There are ten parts of speech, and they are all troublesome. An average sentence, in a German newspaper, is a sublime and impressive curiosity; it occupies a quarter of a column; it contains all the ten parts of speech‒not in regular order, but mixed; it is built mainly of compound words constructed by the writer on the spot, and not to be found in any dictionary‒six or seven words compacted into one, (…) all the parentheses and reparentheses are massed together between a couple of king-parentheses, one of which is placed in the first line of the majestic sentence and the other in the middle of the last line of it‒after which comes the VERB, and you find out for the first time what the man has been talking about; and after the verb‒merely by way of ornament, as far as I can make out‒the writer shovels in "haben sind gewesen gehabt haben geworden sein," or words to that effect, and the monument is finished.

Mark Twain, The Awful German Language


Admittedly, compared with other languages’ syntax, the German sentence structure seems to be strange. But in order not to get completely frustrated by Mark Twain's words, I would like to cast some light on the German sentence.


The most important part of the sentence is the verb. It determines the sentence structure. All parts required by the verb are called complements. They can't be omitted without rendering the sentence ungrammatical. The other parts are adjuncts, which can be omitted. German is quite particular when it comes to the position of the verb and its complements.


The verb can be located in three positions, as seen in these examples:


  1. Er kommt morgen. and Wann kommt er?
  2. Kommt er morgen
  3. Ich denke, dass er morgen kommt.


The first example in #1, Er kommt morgen, is a main sentence. The second, Wann komt er? is a w-question. Here we find one of the two most important rules of the German sentence structure: German is a V2-language. This means that the conjugated (part of the) verb must be in the second position. Most of the students learn that right from the beginning, yet it seems difficult to use this structure consistently. This is probably because it is not found in other languages.


The second verb position above is a Yes/No-question. Similar to English (but without using “to do”), the verb is at the first position. The second part of the third position is a subordinate clause. What is a subordinate clause? It depends on a main clause and thus can't be used on its own. The verb in a subordinate clause is always at the end of the sentence.


Now, let's have a closer look at the main sentence.


  1. Ich fahre heute nach Hamburg.
  2. Heute fahre ich nach Hamburg.


In both sentences the verb is in the second position. The subject and the time adverb are interchangeable. Do both sentences have the same meaning? Yes, they do, but often the second one is preferred: time – verb – subject etc. is a very typical structure.


Yet, there is a small difference between both. The word order depends on the part of the sentence one is focusing on. Number 4 would be the answer to the following questions:


  • Wann fährst du nach Hamburg?
  • Wohin fährst du heute?


Number 5 would be the answer to the following questions:


  • Was machst du heute?
  • Wohin fährst du heute?


What is the difference? The new, important information is more likely to be at the end of a sentence. In both sentences, nach Hamburg belongs to the verb and can't be omitted (but heute can). The verb and its object (or the preposition and its object) are building the Satzklammer (sentence brackets), which means that the second and the final position are connected to each other. I prefer the idea of a bridge which connects the two basic parts, the verb and its complement. Under the bridge you will find all the other information (the adjuncts), which are not required by the verb.


  1. Gestern habe ich ein Buch gekauft.
  2. Ich bereite mich auf die Prüfung vor.
  3. Ich möchte nach Italien fahren.

You only know what somebody is talking about with the last word. Again the sentence has brackets, but here they're even worse. The verb has two parts, and both parts must fit into the sentence brackets. They are applied in the past tense (6: auxiliary and the participle), with separable verbs (7: vorbereiten), and with modal verbs (8: möchten) and their infinitive.


Sometimes there can be a real battle between the different sentence parts.


  1. Ich habe heute auf dem Markt Tomaten eingekauft.
  2. Heute habe ich auf dem Markt Tomaten eingekauft.
  3. Ich habe heute Tomaten auf dem Markt eingekauft.
  4. Heute habe ich Tomaten auf dem Markt eingekauft.

Which one do you prefer?


The Partizip II (past participle) must go at the end, because it is building the bridge together with the auxiliary verb haben. The tomatoes are the object of kaufen, so they also would like to be at the end, which is already occupied. That is why they can be in the second to last position. The place also tends to go toward the end, but finds both the last and the second to last position occupied.


In the battle with the participle, Markt has to surrender and leave it to the participle, but in the battle with the tomatoes, both are more or less of the same strength. Sentences 9 and 10 would probably be more neutral, while in sentences 11 and 12 Markt is slightly stressed.


On the other hand, the local expression auf dem Markt consists of three words and therefore is much longer than “tomatoes.” Longer sentence parts also tend to be located at the end of the sentence. While all the sentences are correct, 10 is probably the most neutral one.


  1. Morgen möchte ich zusammen mit meiner Freundin nach Hamburg fahren.

While listening or reading, you must go through all the other stuff, more or less interesting, in order to know what is going on. In sentence 13, something is happening tomorrow together with my friend. And then there is Hamburg, but what is going on?  Eventually: fahren.


Again, the two positions of the modal verb and the infinitive are crucial. We had said we can understand the whole sentence only with the last word. But we can also turn it around. When building German sentences one must already have the whole sentence in mind, or at least the last word.


  1. Morgen früh bereite ich mich auf die Prüfung, die am Nachmittag stattfindet, vor.
  2. Morgen früh bereite ich mich auf die Prüfung vor, die am Nachmittag stattfindet.

