Sunday, 6 April 2008

Word Order in a Standard Main Clause

German word order in a completely standard, neutral main clause is a follows:

* nominative subject,
* conjugated verb,
* accusative then dative pronoun,
* nouns with definite determiners, in the order dative, accusative
* most adverbials
* nicht – or other negation particles
* adverbials of manner
* nouns with indefinite determiners, in the order dative, accusative
* the complement, and finally
* any other verbs.

My podcast on German word order contains more information about what those terms mean, and also a more detailed version of word order. You can listen to the podcast directly on your computer by clicking here.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for another great podcast. From my point of view of a native German speaker, there is a big difference to the previous topics: while I learned about the conjugation of verbs and the declination of nouns in school, I never learned anything about word order in school. And I think more than 95% of all Germans never had any formal education about German word order.

This has some important implications: native speakers will be able to tell you whether a specific word order is OK, unusual, or wrong, but they won't be able to tell you why. And if they try to give you a rule, they are very likely to come up with rules that work only in specific cases.

There are also some popular myths about German word order. One is that there are many choices. Well, there are many choices for the first element, but once you decided how to start your sentence (for example with the subject), then many of the other elements have to go to very specific positions (apart from adverbials).

Another popular myth is that German word order is very complicated. Well, it is certainly more complicated than English worder order. And the whole subject of German word order is terribly complicated. But the good news is, you can avoid almost all serious mistakes simply by following some basic rules.

There is one more thing I wanted to mention: I programmed an applet to experiment with German word order, which is available at
I would appreciate any feedback on this applet.


Anonymous said...

Oops, the URL is too long for a single line; here it is in two lines:


Unknown said...


Another excellent podcast! You've restored some of my sanity, I was starting to think I was loosing my German because of some of the rough and ready rules, it's the detail that I needed! Like anonymous said, as a native speaker I was never taught word order... you've done me a great service.

Congratulations and the very best wishes for your wedding. You partner is one lucky person!

Hope you have a lovely day and a great honeymoon - and once you're back on terra firma, I'll be looking forward to your next podcast!

Thanks again!


William said...

Thanks Laura. This was really excellent. You firmly stamped on my 'time-manner-place' memory, but explained why it was a good approximation. The placing of ja, wohl etc. and of negatives was really helpful.
I liked the idea of the more important things going later in the sentence, although I'm not sure how that fits with the reversal at the start which you're no doubt coming on to: Gestern bin ich nach Hause gekommen. Surely gestern is being given some added importance here. Or am I getting that wrong?
Finally, congratulations on and best wishes for the forthcoming wedding.

Laura said...

Hi Bill,

You're right about putting things you want to emphasise as the first element instead of the nominative subject and you're right that that's one of the exceptions I'm going to mention next time. I've never really seen it as a clash with the important things last rule (I think the first element rule was already so firmly in my head by the time I learnt the important things last rule, that it never occurred to me to question how they could exist side by side. It's interesting that other people pick up on that).


Anonymous said...

Bill & Laura,

since I recently read a bit about this issue in a German grammar book, I would like to comment on it. My understanding is that you cannot understand this concept without looking at the context of a sentence, i.e., a text. German sentences within texts tend to refer to previously mentioned (or generally known) things in the first part of the sentence and in the second part of the sentence the new information (the important stuff) is given.

Now, for the next(!) sentence, the new information of the previous sentence is old information and therefore can be referred to in the first part of this next sentence. Thus, a common pattern is that the first part of each sentence refers to the second part of the previous sentence, which has introduced some new information.

For your example, a complete text (dialog in this case) could be:
- "Was hast du gestern gemacht?"
- "Gestern bin ich nach Hause gekommen."

Thus, the second part of the first sentence ("...gestern gemacht") is referred to by the first part of the second sentence ("Gestern bin ich..."). Thus, "gestern" is put in the first position because it refers to something that has been mentioned before.

