German sentence structure

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German sentence structure is somewhat more complex than that of many other European languages, with phrases regularly inverted for both questions and subordinate phrases.

Main Sentence

If a verb has a separable prefix, this prefix is moved to the end of the sentence.

"Ich werde den Müll wegwerfen" (I will throw away the rubbish)
"Ich werfe den Müll weg" (statement) (I'm throwing away/ I throw away the rubbish)
"Werfe ich den Müll weg?" (question) (Am I throwing away the rubbish?)
"Wirf den Müll weg!" (command)(familiar form) (Throw away the rubbish!)


A normal statement is quite simple to construct. First the Subject, then the conjugated verb, at last the rest of the infinitive without this verb.

"Ich" - "den Baum sehen" - "Ich sehe den Baum" (I - to see the tree - I see the tree)
"Ein Text" - "geschrieben werden" - "Ein Text wird geschrieben" (A text - to be written - a text is being written)
"Wir" - "den Raum verlassen" - "Wir verlassen den Raum" (we - to leave the room - we leave the room)
"Der König" - "eine Burg bauen lassen" - "Der König lässt eine Burg bauen" (the king - to have a castle built - the king has a castle built)

If the conjugated verb has a separable prefix, this prefix stays at the end of the sentence.

"Ich" - "den Müll wegwerfen" - "Ich werfe den Müll weg" (I - to dispose of the trash - I dispose of the trash)

In addition, past participles in the perfect tenses fall at the end of the sentence, with the conjugated auxiliary verb (Hilfsverb) in the second position of the sentence.

Conventional German syntax presents information within a sentence in the following order:

Wem (to/for whom - dative object) Wann (when - time) Warum (why - manner) Wie (how - manner) Wo (where - place) Wen (whom - accusative object) Wohin/Woher (to/from where)

"Wir gehen am Freitag miteinander ins Kino." Literally, We go on Friday together to the movies.

"Wir bereiten unseren Eltern heute wegen ihres Jahrestages eine Exkursion nach München vor." Literally, "We are planning for our parents today because of their anniversary a trip to Munich."

Note that any of the sentence elements can be moved to the front of the sentence for emphasis. If a prepositional phrase, or an adverb of place or time (such as da or dann) is moved to the front, then the verb is also moved before the subject: "Am Freitag gehen wir miteinander ins Kino." (see inversion below)

Additionally, German often structures a sentence according to increasing news value. So: "Wir gehen am Donnerstag ins Kino." "We're going to the movies on Thursday." BUT "An welchem Tag gehen wir ins Kino? Am Donnerstag gehen wir ins Kino." OR "Wir gehen am Donnerstagins Kino." "(At) What day are we going to the movies? We're going to the movies on Thursday."

Additionally, when the accusative object is a pronoun, it moves in front of the dative object. "Florian gibt mir morgen das Buch." "Florian is giving me tomorrow the book." BUT "Florian gibt es mir morgen." "Florian is giving it to me tomorrow."


By an inversion you emphasize a component of the sentence: an adverbial phrase, a predicative or an object, or even an inner verbal phrase. The subject phrase is put directly behind the conjugated verb, and the component to emphasize is taken to the beginning. The conjugated verb is always the second sentence element in indicative statements.

"Ich fliege schnell" - "Schnell fliege ich" (I fly fast - I fly fast)
"Du bist wunderschön" - "wunderschön bist du" (You are lovely - you are lovely)
UNCOMMON: "Ich bin gelaufen" - "Gelaufen bin ich" (I ran - I ran)


Questions may be divided into yes/no questions, asking for the truthfulness of a statement, and specific questions, which ask for a concrete aspect of a statement.

Specific questions are similar to inverted statements. They begin with a question word, then there is the conjugated verb, followed by the subject (if there is one), and the rest of the sentence follows.

"Was machst du jetzt?" (What are you doing now?)
"Wer geht ins Kino?" (Who is going to the cinema? -- In this sentence, the interrogative pronoun "wer" serves as the subject)

Yes/No questions

This kind of question is similar to the inversion: you put the inflected verb at the beginning of the (not inverted) sentence.

