In this article, I’d like to talk about a mistake that I hear every day, even from advanced German speakers. In reality, it’s an easy mistake to avoid. All you have to do is be aware of it, and that will make all the difference. However, before we get into the details, let’s first have a look at the word order in a typical German sentence.
German Word Order
The typical order in a German sentence is as follows:
- Subject – Verb – Object
The subject is in the first position, the verb comes second and the object is placed at the end. Just to refresh your memory, the subject usually performs an action, the verb is the action itself and the object is affected by the action.
- Ich esse einen Apfel (I eat an apple).
- Du kaufst ein Buch (You buy a book).
As you can see, these two sentences follow the order above: the subject is in the first position, and the verb is in the second position. This is a very crucial rule, so I will repeat it one more time: The verb is ALWAYS in the second position. It is very important to keep this in mind.
So, let’s now have a look at a different sentence structure:
- Adverb – Verb – Subject – Object
Here, the sentence does not begin with the subject, but instead with an adverb. And do you see what else is happening in this sentence? The verb and the subject have switched places. Why? Because according to the rule, the verb has to be in the second position. So in this structure, the adverb is placed in position number one, while the verb remains in position number two. Since the subject always has to be placed together with the verb (either right before or after) it must come after the verb in this case, taking the third spot. Finally, we have the object.
- Heute esse ich einen Apfel (Today I eat an apple).
Above is an example of this word order. However, the order gets lost in translation. So let’s actually translate it word for word: “Today eat I an apple.” Now you can see that the verb is in the second position.
So, what is this big mistake that I mentioned earlier. Well, it’s that many German learners fail to switch the subject and the verb when the sentence doesn’t start with the subject. Instead, they say Heute ich esse einen Apfel, using the typical English word order. Unfortunately, this is wrong.
- Mein kleiner Bruder isst eine Pizza (My little brother eats a pizza).
I chose this example to show you that the first position in a sentence doesn’t necessarily correlate to the first word in a sentence. As you can see here, the subject is “My little brother” (Mein kleiner Bruder) and it consists of three words. After this subject, the verb isst is placed in the second position.
Now, let’s see what happens when I start the sentence with Manchmal (sometimes):
- Manchmal isst mein kleiner Bruder eine Pizza (Sometimes my little brother eats a pizza).
In this case, the verb and the subject switch places, allowing the verb to stay in the second position in the sentence.
- Du hast einen Orangensaft getrunken (You drank orange juice).
In this example, the sentence is in the past tense, and the conjugated verb is hast. Now, if we want to change the sentence up a little bit in order to emphasize that you drank the orange juice yesterday, we would say:
- Gestern hast du einen Orangensaft getrunken (Yesterday, you drank orange juice).
Notice how hast and du switch positions in order to keep the verb in the second position.
The same rule applies to modal verbs as well, such as können (“can” or “to be able”):
- Ich kann die Berge sehen (I can see the mountains).
- Normalerweise kann ich die Berge sehen (Normally, I can see the mountains).
Here, the change in the word order is triggered by the fact that the second sentence starts with “normally,” and not with the subject.
OK, so far we’ve seen only simple sentences. Now let’s have a look at some more complex ones, with subordinate clauses:
- Ich lese ein Buch (“I read a book” or “I’m reading a book,” in German there is no difference).
- Ich mag Geschichte, deshalb lese ich ein Buch (I like history, therefore I’m reading a book).
Here, you can see that in the subordinate clause, the verb and the subject switch places so that the verb remains in the second position.
- Sie geht spazieren (She’s going for a walk).
- Es regnet, trotzdem geht sie spazieren (It’s raining, nevertheless she’s going for a walk).
Again, the same thing happens in the subordinate clause, geht comes before sie.
- Du spielst Tennis. Du spielst Basketball (You play tennis. You play basketball).
- Zuerst spielst du Tennis, dann spielst du Basketball (First you play tennis, then you play basketball).
Here, we connected the two sentences above using “first” and “then.” These words take the first position, therefore the verb must follow immediately after in order to stay in the second position.
Now, as I’m sure you are very well aware, the exception proves the rule. That’s why I’d like to show you some exceptions:
The words aber (but), und (and) and denn (because) are considered position “zero” words and do NOT change the word order:
- Er kommt aus London, aber er studiert in Zürich (He comes from London, but he studies in Zurich).
- Sie spielt Gitarre und er singt in einer Band (She plays the guitar and he sings in a band).
- Ich rufe dich an, denn ich möchte mit dir sprechen (I’m calling you because I’d like to talk to you).
In all three examples, the word order remains subject first, then verb.
And last but not least, I’d like to mention that there is another exception. Some words, such as dass (that), weil (because) and als (when in the past) send the verb to the end of the sentence rather than just switching the position with the subject.
So, basically the most important insight that I would like you to take from this article is that when you don’t start a sentence with the subject, you need to change the word order. If you are able to do this, it will show that you are really taking your German studies seriously.