In regular German word order, German follows the rule of Subject - Verb - Object, which means, the subject usually comes first, then the verb describing what the subject is doing, then the object that is being "verbed". This is the same in English. "Ich lese ein Buch" follows the same word order as its translation "I read a book".
There are only a handful of instances in English where that formula S-V-O changes, for example, questions: When we ask a question with the verb "to be", the verb and subject switch places: "Are you hungry?" In this question, the verb "are" comes before the subject "you". Other than that, English word order is relatively stable.
German word order is a lot more temperamental, and there are several instances that cause the verb to move around in the sentence, changing this "S-V-O" arrangement. Here are five examples:
Any element in a sentence, an adjective, and adverb, a verb, a direct or indirect object, can be placed in "position 1", the beginning of the sentence, for the sake of putting emphasis on that particular element. This changes the word order.
Ich spiele samstags mit meinen Freunden Fußball.
This sentence has different elements: A subject (Ich), a verb (spiele) an adverb of time (samstags) a direct object (Fußball) and an indirect object with a preposition (mit meinen Freunden). The above sentence follows the S-V-O rule, but I can put any of the elements in position one in order to put emphasis on it.
Samstags spiele ich mit meinen Freunden Fußball. (putting emphasis on "Saturdays")
Mit meinen Freunden spiele ich samstags Fußball. (putting emphasis on "with my friends".
Fußball spiele ich mit meinen Freunden samstags. (putting emphasis on "soccer").
Each of these scenarios emphasizes a different element, but they all have one thing in common: the subject slipped behind the verb: "spiele ich", and this is what happens every time we put something other than the subject at the beginning of the sentence. This is referred to as "inverted word order".
Could we have put the verb in position one, you might ask? Yes, we could have, but then the construction changes a bit more. We would have to add the verb "tun" (to do), and the verb "spiele" would change back to its infinitive form "spielen"
Spielen tue ich samstags mit meinen Freunden Fußball.
2. Subordinating Conjunctions
Both in English and in German, we can "glue" clauses together by using conjunctions. There are coordinating conjunctions, which are "glue words" or "connecting words" that we use to connect two main clauses. A main clause is a sentence that is independent (also "independent clause), because it makes complete sense on its own. For example, "Ich lese ein Buch" (I read a book.) I can add another main clause to this sentence to make a longer sentence and add more detail: I could add "Sie trinkt einen Kaffee." (She drinks a coffee), and I can put them together by using "und" (and):
Ich lese ein Buch und sie trinkt einen Kaffee. (I read a book and she drinks a coffee.)
The word order stayed the same in both clauses. This is not the case when we connect a main clause and a subordinate clause. A subordinate clause is a clause that only fully makes sense when it is attached to a main clause (also "dependent clause). We connect a main clause and a subordinate clause with a subordinating conjunction. In English, this does not change the word order, but in German it does. For example, we could add more detail to this main clause: "Ich gehe heute nicht in die Arbeit" in order to provide a reason. We could use the subordinating conjunction "weil" (because). Pay attention to what happens:
Ich gehe heute nicht in die Arbeit, weil ich krank bin.
We connected the two clauses, but the word order changed in the subordinating clause. The verb was kicked to the end of the clause.
3. Switching Clauses
We can change the word order even more, by somewhat combining rule one and rule two above. A sentence does not have to start with the main clause. It can, in fact, start with the subordinate clause. In the above example, the subordinate clause is "weil ich krank bin" (because I am sick.). Following rule one, I can put something in "position 1" to emphasize it. Think of it as putting the entire subordinate clause in position one for emphasis. What happens to the word order in the main clause? You guessed it: It changes. The subject slips behind the verb. "ich gehe" changes to "gehe ich"
Weil ich heute krank bin, gehe ich heute nicht in die Arbeit.
This happens every time we start a sentence with the subordinate clause, so be mindful of these two changes: In the subordinate clause the verb was kicked to the end, and in the main clause, the subject slipped behind the verb.
For English learners, forming questions can be a bit tricky. One way of forming questions in English is with the auxiliary verb "to do". "Do you know him?", or "Do you drink coffee?". This construction does not exist in German. The standard way of forming a question in German is simply to use the formula "V-S". The above questions would be "Know you him?" and "Drink you coffee?" It can be hard for an English speaker to break the habit of wanting to use "to do", or even worse, using "to be" when asking questions in the present continuous, which does not exist in German. The questions "Are you drinking coffee?" and "Do you drunk coffee?" are grammatically the same in German: "Trinkst du Kaffee?" I can add the adverb "gerade" (right now) to the question to specify, but it is not needed. What is important is the word order: Verb, then subject.
5. Modal and auxiliary verbs
Modal verbs are a kind of "extra" verb that helps us modify a second verb in a sentence. This helps us express things such as urgency, necessity, ability and permission. German and English modal verb sentences have one thing in common: The second verb is in the infinitive. The word order is a different story: In an English modal verb sentence, the second verb, which is the verb that is being modified by the modal verb, simply comes behind the modal verb. "I speak English" -> "I can speak English."
In German, the modal verb kicks the second verb to the end of the sentence, no matter how long the sentence. Remember the sentence from the beginning of this article? Let's use this as an example:
"Ich spiele samstags mit meinen Freunden Fußball." chances to
"Ich kann samstags mit meinen Freunden Fußball spielen.".
Notice that the conjugated modal verb "kann" (can) is now in position 2, and the second verb "spiele" was changed back to the infinitive "spielen" and kicked to the end of the sentence. The same happens when we use the verb "werden" (will) to form the future tense. Replace "kann" with "werde" and the sentence changes to "I will play soccer with my friends on Saturdays."
Would you like to learn more basic German topics such as German conjunctions? Check out our free course content. Do you want to go over topics, such as word order with an instructor? You can! You can purchase as little as one hour of language instruction with one of our instructors. Click here to go to our store.