"Du kommst." - "Kommst du?" (You are coming - Are you coming?)
"Ich habe geschlafen." - "Habe ich geschlafen?" (I slept - Did I sleep?)
"Ich werde das Spiel beenden." - "Werde ich das Spiel beenden?" (I'm going to (lit. 'I will') finish the game - Am I going to (lit. 'Will I') finish the game?)
"Du wirfst den Torwart raus." - "Wirfst du den Torwart raus?" (You are throwing the goalkeeper out - Are you throwing the goalkeeper out?)

Asking for subject or object

In a normal question, you replace the subject phrase or object phrase with a corresponding interrogative pronoun, then move it to the beginning of the sentence, like an inversion. Theoretically, you must use the interrogative pronoun of "welcher, welche, welches" or a nominal phrase with the interrogative article.

"Du hast deiner Frau einen Ring gekauft." (You bought your wife a ring.)
- "Welchen hast du deiner Frau gekauft?" (Which one did you buy your wife?)
"Du hast deiner Frau einen roten Ring gekauft." (You bought your wife a red ring.)
- "Welchen Ring hast du deiner Frau gekauft?" (Which ring did you buy your wife?)
"Du hast deiner Frau einen roten Ring gekauft." (You bought your wife a red ring.)
- "Welchen roten hast du deiner Frau gekauft?" (Which red one did you buy your wife?)
"Du hast deiner Frau einen roten Ring gekauft." (You bought your wife a red ring.)
- "Welchen roten Ring hast du deiner Frau gekauft?" (Which red ring did you buy your wife?)

But the usage of this pronoun implies that the speaker knows both the gender and number of the unknown object. So, practically, you replace these pronouns by short forms.

"Du hast deiner Frau einen Ring gekauft." (You bought your wife a ring.)
- "Was hast du deiner Frau gekauft?" (What did you buy your wife?)
  person thing
nominative wer was
genitive (object) wessen wessen
dative wem wem
accusative wen was

Regardless of whether you use the full pronoun or the short form, the genitive case is practically only used for genitive objects. See "Asking for a possessor".

Asking for a predicative

You ask for a predicative with the either interrogative pronoun "Was" or, if knowing it is not a nominal phrase, "Wie".

"Er ist schnell" - "Wie/Was ist er?" (He's fast - What is he?)
"Ein Schmetterling ist ein Insekt" - "Was ist ein Schmetterling?" (A butterfly is an insect - What is a butterfly?)

You can also use other interrogative pronouns like "Wo".

Asking for an adverb

It is possible to ask for the adverb of a predicative, if it is not a nominal phrase (and even for the adverb of the adverb etc.)

"Der Baum ist 3 Meter hoch.- "Wie hoch ist der Baum?" (The tree is three metres tall - How tall is the tree?)

Asking for a possessor

When searching for the possessor of a nominal phrase, you first act as if you would invert the corresponding statement, placing the noun with the unknown possessor at the beginning. Then give it the possessive interrogative article ("wessen" for all cases, genders and numbers). Of course, this nominal phrase may not have a genitive possessor.

"Ich habe das Auto des Chefs gesehen." - "Wessen Auto hast du gesehen?" (I saw the boss's car - Whose car did you see?)
"Ich habe sein Auto gesehen" - "Wessen Auto hast du gesehen?" (I saw his car - Whose car did you see?)
"Ich habe sein Auto gesehen" - "Wessen hast du gesehen?" (I saw his car - Whose did you see?)
(Wessen is no longer an article, but a pronoun)

Usage is the same for both unknown possessive articles as for unknown genitive possessors.

Asking for an adverb

First the interrogative pronoun ("Wie"), then the conjugated verb, next the subject, then the rest of the sentence.

"Der Vogel fliegt schnell am Himmel" - "Wie fliegt der Vogel am Himmel?" (The bird flies quickly in the sky - How does the bird fly in the sky?)

If the adverb describes another adverb or an adjective:

"Der Vogel fliegt ungeheuer schnell" - "Wie schnell fliegt der Vogel?" (The bird flies amazingly quickly - How quickly does the bird fly?)

Asking for position or adverbial clause

Developing the question for an adverbial phrase may be slightly more complicated.

Theoretically, like the other specific questions, the unknown position is inverted to the beginning of the sentence. Whereas the pre- or post- position remains, the nominal part is replaced either by an interrogative pronoun or by a nominal phrase having the interrogative article.