If you think of this pattern where the first part of each sentence refers to some old information, there is certainly a problem: what to do in the very first sentence of a text? Nothing has been mentioned previously, thus, you cannot refer to anything, can you?

Well, the solution is to refer to something that your audience knows anyways, e.g., in a dialog the person of the speaker ("ich") or the audience ("du"). Another common solution is to locate the following information in space or time, e.g., "In New York wurde ein neues Theater eröffnet."

Thus, you could start to tell a story by saying: "Gestern bin ich nach Hause gekommen und konnte nicht glauben, was ich sehe! ..." In fact, it might not even matter whether you came home yesterday or today or the day before yesterday, it's just a way of starting the first sentence with something that is known to the audience such as a place in space or time.

Well, that's my understanding. The issue is also known as topic/comment or topic/focus or theme/rheme, see


Anonymous said...

Hello Laura,

I found your podcast only last week and immediately fell in love with it. You have offered some very nice and practical tips that none of the other teaching progammes I've heard so far ever introduced. Thanks!

I actually have a question here that is non-related to this current topic but must have been found difficult to conquer by many German learners: how to pronounce r in German? I know it sounds differently when appearing at different part of a word or when combined with other letters, but it is kind of hard for me to make it. How should I place my tongue? Although I find it less stressed in Modern German, I still want to give it a try and pronouce it well. Besides, how does it differnect from the "r" sound in French? Hope you can enlighten me on this subject. Others' help are also welcomed.


Laura said...

Hi Dorothy,

Pronunciation is one of the areas of language learning I find hardest, so my advice may not be the best to follow. Here it is anyway, in case it helps:

To pronounce a German R, I have the sides of my tongue touching my palate (the roof of my mouth) on each side near my molars (my back teeth) - not as far back as my wisdom teeth (the very back ones), but quite a bit further back than when I'm saying an English R. I also have my lips in quite a neutral shape (like they are when you're saying the U in mud), although this can change, depending on the other sounds the R is next to. I then try and produce the same sort of noise I would make for an R in English. Because my tongue is further back, it automatically comes out sounding a lot stronger.

I learnt German in southern Germany and haven't spent long enough anywhere else to really pick up the accent, so I'm not entirely sure how they make the R in other German-speaking areas. I think the northern German R is similar, but less strong, and the Austrian and Swiss Rs are both stronger, and (particularly the Swiss R) with more of a trill, like when you roll your Rs.

For both an English and a German R you use the edges of your tongue to touch the sides of your palate, near your teeth, and you leave a gap between the middle of your tongue and the middle of your palate. The difference between the R in German (as I pronounce it) and the R in English (again as I pronounce it), is that your tongue is further back in your mouth for a German R; the bits of your palate that the edges of your tongue connect with are also further back; and the bits of your tongue that you use to touch your palate are also a bit further back. Also, my lips tend to make a smaller shape when I pronounce an English R than when I pronounce a German one, where my lips are more neutral.

I think that the difference between a French R and a German R is that for a French R your lips are less neutral, and more drawn out to the sides, to make a longer thinner shape. However, the last time I tried to say something with a French accent ("Madame Bovary"), the French woman in my reading group kept making me repeat it and saying it wasn't right, so this might not be the difference at all.

Good luck with your pronunciation. Let me know if you manage to make a German R following those instructions or whether any of them sound either incomprehensible or physically impossible.

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much Laura, for sharing with me your experience of producing the R sound in different languages.

Well, the instructions have been made very clear and they do work for me, except for one thing: when I try to read sentences or maybe just a word with that guttural sound, if I don't make an effort, there is no trill coming out. And frankly, after a day's practice, my throat really hurts! I wonder if those French- or German- or Italian-speaking people would suffer as I do if they speak too much at a time:-)

Seriously though, I think the best and the only way to get used to pronouncing this sound is through practice. After all, there's probably no or no such strong trill sound in English or the language I speak, Chinese. We are just not used to generate sounds from the back of the throat.

I found another great article on the German pronunciation of R at Any comments on its analysis?