Separable verbs. Both sentences are correct, yet they both have some problems. Sentence 14 satisfies the requirements for separable verbs and relative sentences. The prefix is at the end of the sentence, so we got the normal sentence brackets. But we also gain the stylistic disadvantage that the prefix is left behind, a little bit far away.


On the other hand, sentence 15 has the advantage that the prefix vor isn't too far away from its stem bereiten, but we have the disadvantage of having the relative pronoun die separated from its reference word Prüfung.


  1. Ich bin zusammen mit meinen Freunden im Kino gewesen.

Past tense. I am doing something together with my friends, at the cinema, and only at the end we discover that the beginning ich bin... does not mean “I am…,” but is just the first part of the past tense. Compare with the sentence: Ich bin zusammen mit meinen Freunden im Kino. Only the last word tells us that we are talking about something in the past.


The structure of the sentence brackets covers many of the main sentences:


Position 1

Position 2

Position 3, 4, …

Last Position







ich mit meinen Freunden

ich auf dem Markt Tomaten

mich auf die Prüfung, die…,

nach Hamburg.




What happens with the positions 1, 3, 4 etc, when they are adjuncts?

  1. Heute fahre ich wegen des schlechten Wetters nicht mit dem Fahrrad zur Uni.


That is wrong:


  1. a. *Ich fahre wegen des schlechten Wetters nicht mit dem Fahrrad zur Uni heute.
    *Ich fahre nicht mit dem Fahrrad heute zur Uni.


The rule here is: TeKaMoLo or wawawiwo: tempo/wann? when?, kausa/warum? why?, modus/wie? how?, and locus/wo(hin)? where?


The order of time-reason-manner-place can't be reversed. Of course, in most of the times, one would not use all four parts, but the order will remain the same when using two or three of them.



The chart above shows the core parts of the main sentence, but on both sides of the sentence other parts can be added.


Position 0


Position 2

Position 3, 4…

Last Position









nach Hamburg.


Position 0 is added on the left side and restricted to these five conjunctions. Students who have eventually learned the V2-structure often also overgeneralize and apply it to these conjunctions:


  1. *… und fahre ich heute nach


Sondern has the same meaning as aber, but in the first part of the sentence there must be a negation (very often with an opposite meaning between the two complements, e.g. mit dem Auto – zu Fuß, Auto – Motorrad).

  1. Er fährt nicht mit dem Auto, sondern (er) geht zu Fuß.
  2. Er hat kein Auto, sondern ein Motorrad.

On the right side, two structures can be added.


  1. Er hat seiner Frau versprochen (,) pünktlich nach Hause zu kommen.
  2. a. *Er hat seiner Frau pünktlich nach Hause zu kommen versprochen.


The main sentence with the brackets is er hat … versprochen. Often versprechen requires another verb because one might promise TO DO something. This action is expressed by zu + infinitive, which is never part of the sentence brackets (in contrast to the infinitive of the modal verbs).


Therefore, what happens here is called Ausklammerung (exclusion from the sentence brackets). Notice that the part zu + infinitive is at the end of the sentence. The overgeneralization in 21a is again incorrect.


Position 1

Position 2

Position 3, 4…

Last Position




seiner Frau


pünktlich nach Hause zu kommen.


That means the Ausklammerung is compulsory. Following this structure, there are three kinds of sentences:


  • verbs like versprechen, vorhaben, vergessen etc. etw. zu tun
  • haben + noun etw. zu tun, e.g. er hat keine Zeit, heute mitzukommen.
  • es ist + adjective etw. zu tun, e.g. es ist schön mit dir spazieren zu gehen.


Apart from the zu + infinitive-structure, there is another structure that requires the Ausklammerung.


  1. Das ist im Norden schlimmer als im Süden.
  2. a. *Das ist im Norden als im Süden schlimmer.


According to the sentence brackets, one would expect the second sentence to be better than the first one. Sentence 22a is grammatically incorrect because als + comparative is very often subjected to the Ausklammerung.


Finally, we must mention the secondary sentences. They differ in two aspects from the main sentences. First, they can't be used alone.


  1. Ich denke, dass es heute regnen wird.
  2. a. *Dass es heute regnen wird.

Secondary sentences always need a main sentence to precede (or follow) them. The main structural difference lies in the position of the conjugated verb, which stays at the end of the sentence.


  1. Es wird heute regnen.


Number 24 is a main sentence, while in 23, the second part is a secondary sentence. Except the verb position, it has the same structure as the main sentence with one difference: the subject in most of the cases must come immediately after the conjunction.


  1. Heute wird es regnen.
  2. a. *Ich denke, dass heute es regnen wird.


In spoken language, the secondary sentence is often used alone because one doesn't want to repeat the question.


  1. Warum kommst du so spät? – (Ich komme so spät,) weil der Zug Verspätung hatte.


How can you know if a sentence is a secondary one or not? You should know that it does not depend on the meaning. Weil and denn have exactly the same meaning, but the following sentences have a different structure.


  1. Ich komme so spät, weil der Zug Verspätung hatte.
  2. Ich komme so spät, denn der Zug hatte Verspätung.
  3. Weil der Zug Verspätung hatte, komme ich so spät.
  4. a. *Denn der Zug hatte Verspätung, ich komme so spät.


From the examples, we can see that weil requires a secondary sentence and denn requires a main sentence. A sentence can be started with weil but not with denn.


If you have any questions, comments, inquiries etc, please feel free to contact me.


Image Sources


Hero image by Ştefan Jurcă (CC BY-SA 2.0)