"Er sah den Vogel auf dem Baum." - "Auf welchem Baum sah er den Vogel?" (He saw the bird in the tree - In which tree did he see the bird?)
"Dein Hund wurde in diesem Jahr geboren." (Your dog was born this year)
- "In welchem Jahr wurde dein Hund geboren?" (Which year was your dog born?)

Practically, the person asking the question will know neither the gender of the noun, nor the number of the noun, nor even the kind of preposition, before he hears the answer. So a short form is used instead in nearly every case. These short forms are also the only way to ask for an adverbial clause or for a proposition.

"Er sah den Vogel auf dem Baum." - "Wo sah er den Vogel?" (He saw the bird in the tree - Where did he see the bird?)
"Dein Hund wurde damals geboren." - "Wann wurde dein Hund geboren?" (Your dog was born at that time - When was your dog born?)

Some interrogative pronouns: Wo, Woher, Wohin, Wann, Wieso, Weshalb, Warum, Weswegen.


For a command, take the imperative form of the conjugated verb from the infinitive and put it at the beginning of the sentence followed by the corresponding personal pronoun. There also must be an exclamation point at the end of the sentence to make it a command. The separable prefix, if there is one, remains at its old place, separated. In the literary language it is possible to leave the verb at the second place.

If the verb changes the vowel in the second and third person singular, the vowel is also changed in the second person singular of the imperative.

The 2nd person plural pronoun is always omitted. In archaic language, or to emphasize who is ordered for the action, the 2nd person singular pronoun may be left.

"Das Tier verfolgen" - "Verfolge (du) das Tier!" (to trail the animal - Trail the animal!)
"Das Tier verfolgen lassen" - "Lass(e) (du) das Tier verfolgen!" (to have the animal trailed - Have the animal trailed!)
"wegfahren" - "Fahr(e) (du) weg" (to drive away - Drive away!)
"jemanden mitnehmen" - "Nimm (du) jemanden mit" (to give someone a lift - Give someone a lift!)

Note that an e may be added on to the end of the command form, but only if the verb does not have a stem-change. This is a result of the spoken language and has no difference in meaning. "Schreib das Wort auf!" means the same as "Schreibe das Wort auf!" (Write the word down!)

"*Lese das Buch!", though very common in spoken language, is considered incorrect because the stem changes from les to lies in the command form. "Lies das Buch!" (Read the book!) (singular) and "Lest das Buch!" (plural) are correct.

There are no imperative forms for first person plural and second person formal. The first and third person plural of the conditional of the present is used. You must put it to beginning of the sentence, separate the separable prefix before that, and place the personal pronouns "wir" or "Sie" directly after it.

"wegfahren" - "Fahren wir weg!" (Let's drive away!) - "Fahren Sie weg!" (You) Drive away!
"froh sein" - "Seien wir froh!" (Let's be glad!) - "Seien Sie froh!" Be glad!

Note that imperatives must have the same word order as yes/no questions.

Subordinate clauses

A subordinate clause (Nebensatz) is always incorporated in a main sentence (or another subordinate clause). In general, it begins with a special word (a 'subordinating conjunction'), setting it into relation with the encompassing sentence. After this word comes the subject, and the conjugated verb is sent to the end of the clause (not the sentence - see example 3).

"Ich hoffe, er kommt mit." "Ich hoffe, dass er mitkommt." (Note that the separable prefix remains attached to the conjugated verb in a subordinate clause).

"Er kommt nicht, denn er hat seine Arbeit noch nicht gemacht." "Er kommt nicht, weil er seine Arbeit noch nicht gemacht hat."

"Wir haben genug Geld, um diese CD zu kaufen." "Ich weiß nicht, ob wir genug Geld haben, um diese CD zu kaufen."

In the above examples, 'dass', 'weil' and 'ob' are subordinating conjunctions. The verb is sent to the end and, if separable, is combined. However, 'denn' is not a subordinating conjunction and does not count as an idea (cf. 'und', 'oder') so the verb stays in the same place.

Question words (in the following example, 'wohin') have the same effect as subordinating conjunctions within a sentence.

