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German word order: Main clauses, part 1 Posted by on Sep 20, 2012 in Grammar, Language

Unlike English, German word order is not that consistent. The position of the verb depends on the sentence type. In main clauses, the verb comes after the subject. In subordinate clause, the verb comes at the end of the sentence, and in questions and imperatives, the verb comes in the first position.

Here are some examples of the different sentence types:

Main clause: Claudia schreibt einen Brief. (Claudia is writing a letter)

Subordinate clause: Claudia sitzt am Schreibtisch, weil sie einen Brief schreibt. (Claudia is sitting at the desk because she is writing a letter.)

Imperative: Schreib einen Brief! (Write a letter!)

Question: Schreibt Claudia einen Brief? (Is Claudia writing a letter?)


Main Clauses

Main clauses are sentences that can stand on their own. The full verb or finite verb is usually the second element.

Subject Full verb (finite verb) Other elements
Manuela kocht (heute) Kaffee.1
Stefan spielt (gerade) mit dem Hund.2
Das Auto steht (seit gestern) in der Garage.3
Ihre Eltern sitzen (mit dem Hund) auf der Couch.4

1Manuela is cooking coffee today.

2Stefan is playing with the dog right now.

3The car has been in the garage since yesterday.

4Her parents are sitting on the sofa with the dog

Note that the subject of a sentence can consist of one word as well as of several words.


Subject-verb inversion

The subject need not necessarily be the first element in a German sentence. Alternatively, a sentence can start with other elements, such as: specification of time, specification of place, and (indirect) objects.

If a German sentence starts with an element other than the subject, then the subject and the verb have to be inverted, that is, the subject comes after the verb. This change of words is called subject-verb inversion. Nevertheless, the verb remains in the second place. Compare the sentences below with the sentences above.

First element Full verb (infinite verb) Subject Other elements
Heute kocht Manuela Kaffee.
Gerade spielt Stefan mit dem Hund.
Seit gestern steht das Auto in der Garage.
Mit dem Hund sitzen ihre Eltern auf der Couch.

To be continued …

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About the Author:Sandra Rösner

Hello everybody! I studied English and American Studies, Communication Science, and Political Science at the University of Greifswald. Since I have been learning English as a second language myself for almost 20 years now I know how difficult it is to learn a language other than your native one. Thus, I am always willing to keep my explanations about German grammar comprehensible and short. Further, I am inclined to encourage you to speak German in every situation. Regards, Sandra