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Using Word Order to Express Yourself Clearly in German

In English and German, you purposely arrange words in a certain order to communicate clearly. After all, putting words together in an unusual or inappropriate word order can cause confusion or, even worse, a breakdown in communication. So you do yourself a huge favor in getting your message across by following German word order. You likely use the right English word order without even thinking about it. To become just as smart with German word order, follow these five essential guidelines:

  1. The conjugated verb is generally in second position in the sentence. The subject or another element is in first position, and the verb comes next. Here are a couple of examples:

    • Wir haben einen Hund. (We have a dog.) The verb haben (have) is in second position, and the subject wir (we) is in first position.

    • In meiner Familie hatten wir keinen Hund. (We didn’t have a dog in my family.) In meiner Familie (in my family) is in first position. The verb hatten (had) is in second position, and the subject wir (we) follows the verb.

  2. Sentences with two or three verb parts follow a distinctive word order. The word order is generally as follows: Subject + conjugated verb + object or other information + other verb part(s) at the end. Here’s what this order looks like:

    • Wir haben einen Hund gekauft. (We bought a dog.) The verb has two parts, haben (have) and gekauft (bought).

    • Wir haben einen Hund kaufen wollen. (We wanted to buy a dog.) The verb has three parts: haben, kaufen, and wollen (wanted to buy).

  3. With yes/no questions that ask for a yes/no response, the inverted word order comes into play, meaning that instead of the subject-verb word order, the two are flipped. Here are two examples:

    • Regnet es oft im Sommer? (Does it often rain in the summer?) The conjugated verb is regnet (rains), and it is followed by the subject es (it) in second position.

    • Haben Sie die Nachrichten im Fernsehen gesehen? (Have you seen the news on TV?) The conjugated auxiliary verb haben (have) is in first position. It is followed by the subject Sie (you) in second position. Gesehen (seen), the past participle of sehen (to see), is at the end of the sentence.

  4. In sentences that have a subordinate clause (a clause that cannot stand on its own), the verb or verbs in that clause appear at the end of the clause. Here’s how this word order looks:

    • Sie ist sehr optimistisch, obwohl sie arbeitslos ist. (She’s very optimistic even though she’s jobless.) The subordinate clause begins with obwohl (although), and the verb ist (is) goes to the end of the clause.

  5. One more mantra of German word order is time, manner, and place, which tells you that these three bits of information need to appear in that word order in a German sentence. To get the hang of how this mantra works, imagine you’re planning a ski trip. You want to decide when to go (time), how to travel (manner), and where to go (place). Here’s an example sentence that includes all three elements:

    • Ich fahre nächste Woche mit dem Zug nach Innsbruck. (I’m taking the train to Innsbruck next week.) Nächste Woche (next week) deals with time, mit dem Zug (the train) tells the manner of travel, and nach Innsbruck (to Innsbruck) describes the place.

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