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Wortstellung: Word Order in German

In English, the function of words is primarily determined by word order or syntax. For example, the subject of an English sentence always precedes the verb. However, German is a language in which nouns, noun phrases, and pronouns show grammatical case. Grammatical case refers to the grammatical function of a word, phrase, or clause. The grammatical cases in German are nominative, accusative, dative, and genitive. Although syntax is still important in the German language, grammatical case allows for greater flexibility in word order. Speakers new to the German language must therefore learn some significant differences between the word order of English and that of German.

Declarative Sentences or Aussagasatz

The standard word order for basic declarative sentences in German is subject-conjugated verb-direct object, which is the same as in English. The subject is always in the nominative case. The direct object is always in the accusative case. For example:

  • Der Welpe jagt die Katze. “The puppy chases the cat.”
  • Mein Kind trinkt die Milch. “My child drinks the milk.”
  • Wir lasen die Bücher. “We read the books.”

The indirect object precedes the direct object, which is also the same as in English. The indirect object is always in the dative case. For example:

  • Ich kaufte meinen Ehemann ein Geschenk. “I bought my husband a gift.”
  • Der Junge malte seine Mutter eine Abbildung. “The boy painted his mother a picture.”
  • Er gab ihr es. “He gave her it.”

The standard word order for basic declarative sentences with subject complements is also subject-conjugated verb-subject complement, which is again the same as in English. Subject complements are always in the nominative case. For example:

  • Mein Vater ist groß. “My father is tall.”
  • Ich bin klein. “I am short.”
  • Mein Großvater ist ein Landwirt. “My grandfather is a farmer.”
  • Der Lehrer ist eine Frau. “The teacher is a woman.”

The standard word order for basic declarative sentences that contain verbs with separable prepositional prefixes is subject-conjugated verb-(object)-preposition. For example:

  • Das Mädchen wacht auf. “The girl wakes up.”
  • Du kommst auf. “You arise.”
  • Ich bereite die Bestandteile vor. “I prepare the ingredients.”
  • Die Leute geben die Bibliothek ein. “The people enter the library.”

Inverted Word Order

The conjugated verb always appears in the second position in German declarative sentences. Unlike in English, however, other functions besides the subject may appear in the first position. In German, both the direct object and the indirect object may appear in the first position. For example:

  • Die Plätzchen aß der Hund. “The dog ate the cookies.”
  • Meiner Großmutter schrieb ich einen Brief. “I wrote my grandmother a letter.”

Inverted word order is usually used in response to a specific question. For example:

  • Was aßen sie zum Frühstück? “What did they eat for breakfast?”
  • Das Getreide aßen sie. “They ate cereal.”
  • Wem gab meine Mutter den Äpfeln? “Who did my mother give the apples to?”
  • Den Nachbarn gab deine Mutter die Äpfel. “Your mother gave the neighbors the apples.”

Inverted word order is also used to emphasize another word besides the subject. For example:

  • Den ganzen Kuchen aßen die Kinder! “The children ate all the cake!”
  • Deinem Ehemann gab diese Frau ein Geschenk! “That woman gave your husband a present!”

Interrogative Sentences or Fragasatz

The standard word order for yes-no questions is conjugated verb-subject-(object)-(non-finite verb). For example:

  • Lernst du Deutsch? “Do you study German?”
  • Schrieb er den Versuch? “Did he write the essay?”
  • Kann ich eine Frage stellen? “Can I ask a question?”
  • Wollen Sie das Brot essen? “Do you want to eat the bread?”

The standard word order for information questions is question word-conjugated verb-(object). Information question are also called wh-questions in English. For example:

  • Wann kommt er nach Hause? “When is he coming home?”
  • Wo ist die Bank? “Where is the bank?”
  • Wann hast du Geburtstag? “When is your birthday?”

Imperative Sentences or Befehl

The standard word order for imperative sentences or commands is conjugated verb-(Sie)-(object). For example:

  • Antworte! “Answer!”
  • Komm her! “Come here!”
  • Esst das Gemüse! “Eat the vegetables!”
  • Gehen Sie! “Go!”
  • Trinken Sie die Milch! “Drink the milk!”

Note: I have studied German as a foreign language. Please feel free to correct any mistakes that I have made in my German.

References

Swick, Edward. 2009. The everything learning German book: Speak, write, and understand basic German in no time, 2nd ed. Adams Media: Avon, Massachusetts.

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