german sentence structure

German Sentence Structure Explained [Everything You Need To Know]

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In this post we will cover everything you need to know about German sentence structure. You will learn the rules for German sentence structure, how to form a sentence using the past tense, how to structure questions and what happens to the sentence structure when we introduce certain conjunctions such as weil (because) or dass (that).

This can be a complicated subject for beginners, but believe me that once you learn the rules, you’ll be able to form sentences like a pro. In this post we will start from the very beginning, then gradually add elements which change the basic structure.

There’s a lot to get through, so let’s get started, auf geht’s!

Top Tip: Download this post as a PDF – There is a lot of information to get through in this post, download the whole guide as a free PDF to read later.

Basic German Sentence Structure

In German, the basic sentence structure is the same as in English. Both languages use the ‘subject verb object’ (SVO) structure. Let’s take a look at an example sentence:

SubjectVerbObject
IchessePizza.
Ieat / am eatingpizza.

In fact, this basic structure is used whenever only one verb is present. The structure follows:

Subject + Verb + The Rest

Subject (Position 1)Verb (Position 2)Object (The Rest)
Der Mannsiehtden Hund.
The manseesthe dog.
Rule 1: The conjugated verb nearly always goes in position 2.

Now let’s add some more information to this basic sentence. Before we do this though, we need to learn another rule:

Rule 2: Time Manner Place – To keep things simple, whenever you need to give more information in a sentence follow the ‘time manner place’ rule.

This means information about time goes first, then information about manner goes next (this is info such as who, or what). After that comes place (where).

All 3 elements may not be present in the sentence, for example in some sentences only time and place may be needed. Sometimes only place is used.

Let’s look at some example sentences using both rule 1 and rule 2:

Subject
(Pos. 1)
Verb
(Pos. 2)
TimeMannerPlace
Ichfahrezum Flughafen.
Ertrifftum 18 Uhrseine Freunde.
Siegehenam Montagin den Park.

Hopefully you can see from these examples that not all 3 elements of Time Manner and Place need to be present for the sentence to make sense. But the correct word order is followed:

Subject (position 1) + Verb (position 2) + Time + Manner + Place

German sentence structure is very flexible, so sometimes you will see the time element moved to the beginning of the sentence. We actually do this in English as well. We can say ‘I go to the gym on Wednesdays’ or ‘On Wednesdays I go to the gym’.

In German however we must always refer back to rule 1: The conjugated verb always goes in position 2. This means we end up with a slightly different word order to what we have in English.

Time
(Pos. 1)
Verb
(Pos. 2)
SubjectPlace
Mittwochsgeheichins Fitnessstudio.
On WednesdaysgoIto the gym.

So now we have the following structure, with the verb still correctly in position 2:

Time (position 1) + Verb (position 2) + Subject + Manner + Place

If we want to introduce 2 more objects (1 direct object and 1 indirect object) to the sentence, we stick with the usual subject in position 1, verb in position 2 rule.

Subject
(Pos. 1)
Verb
(Pos. 2)
Indirect ObjectDirect Object
Ichgebedem Lehrerdas Buch.
Igivethe teacherthe book.

Subject (position 1) + Verb (position 2) + Indirect Object + Direct Object

If we are using a separable verb such as ankommen (to arrive) the prefix, an-, is always separated and goes to the very end of the sentence.

Subject
(Pos. 1)
Verb
(Pos. 2)
TimePlacePrefix
Ichkommeum 10 Uhram Bahnhofan.

Subject (position 1) + Verb (position 2) + Other Info + Prefix

The take away for this part is that the conjugated verb stays in position 2, no matter what. If a separable verb is used, the prefix is separated and goes to the end of the sentence.

German Sentences with 2 Verbs

So now we have the basic German sentence structure sorted, let’s see what happens when we introduce a second verb. It’s very common to find two verbs in a sentence. Sometimes these are two ordinary verbs, but we’ll also encounter this when we use a modal verb, which always requires a second verb.

For this we need to learn a third rule:

Rule 3: The conjugated verb is in position 2 (this is the modal verb if we are using one). The second verb is unconjugated (i.e in infinitive form) and goes to the end of the sentence.

Let’s take a look at an example sentence to make this clear:

Subject
(Pos. 1)
Conj. Verb
(Pos. 2)
Other InfoUnconj. Verb
(The End)
Ichgehein den Laden, um Brot zukaufen.
Iam goingto the shop, breadto buy.

You can see that we’re getting a bit further away from English sentence structure. But the important thing is we are following rules 1 and 3. The Time Manner Place rule 2, is still followed, it is grouped with ‘Other Info’ and goes after ‘Position 2’ and before ‘The End’.

