)
Wohin wird sie danach gehen?
Where will she go after that?
Sie geht nach Hawaii!
She'll go to Hawaii! (Adverb of place)
There is an exception and that is the word "who" - in German wer – this is used where the answer is the predicate of an auxiliary phrase to be – sein.
Wer ist diese geheimnisvolle Königin?
Who is this mysterious queen?
Sie ist Königin Victorias Großnichte.
She is Queen Victoria’s great-grandniece.
German question words
In German sentence construction, question words will always be placed at the beginning of the question, and are then followed by the verb:
How does the queen save herself?
Wie rettet sich die Königin?
Here, sentence structure in German, once again, resembles that of English, where a verb follows a question word. For instance:
How are you?
Where does this go?
How much does this cost?
How to Structure Yes and No Questions in German
In English, there generally needs to be the word ‘do’ to create a yes or no question.
Do you want a piece of cake?
Do you dance?
The word ‘will’ can also be used to ask questions for future events.
Will Liverpool win the next game?
Will I ever understand German grammar for beginners?
The good news here is that the German sentence structure rules are easier for this than the English ones. You are able to take any normal sentence and just flip the verb to take first position in order to turn it into a question:
The dog snaps his jaws – Der Hund schnappt nach den Kiefern.
Does the dog snap his jaws? - Schnappt der Hund mit den Kiefern?
And, of course, when there is a two-part verb, this remains the same, with the participle at the end:
Sie kann sich retten. -> Kann sie sich retten?
She can save herself. -> Can she save herself?
So as you can tell, German sentence construction is not too dissimilar to English in many ways, which makes it all the more important that you remember those times when it is not! Actually in some cases, German sentence structure rules are more flexible, while there are other times they are more rigid. The key is to not get too hung up about the exceptions, but to rather embrace them knowing that every language has its oddities! Yell at your textbooks, remember, accept and move on!
At the end of the day, the best way for practising German grammar and remember German sentence structure rules is to listen, speak and hear it constantly. Try and stay immersed in the language through the use of German blogs, books, audiobooks, podcasts, and movies, because this will still be the most effective way to learn German sentence structure!
Other important options would be to take an extended trip to a German-speaking country or to find a language buddy or private German tutor who could help you with the specific areas of German grammar for beginners where you may be struggling.
With all these memorable and well-organised rules, it will not take you long to master German grammar for beginners and totally ace your sentence structure in German. The main thing is to persevere because, like any language the more you put into it, the more you will get out. Eventually, you will reach a tipping point where sentence structure in German becomes so automatic, you will hardly need to think about it!