If there’s one thing that is somewhat tricky about the German language, it’s figuring out German sentence structure. We don’t build sentences in German the same way that we do in English, or in French or other Latin languages you may know. In her video below, Laura explains how to build a sentence in German, including how to manage word order and the verb placement, in particular. She’ll give you simple and practical tips for finding the right sentence structure in German. This video right fits into our series on German grammar. And don’t miss our German grammar guide, out now!
Word Order and Building a Sentence in German
Where does the verb go?
The first thing to pay attention to when building a sentence in German is the verb. Sentence structure in German is somewhat more flexible than in other languages. But the position of the verb always stays the same. So, for this first trick, remember that the conjugated verb is always in the 2nd position in all affirmative sentences.
Here’s an example:
“Du gehst heute mit deinen Freunden ins Kino” (= you are going with your friends to the movies today). Here, the conjugated verb is “gehst.” That’s the verb “gehen,” which has taken the ending “-st” since the subject is “du” – the second person singular form.
Are you ready for the rollercoaster of German grammar that this sentence can go on?
- You can change this sentence and say: “Heute gehst du mit deinen Freunden ins Kino” (literally translates to, “Today, you go with your friends to the cinema”).
- But also: “Mit deinen Freunden gehst du heute ins Kino” (literally, “With your friends, you go to the cinema today”).
- Or even: “Ins Kino gehst du heute mit deinen Freunden” (literally, “To the cinema, you go today with your friends”).
As you can see, the verb “gehst” is always in the second position, no matter where the rest of the words are. This often means putting the personal pronoun “du” behind the verb. Important: “second position” does not always mean that it’s the second word. See for yourself with the sentence that starts with “ins Kino“: these two words are considered as one block because together, they express the place. It may sound strange at first, but it’s quite a normal concept for native German speakers. You’ll get the hang of it with a little practice!
For a two-part verb:
If you have a verb form that has two parts, the second part goes at the end of the sentence. In this trick, I’m using a sentence in the past tense, the Perfekt tense, which you might already know. (If you don’t, head over to this article/video to learn more.) This is the tense used for events that are finished.
Life without coffee is unimaginable, for me at least. So I’ll say: “Ich trinke jeden Morgen Kaffee” (= I drink coffee every morning) and of course: “Ich habe auch heute morgen Kaffee getrunken” (= I drank coffee this morning, too). Did you notice that “Ich trinke” becomes “ich habe … getrunken” in the Perfekt?
Unlike many other languages, German divides the verb into two parts. “Habe,” the conjugated form, goes in the second position and “getrunken” goes at the end. This is also the case for: “Heute morgen habe ich auch Kaffee getrunken” or “Kaffee habe ich auch heute morgen getrunken.” This applies to all verbs which are separated: when you use a modal with an infinitive, for separable verbs, or in the future tense.
For subordinate clauses:
In a subordinate clause, the conjugated verb goes at the end.
A subordinate clause introduces a second action, and therefore has a second verb that completes the main clause.
One of the most important contexts subordinate clauses are used in is when giving a reason. For example, the answer to the question “warum?” (why). Here, we use the connector “weil” (because). Let’s try this: “Alex kann heute Abend nicht zu meiner Party kommen. Er schreibt gerade seine Masterarbeit” (= Alex cannot come to the party tonight. He is writing his thesis).
Now, let’s connect the sentences with “weil.” We end up with: “Alex kann heute Abend nicht zu meiner Party kommen, weil er gerade seine Masterarbeit schreibt.” With the introduction of the connective word, we have a sentence with a subordinate clause in which the verb “schreibt” is placed at the end. Interesting, right?
Of course, it also works in the past: “Alex konnte gestern Abend nicht zu meiner Party kommen. Er hat seine Masterarbeit geschrieben” becomes “Alex konnte gestern Abend nicht zu meiner Party kommen, weil er seine Masterarbeit geschrieben hat.” The conjugated form “hat” now has the important task of finishing the sentence.
Feeling like this rule is really complicated? Well, I have good news! My last trick is really going to make your life easier.
Use “Naja” to hack your German sentence
This trick is especially important for all of you beginners who are still having problems with German sentence structure. If you don’t feel like you can mix verbs, then use the power of “Naja…”!
Naja is nothing but an expletive word (a word that adds to another without changing its meaning, in this case, not a swear word). It is normally used when you need more time to think. And that’s exactly what we need! The good news is that it restarts the sentence. And what follows takes a “normal” German word order.
For example: instead of saying “Ich lerne Deutsch, weil ich die Sprache so schön finde,” we can say “Ich lerne Deutsch, weil… naja, ich finde die Sprache so schön!”
See? In the second sentence, we use the “normal” structure after the comma: “Ich finde die Sprache so schön!”
So, the supposed difficulty of constructing sentences in German is no an excuse not to speak the language. As always, this is the most important tip: start speaking as soon as possible. Even if your sentences are not always 100% correct.
Review These Tips and Practice Your German Listening Skills
Find all these tips on how to build a sentence in German, how to hack German word order, and where to put your verbs in this video by Laura. The video is totally in German, so it’s a great opportunity for you to practice your listening comprehension. But you can switch on the subtitles (in German, English or another language) if you need to.
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