German word order – rules and patterns


This unit gives you an overview of the basic principles regarding word order in German and deals with the following:

• the position of the verb in various sentence structures
• the position of the subject and the direct and indirect objects
• the sequence of different elements in a sentence.

Position of verb in different sentence structures
The position of the verb depends on the type of sentence used. There are four basic types:

Main clauses → Jürgen arbeitet bis fünf Uhr.
Subordinate clauses →  Ich hoffe, dass wir den Zug nicht verpassen.
Imperative →  Gehen Sie jetzt!
Questions →  Kommt sie bald?

In the next sections all the above structures are shown in more detail.

Verbs in main clauses

Principal feature – the finite verb is the second element A main clause is a sentence that can stand on its own. The finite verb – the verb that takes the personal ending – is usually the second element.

Subject                          Finite verb               Other elements
Katja                               beginnt                     heute ihren Englischkurs.
Unsere Freunde             kommen                   nach dem Essen zu Besuch.

Subject–verb inversion

The finite verb also remains in second position when a sentence starts with an element other than the subject:

First element                    Finite verb                    Subject Other elements
Heute                                  beginnt                          Katja ihren Englischkurs.
Nach dem Essen                 kommen                        unsere Freunde zu Besuch.

This change of word order is called the subject–verb inversion. Note that the first element can consist of one word like heute ‘today’, or several words such as nach dem Essen ‘after the meal’.

Word order with two verbs

When there are two verbs in a main clause, the second verb moves to the end while the finite verb still forms the second element. This pattern can be found in various structures, for instance in sentences with modal verbs, in the present perfect tense and in passive constructions:

Subject                     Finite verb         Other elements              Second verb
Katja                          kann                    heute ihren Englischkurs  beginnen.
Nach dem Essen       sind                     unsere Freunde zu Besuch gekommen.
Das Haus                   wurde                  vor 10 Jahren                       gebaut.

Constructions with three verbs

When three verbs are part of a main clause, the finite verbs stays in the second position and the other two verbs move to the end:

Subject              Finite  verb                    Object and other elements       Final verbs
Ich                      habe                               leider nicht                                 helfen können.
Du                      wirst                                 wohl mehr Sport                       teiben müssen.

Note that sentences with three verbs usually contain a modal verb, which takes the infinitive form and appears in the final position.