Subject (pos. 1) + Conj. Verb (pos. 2) + Other Info + Unconj. Verb (The End)

Subject
(Pos. 1)
Conj. Verb
(Pos. 2)
Other Info (time) (manner) (place)Unconj. Verb
(The End)
Ichtreffemich heute mit meinen Freunden zumschwimmen.
Der Mannmussum 15 Uhr, zum Zahnarztgehen.

We also encounter this when using the future tense, since we’ll use the verb werden plus the main verb.

Subject
(Pos. 1)
Conj. werden Verb
(Pos. 2)
Other InfoUnconj. Main Verb
(The End)
Ichwerdeins Kinogehen.
Meine Mutterwirdam Montag in den Urlaubfahren.

In the case of separable verbs, these are not separated when used with a modal verb. Instead we conjugate the modal verb and put it in position 2, and the unconjugated, unseparated separable verb goes to the end:

Subject
(Pos. 1)
Conj. Modal Verb
(Pos. 2)
Other InfoUnconj. Sep. Verb
(The End)
Siesollteum 9 Uhrabreisen.
Sheshouldat 9amdepart / leave.

The Past Tense

In order to form the past tense (known as the perfect tense) we need to use an auxiliary verb, either haben or sein, plus the past tense of the main verb. The rules for forming the perfect tense are quite simple:

Rule 4: The auxiliary verb (haben or sein) is always conjugated and goes in position 2. The main verb is in the past tense and goes to the end of the sentence.

Let’s take a look at some example sentences:

Subject
(Pos. 1)
Conj. Auxiliary Verb
(Pos. 2)
Other InfoPast Tense Main Verb
(The End)
Ichhabedas Buchgelesen.
Die Freundehabensich am Samstagabendgetroffen.
Meine Schwesteristum 8 Uhr auf dem Flughafenangekommen.

So we have the following sentence structure:

Subject (pos. 1) + Conj. Auxiliary Verb (pos. 2) + Other Info + Past Tense Main Verb

Question Structure in German

So far we have seen the conjugated verb stuck firmly in position 2. But from now on we are going to make a few exceptions for this rule.

Rule 5: In order to ask a yes / no question in German, the subject and the verb must swap places. The verb now takes position 1, and the subject takes position 2.

Here are a few example questions:

Verb
(Pos. 1)
Subject
(Pos. 2)
Other Info
Fährstduoft nach Deutschland?
Kenntihrmeinen Freund?

Conjugated Verb (pos. 1) + Subject (pos. 2) + Other Info

If we are using two verbs in the question, we use the same structure as previously learned for 2 verbs, except the verb and subject follow the new question sentence structure rule 5.

Conj. Verb
(Pos. 1)
Subject
(Pos. 2)
Other InfoUnconj. Verb
(The End)
Hastdumein Buchgelesen?
SindSieangekommen?

Conjugated Verb (pos. 1) + Subject (pos. 2) + Other Info + Unconj. Verb

If we want to form a question with a question word (such as why, who, what) the conjugated verb goes back to it’s favourite spot in position 2. The question word takes position 1 and the subject takes position 3.

Question Word
(Pos. 1)
Conj. Verb
(Pos. 2)
Subject
(Pos. 3)
The RestUnconjugated Verb
(The End)
WoherkommenSie?
Warumbistdunoch zu Hause?
Wohinbistdudieses Jahrgefahren?

Question Word (pos. 1) + Conj. Verb (pos. 2) + Subject (pos. 3) + The Rest + Unconj. Verb

How a Conjunction Affects Sentence Structure

So far we have learned some simple rules for forming German sentence structure. The conjugated verb always goes in position 2 and the subject goes in position 1, unless we are asking a yes / no question. If there is further information that goes next. Lastly, if there is a second verb, that remains unconjugated (in the infinitive form) and goes right to the end.

We are now going to introduce some conjunctions to the sentence, such as aber (but), und (and), oder (or). These 3 common conjunctions don’t affect the sentence structure.

Subject
(Pos. 1)
Verb
(Pos. 2)
Other Info
IchnehmeKaffee und Kuchen.
Ichmagdas blaue Auto, aber auch das rote.

However, because this is German, there are some more exceptions. Certain conjunctions cause the conjugated verb to move from it’s usual position 2, to the very end of the sentence. Here are some basic conjunctions to watch out for:

  • weil = because
  • dass = that
  • ob = if / whether

There are many more, but to keep things simple let’s focus on these 3 for now. These type of conjunctions are known as subordinating conjunctions. The sentence starts with the ‘main clause’ then when a subordinate conjunction is used, it introduces the ‘subordinate clause’. Effectively, the sentence is broken into two parts. Here is an example:

Subject
(Pos. 1)
Verb
(Pos. 2)
Other InfoConjunction
(Pos. 1)
Subj.
(Pos. 2)
Other InfoConj. Verb
(The End)
Ichtrinkeeinen Kaffee,weilichDursthabe.
Idrinka coffeebecauseIthirsthave.
Main ClauseSubordinate Clause
Ich trinke einen Kaffee,weil ich Durst habe.

