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German word order: Main clauses, part 2 Posted by on Sep 22, 2012 in Grammar, Language

In my last post, I explained how to form main clauses with only one verb and with the correct word order in mind. Today, I would to continue with this topic and address myself to sentences that contain two or three verbs.

When a sentence contains only one verb, then this verb is usually a full verb. When a sentence contains more than one verb, then we do not only have a full verb but also an auxiliary and/or modal verb.

Full verbs are the most important verbs of a sentence, since they refer to the main action of a statement, for example: trinken (to drink), essen (to eat), schlafen (to sleep), laufen (to walk), etc. Modal verbs are those verbs that modify the meaning a sentence to certain degree. Compare:


Stefanie singt. – Stefanie sings.

Stefanie kann singen. – Stefanie can sing. (She is able to sing.)

Stefanie möchte singen. – Stefanie wants to sing.


Auxiliary verbs are those verbs that also modify the meaning of a sentence but rather in a grammatical way. For example, you use auxiliaries when you want to use a particular tense (past or future). Compare:


Stefanie singt (gerade). – Stefanie is singing (at the moment).

Stefanie hat (gestern) gesungen. – Stefanie sang (yesterday).

Stefanie wird (morgen) singen. – Stefanie will sing (tomorrow).


No matter how many verbs a sentence has, there is always only one verb that has to be conjugated – this particular verb is called the finite verb. All three types of verbs (full verb, auxiliary verb, and modal verb) can take the function of a finite verb. Usually, the finite verb is to be found in the second position of a sentence.


Word order with two verbs

When a sentence contains two verbs, the second verb or full verb moves to the end of a sentence while the modal verb – which is here the finite verb – comes in the second position. You can use this sentence structure for the present tense and passive constructions.


Subject Finite verb Other elements Second verb
Doreen kann keine Noten lesen.1
Manuel möchte gerne Bier trinken.2
Meine Freundin will mich später anrufen.3
Das Haus wurde vor 100 Jahren gebaut.4
Meine Freunde sind heute zu Besuch gekommen.5


1Doreen cannot read music.

2Manuel would like to drink a beer.

3My (female) friend wants to call me later.

4The house was built 100 years ago.

5Today, my friends have come to visit me.



Word order with three verbs

When a sentence contains three verbs, then these verbs are usually a full verb, an auxiliary and/or a modal verb.


Subject Finite verb Other elements Final verbs
Ich habe leider nicht helfen können.7
Du wirst wohl mehr Sport treiben müssen.8


7Unfortunately, I could not help.

8You will have to engage in more sports.

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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


  1. Dan:

    Hi Sandra,


    In the 3 verb section, you wrote “Ich habe leider nicht helfen können”, how come the verb isn’t “gekonnt”, due to the “habe”? I know you could have used “konnte” but that would have defeated the purpose of the sentence.

    I haven’t gotten that far with formal German language lessons, so I apologise if the answer is something ‘obvious’.


    • Sandra:

      @Dan Hello Dan,

      in German, we say “Es gibt keine dummen Fragen, nur dumme Antworten” (There are no silly questions, just silly answers.) Your question is quite tricky. It is true that you can say “Ich konnte leider nicht helfen.”/”Leider konnte ich nicht helfen.” (I couldn’t help.) instead of “Ich habe nicht helfen können.” (I wasn’t able to help.). The reason why you cannot use “gekonnt” here is that “gekonnt” is the past form of “können”. When there are several verbs in a sentence, then these verbs have different functions (full verb, modal verb, auxiliary verb). Each sentence can only and must contain ONE full verb (which denotes the action). Additionally, a sentence can contain ONE modal verb – which modifies the meaning of a sentence with regard to likelihood, permission, ability, and/or obligation. Further, sentences can contain auxiliary verbs (one or more) to make a sentence more grammatical with regard to tense, for example.
      In the sentence ” Ich habe leider nicht helfen können.”, ‘habe’ is the auxiliary verb – which serves here as the finite verb, that is, it’s only this verb that can be conjugated in this sentence. All other verbs are infinite, that is, they cannot be conjugated but have to crop up in their basic “disguise” (just how you can find it in a dictionary). Thus, you neither have to conjugate the fill verb “helfen” (to help) or the modal verb “können” (to can, to be able to).


      Sandra 🙂

  2. Richard Wetterer:

    Hallo Sandra,

    Vielen Dank für dienen Blog. Ich finde es sehr interessant und informativ. Auch habe ich die deutschen Lieder und Gedichte gefallen.

    Ich bin Amerikaner und lerne allein das Deutsch. Meine Familie ist 1852 von Ichenheim ausgewandert und Ich hoffe nächstes Jahr Deutschland besuchen.

    Was bedeutet “der Glückspilz”? “lucky dog”? oder “lucky stiff”?

    mit freundlichen Grüßen,

    Richard Wetterer

    • Sandra:

      @Richard Wetterer Thank you Richard. 🙂

      I would simply translate “Glückspilz” as “lucky one”, that is, when we say in German: “Du Glückspilz!” or “Ich Glückspilz!” I would translate that as: “Lucky you!” and “Lucky me!”, respectively.



  3. James:

    Hi Sandra,

    I appreciate your help regarding german lessons, they are very informative and interesting. I’m actually still confused about the use of 3 verbs you presented above. As far as my understanding the verb used there should be gekonnt. Can you elaborate it please again and if possible can you please give more examples so our understanding get better.

    thanks a lot