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Mastering German word order I: main clauses Posted by on Jul 13, 2010 in Language

German word order may appear to be very random and confusing for foreign learners. Thus, I want to try to help you to overcome this challenge.

To make it as easy as possible for you to follow my explanation, I am going to start with the easiest and most basic sentence structure (containing less information) and progress to the more difficult ones (by adding more information to my sentence).

These are the words/phrases I am going to use in the following:

Verb (V): (schreibe) – “am writing”

Object (O): (einen Brief) – “a letter”

Subject (S): (ich) – “I”

Time (T): (heute) – “today”

Location (L): (im Büro) – “at the office”

The easiest and most basic sentence structure in German is SUBJECT + VERB.

Ich schreibe. – I am writing

However, “Ich schreibe” is yet not a complete sentence. Maybe you are curious what I am writing, thus, I add some more information to my sentence, i.e. attach my OBJECT “einen Brief” (a letter) to it.

Ich schreibe einen Brief. – I am writing a letter.

This word order is quite straightforward in German. Compare: Sie liest ein Buch. – She is reading a book. / Er trinkt eine Tasse Kaffee. – He is drinking a cup of coffee. / Sie kaufen Lebensmittel. – They are buying groceries.

But now I would like you to know WHEN and WHERE I am writing my letter. Let’s begin with adding a specific TIME to my sentence. I want to say that I am writing my letter “today” (heute). In German I have only one option to do this:

Ich schreibe heute einen Brief. – I am writing a letter today.

That is, I have to insert the specification of time between the verb and the object. The word “heute” cannot be added anywhere else in this sentence.

Now let me add some information about the LOCATION of my action. I want to say that I am writing my letter “at the office” (im Büro). I have two options to do this. I can insert the location before or behind the object. This results in the following sentences:

Ich schreibe einen Brief im Büro. – I write a letter at the office.

or:

Ich schreibe im Büro einen Brief. – I write a letter at the office.

When I want to add both information TIME and LOCATION to my sentence, I only have to employ the rules from above simultaneously. Thus, my sentence can look like this:

Ich schreibe heute im Büro einen Brief. – Today I write a letter at the office.

or:

Ich schreibe heute einen Brief im Büro. – Today I write a letter at the office.

Exercise:

And now it is your turn. Here are some words, which you can chain together to build similar sentences like the ones I have just discussed above. I will provide all possible sentences in my next post.

1. V: (liest) – is reading / O: (ein Buch) – a book / L: (in der Bibliothek) – in the library / S: (sie) – she / T: (heute Abend) – tonight

2. S: (er) – he / O: (eine Tasse Kaffee) – a cup of coffee / T: (morgens) – in the morning / V: (trinkt) – is drinking / L: (im Garten) – in the garden

3. S: (sie) – they / T: (freitags) – on Fridays / V: (kaufen) – are buying / O: (Lebensmittel) – groceries /  L: (im Supermarkt) – in the supermarket

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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


Comments:

  1. Scott:

    Wow, Jan, you’ve really raised the bar with this post. I love it! I’ve always struggled with German word order, and gotten quizzical looks when I’ve put the time element in the wrong place, for instance “Heute schreibe ich einien Brief im Büro”. Now I will remember, time after the verb.

    Vielen Dank! Keep up the good work, I love your blog.

    Yours

    Scott

    • sanroesner:

      @Scott Hi Scott,

      I am happy to hear that you like my post. Thank you very much. Unfortunately, I am not Jan. My name is Sandra 😉

  2. Scott Welker:

    Es tut mir leid, liebe Sandra.

  3. golsorkh:

    can we use time adverb befor object?

    which one is correct ?

    Ich schreibe heute einen Brief im Büro
    or
    Ich schreibe einen Brief heute im Büro.

    please tell me which one is correct

    • sanroesner:

      @golsorkh Hi golsorkh

      You HAVE TO use the time before the object and immediately behind the verb. Thus, „Ich schreibe heute einen Brief im Büro“ is the correct sentence.

  4. Scheich Josef:

    Dear Sandra,

    if someone asks “Wann schreibst du einen Brief?” one can reply “Ich schreibe einen Brief heute.”
    or “Ich schreibe heute einen Brief.” or “Heute schreibe ich einen Brief.” with the emphasis on “heute”.

    With greetings from Germany,

    Josef http://josef.jimdo.com/

    • sanroesner:

      @Scheich Josef Hi Josef,

      Your comments are always welcome but „Ich schreibe einen Brief heute“ is bad/wrong German. I know that because I am a native speaker of German and I always consult a grammar book (for confirmation) when I write posts on grammar. So far, I have not come across a rule allowing to add the time at the end of a sentence like this and I also do not consider it acceptable. Consequently, I would never teach that.
      You are right I can attach the time at the beginning of my sentence for emphasis, but not with “gerade Wortreihenfolge“ (straight word order“). You will read about that in my next post which will be on “versetzte Wortreihenfolge“ (shifted word order).

      Best wishes,

      Sandra

  5. issa:

    thanks alot ,,, and please i wish to know how can we write aletter that is for me very importent viellen dank fur ihre helfen,

  6. Scheich Josef:

    Dear Sandra,

    thank you for your remarks concerning my comment. I do agree with you that the two forms

    “Ich schreibe heute einen Brief.”
    “Heute schreibe ich einen Brief.”

    are the standard forms to be taught in German as a foreign language.

    I don’t quite agree with your comment on the third form

    “Ich schreibe einen Brief heute.”

    for the following reason:

    In the online article

    http://www.haeselbarth.de/wort.htm

    of Heiko Häselbarth on “Die Wortstellung im Deutschen” you can find the sentence

    “Der Gärtner bindet die Blumen im Gewächshaus/am Abend/nachlässig …”

    I consider “heute” like “am Abend” in his terminology as a free adverb (freies Umstandswort).

    In a sentence like:

    “Ich schreibe einen Brief heute, weil ich morgen keine Zeit dafür habe.”

    it seems to me quite natural to put “heute” after the direct object. Moreover, I have called up some school teachers here in Germany to discuss this topic. None of them could come up with a rule which would forbid this and none would mark this in school as incorrect.

    But if you can find such a rule, please let me know …

    Best wishes,

    Josef

  7. Carol:

    Sandra,
    Your “German word order 1” is very clear to understand. As a beginner, and a daughter of a German speaker who didn’t learn German, I keep trying to learn. In retirement it will be something I will work on so my next trip to see family, I will hopefully do better with my German.

    Thank you….look forward to your next posting.

    • sanroesner:

      @Carol Thank you all for the positive feedback. That spurs me on! I am happy to help.

      Liebe Grüße,

      Sandra

  8. Tedd.Hanyeé:

    Very helpful & valuable lessons here, Sandra. I have struggled with German word order and this is a great step towards getting more clarity towards this.

    Looking forward to future related posts! 🙂

  9. Anna:

    Muchas gracias!!!!

  10. Kat:

    Wow, feel like I’ve mastered the German word order in 5 minutes! (I know I haven’t but.. :P)

    Thanks loads! 🙂