You can see in this example, because the subordinate conjunction weil, has been used, we now have two parts to the sentence, the main clause and the subordinate clause. The two clauses are treated like separate sentences and separated with a comma (,).

The main clause keeps the normal sentence structure rules:

Subject (pos. 1) + Verb (pos. 2) + Other Info

The subordinate clause has a different structure:

Conjunction (pos. 1) + Subject (pos. 2) + Other Info + Conjugated Verb (The End)

Rule 6: Certain conjunctions known as subordinating conjunctions such as weil, dass and ob create a second part to the sentence. After the conjunction, the conjugated verb is sent to the very end of the sentence.

This is a complicated concept to get your head around, trust me, it took me ages to be able to form subordinating clauses correctly. Let’s take a look at another example. Remember main clause and subordinate clause.

Subject
(Pos. 1)
Verb
(Pos. 2)
Conjunction
(Pos. 1)
Subj.
(Pos. 2)
Other InfoConj. Verb
(The End)
Ichglaube,dasserjetzt bei der Arbeitist.
Ibelievethatheat work nowis.

Subject + Verb + Conjunction + Subject + Other Info + Conjugated Verb

Main ClauseSubordinate Clause
Ich glaube,dass er jetzt bei der Arbeit ist.

So now we know that if we use dass, ob or weil in a sentence we treat everything after that conjunction as a new part of the sentence, the subordinate clause, and the conjugated verb goes to the end. But what happens if we have 2 verbs after the conjunction, in the subordinate clause?

SubjectVerbOther InfoConjunctionSubj.Other Info2nd
Verb
Main Verb
Ichweißnicht,obichDeutsch oder Französischlernensoll.
IknownotifIGerman or Frenchlearnshould.

You can see in this example, the main clause is structured as normal. Then we use the conjunction ob (if / whether). This begins the subordinate clause which means the conjugated (main) verb needs to go to the end of the sentence.

Without the conjunction, the sentence would be ich soll Deutsch oder Franösisch lernen. The main verb soll is in position 2. But because the conjunction ob appears before it, the main verb moves from position 2, to the very end.

Other than that, normal structure rules apply. The second verb, the unconjugated one (lernen), goes to the end of the sentence as normal. But because we have used ob, the conjugated verb (soll) goes right to the very end of the sentence.

Main ClauseConjunction
(Pos. 1)
Subj.
(Pos. 2)
Other InfoUnconj. VerbConj. Verb
(The End)
Ich weiß nicht,obichDeutsch oder Französischlernensoll.

Main Clause + Conjunction + Subject + Other Info + Unconj. Verb + Conj. Verb

The Rules for German Sentence Structure in a Nutshell

That was a lot to get through, and if you made it this far gut gemacht (well done!). Let’s have a quick review of what we have learnt in this post.

  • Rule 1: The conjugated verb nearly always goes in position 2
  • Rule 2: Time Manner Place – keeps extra information in a logical order
  • Rule 3: 2 Verbs – the conjugated verb goes in position 2, the second verb is unconjugated (infinitive form) and goes to the end of the sentence
  • Rule 4: Past Tense – the auxiliary verb (haben or sein) is conjugated and goes in position 2, the other main verb is unconjugated and in past tense form and goes to the end
  • Rule 5: Yes / No Question – the verb moves to position 1, the subject takes position 2
  • Rule 6: Conjunctions – certain conjunctions such as ob, dass and weil cause the conjugated verb to be sent to the very end of the sentence

Top Tip: Download this post as a PDF – There is a lot of information in this post, download the whole guide as a free PDF so you can review what you’ve learned later.

Final Thoughts

When you’re first starting out, German sentence structure can seem intimidating. It can differ quite a bit from what we are used to in English. My best advice is to become familiar with the 6 rules in this post. Start by forming basic sentences which have the same structure as English. Add a little more detail and remember the Time Manner Place order.

Try introducing a second verb, and get used to that verb going right to the end of the sentence. You will become better and better at using 2 verbs if you use the past tense.

In order to get used to the structure, I would suggest starting a journal in German. Practice writing sentences about what you plan to do that day, or what you have done in the past. Writing everything down gives you time to process what you have learned, check that you have followed the correct sentence structure and will build confidence. Then you can move on to speaking with a language partner.

I’ve been in the same position you are in now. I still struggle to remember which verb I need to put at the end of a sentence. It can be daunting, but with writing practice, learning the rules and being patient, you will get there. Good luck!

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