German Word Order


German has relatively flexible word order — certain grammar elements ( cases & declensions) make this possible. It seems tricky, but follows structured rules.


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Regular Word Order

Word order in German can be characterized as being “SVO-” or “Subject-Verb-Object-based.” This means that, in regular word order, the three main components of a sentence follow this pattern.

Der Hund frisst das Futter. / The dog eats the food.
  S      –      V      –      O

In this example, the dog (der Hund) is the subject, which performs the verb (eats / frisst) on the direct object (the food / das Futter). An object is a direct object when it receives the action of the verb. In other words, the direct object is being “verbed”: the food is being eaten. To help identify the direct object in a sentence, you can ask the question, “What is being verbed?” (e.g. eaten, played, etc.; “Was wird gegegessen/gespielt?”). The answer to the question is your direct object.

Das Mädchen spielt die Gitarre. / The girl plays the guitar.
    S          –         V      –      O

In the above sentence, das Mädchen (the girl) is the subject of the sentence, “spielt” (plays) is the verb, and the answer to “What is being verbed/played?” is the guitar. Hence, “die Gitarre” is the (direct) object of the sentence.

This is referred to as regularnormal or natural word order.

Inverted Word Order

In German, it is common to place other elements in a sentence, such as adverbs of time, manner and place first position in order to create emphasis. In English that does not always work, and sometimes sounds awkward. In German, placing anything other than the subject in first position creates inverted word order

Inverted word order is when the subject slips behind the verb in the sentence. All direct questions in German follow inverted word order. 

Example: Ich gehe heute zum Supermarkt. / I am going to the grocery store today. 
                (regular word order).
                Heute gehe ich zum Supermarkt. / Today, I am going to the grocery store.
                (inverted word order) 

In the above example, the adverb of time (Heute) is in the first or “front” position in the sentence, which lends it some emphasis. Note that the comma after “Today” disappears in the German, as commas are not used to set off the first element of the sentence.
Notice how the subject slipped behind the 

Unlike in English, the time, manner, and place elements precede the object (direct or indirect) in a sentence, which is why the order in the German example differs from the English one above. Here is a sentence with all three elements in the predicate.

Ich esse jeden Tag schnell zu Hause Pizza. / I eat pizza every day quickly at home.

If any of the elements after the object (pizza) is moved to first position, everything will stay in the same position. Here are the possible variations:

Jeden Tag esse ich schnell zu Hause Pizza. / Every day I eat pizza quickly at home.
Schnell esse ich jeden Tag zu Hause Pizza. / Quickly I eat pizza every day at home.
Zu Hause esse ich jeden Tag schnell Pizza. / At home I eat pizza every day quickly.

The important thing to remember is that the verb is in second position, with either the subject or the adverb in first position and the other (subject, adverb, etc.) in third position. Elements of time, manner, and place are added after in that sequence, unless an element is moved to the front position of the sentence, as illustrated by the examples above.

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Common European Framework of Reference for Languages

The CEFR is an international standard used to describe language ability. Here are specific details of the CEFR for this topic.

General Explanation:

Can understand and use familiar everyday expressions and very basic phrases aimed at the satisfaction of needs of a concrete type. Can introduce him/herself and others and can ask and answer questions about personal details such as where he/she lives, people he/she knows and things he/she has. Can interact in a simple way provided the other person talks slowly and clearly and is prepared to help.

Specific Capabilities at this Level

I can write a short, simple postcard, for example sending holiday greetings. I can fill in forms with personal details, for example entering my name, nationality and address on a hotel registration form.
Spoken Production:
I can use simple phrases and sentences to describe where I live and people I know.
Spoken Interaction:
I can interact in a simple way provided the other person is prepared to repeat or rephrase things at a slower rate of speech and help me formulate what I’m trying to say. I can ask and answer simple questions in areas of immediate need or on very familiar topics.
I can understand familiar names, words and very simple sentences, for example on notices and posters or in catalogues.
I can recognize familiar words and very basic phrases concerning myself, my family and immediate concrete surroundings when people speak slowly and clearly.