"Wohin ist er gelaufen?" "Niemand wusste, wohin er gelaufen ist." (Where did he run (to)? No one knew where he ran (to). -- Note that, unlike in English, a subordinate or dependent clause is always separated from the independent clause (Hauptsatz) by a comma.)

Subordinate sentence structure

Just as in English, a subordinate clause may be used at the beginning or end of a complete expression, so long as it is paired with at least one independent clause. For instance, just as one could say either:

"I will go with you, if I can." or "If I can, I will go with you."

so you can also say in German:

"Ich komme mit, wenn ich kann." or "Wenn ich kann, komme ich mit."

Note, however, that in the German when the independent clause comes after a subordinate clause the conjugated verb comes before the subject. This arises from the basic rule that always places the conjugated verb in a sentence in the second position, even if that puts it ahead of the sentence's subject.

Clauses with dass

Subordinate clauses beginning with "dass" [thus, so, that] enable the speaker to use statements like nominal phrases or pronouns. These sentences are singular, neuter and either nominative or accusative. However, the verb must go at the end of the sentence. "Ich denke, daß er ein Vater ist."

"Dass Spinnen keine Insekten sind, ist allgemein bekannt" (It's well-known that spiders are not insects)
- "Das ist allgemein bekannt" (That is well-known)
"Ich weiß, dass Spinnen keine Insekten sind" - "Ich weiß das" (I know that spiders are not insects - I know that.)

Indirect questions with ob

Whereas the word "dass" indicates that the statement is a fact, "ob" starts an indirect yes/no question.

"Ich weiß nicht, ob ich fliegen soll." (I don't know whether I should fly.)

Specific indirect question

Relative clauses

The outer nominal phrase the relative clause relates to can be any nominal phrase in any case. The clause begins with a form of the relative pronoun derived from and largely identical to the definite pronoun (der/die/das), or the interrogative pronoun (welchem/welcher/welches), the rest words are put after it. Using the interrogative pronoun without good cause is considered typical for legalese language.

"Der Mann, der/welcher seiner Frau den Hund schenkt" (nominative subject)(The man who gives his wife the dog)
"Der Hund, den/welchen der Mann seiner Frau schenkt" (accusative object) (The dog which the man gives his wife)
"Die Frau, der/welcher der Mann den Hund schenkt" (dative object) (The woman to whom the man gives the dog)
"Der Mann, der/welcher ich bin" (predicative noun) (The man I am)

The outer nominal phrase can also be the possessor of a noun inside. You use the genitive case of a relative pronoun matching the outer nominal phrase in gender and number.

"Der Mann, dessen Auto auf der Straße parkt" (The man whose car is parked on the street)
"Die Person, deren Auto ich kaufe" (The person whose car I am buying)
"Das Auto, dessen Fahrer ich helfe" (The car whose driver I am helping)
"Die Kinder, deren Lehrer ich kenne" (The children whose teacher I know)

Prepositions/Postpositions are attached to these phrases in the relative clause if necessary.

"Das Haus, in dem ich lebe" (The house I live in)
"Die Person, derentwegen ich hier bin" (The person I am here because of)
"Das Haus, durch dessen Tür ich gegangen bin" (The house whose door I came in by)

If the relative pronoun is identical to the definite article several identical forms may follow each other.

"Der, der der Frau, der ich schon Honig gegeben hatte, Honig gab, muss mehr Honig kaufen" (The man who gave honey to the woman I had already given honey to, has to buy more honey)

Such constructions are generally avoided by using forms of welch- as relative pronouns.

"Der, welcher der Frau, welcher ..."

or rather

"Derjenige, welcher der Frau, der ich ...

In spoken German, the interrogative pronoun wo can be used to indicate general place and sometimes time. This is highly uncommon in written German.

"In dem Geschäft, wo man auch Brot kaufen kann, kaufe ich Bier." - "In this shop where you also can buy bread I am buying beer."

When to use der, welcher or was: to be added

Adverbial clauses

An adverbial clause begins with a conjunction, defining its relation to the verb or nominal phrase described.

"Als ich auf dem Meer segelte" (When/As I was sailing on the sea)

Some examples of conjunctions: als, während, nachdem, weil



  1. Der Dativ ist dem Genitiv sein Tod


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