I started learning German only a couple of months ago, so there's still a long way ahead. But I have a great interest in this language and your podcast is really a big help to me.

Keep up the good work!


Laura said...

Hi Dorothy,

I like the link you sent me. Annoyingly, my blog cuts it short (I have it in full because the blog also emails me comments). Here's an attempt to reproduce it in two parts for others to see: index.php/German_pronunciation:_R

The R I described is the consonantal R. It didn't occur to me to describe either of the other two sorts, so it's good that that website did. In particular I agree with them that you don't have to trill, so if it's hurting your mouth, don't do it. Many German native speakers don't either.

To be honest, my view of language learning is that so long as you can make yourself understood, there's no need to focus too much on pronunciation until you're quite advanced. Your brain will automatically try and sort the sounds into the categories it has for your native language, and it takes a lot of listening before you can even start to overcome that (unless you are still a baby or toddler when you start learning). The most useful thing to know, is that sounds in foreign languages often cross the borders that distinguish one sound from another in your own language, so you need to try and learn a new way of distinguishing sounds from each other - which adult brains just weren't designed to do - or to learn coping mechanisms to deal with the fact that you can't. (@ Dorothy, although I have addressed this whole comment to you, I'm pretty sure you already know about the borders between sounds not matching up between languages, I just wanted to mention that in case anyone who isn't already fluent in a second language is reading this)

I was put off French a very long time ago by repeatedly being told by my French teacher that my accent was wrong. It made me unwilling to try and say anything. My Polish teacher (luckily, given how hard Polish pronunciation is) takes the opposite view, and simply corrects the worst of what I say. Over time, I have improved a lot, without ever having had to worry about my accent. People understand me fine in both France and Poland, but whereas I love learning Polish, I still have hang ups about French, so I am greatly in favour of the not worrying, and correcting only a little at a time approach.

One final comment on that website though: it seems to apply to one specific English accent, so a lot of English speakers will find that what it says about English sounds doesn't apply to them. This can be confusing and also means that the how-to-pronounce-it sections won't apply to a lot of people. If you're one of those people, then it's best just to listen to German and try and work out your own approximations.

Dave C said...

Thanks for an excellent overview of German word order. I've not seen a better one. Also thank you for all your effort in putting these podcasts together. If you ever do decide to teach German let me know I'll be a customer!

Anonymous said...


Could you comment on this example taken from a grammar training program I'm using.

The particular exercise that puzzles me is one where the task is to replace nouns with pronouns, in the proper order. Kinderleicht. Oder?

The sample sentence is:

"Martin verspricht seinem Kind ein Fahrrad."

The solution given is:

"Er verspricht es ihm."

Since "ein Fahrrad" is indefinite, I thought the solution would be:

"Er verspricht ihm ein(e)s." The trusty old "definite before indefinite" rule.

If the sentence were:

"Martin verspricht seinem Kind das Fahrrad."

Then the answer would be:

"Er verspricht es ihm."

Isn't this the difference between, "He promised it to him.", and, "He promised him one."

What am I missing here?


Laura said...

@ John

You are right, "he promises him one" is "Er verspicht ihm eines".

However, whether you think this is the only appropriate answer depends on how you look at the question. When I looked at the question, my immediate response was that the program's answer was fine, because when asked to think of pronouns, I immediately thought only of the personal pronouns like ich, er, ihn, ihm etc., not of other pronouns like one, these, that etc. I lazily just matched the personal pronoun to the noun and didn't think about whether this was the most appropriate way of expressing the sentence in pronouns. I think I could easily have been guilty of setting a similar task myself, never thinking that the learners would think it out so far and want to be so accurate. You have exceeded what the program asked of you.

I think your program is trying both to keep things simple and to stick to testing your knowledge of personal pronouns, which I think is a valid thing to do (although I'm guessing it would have been better if it had asked you the question more clearly).

Interestingly, when I discussed the question with a couple of native German speakers, one of them pointed out that the es in "Er verspricht es ihm" doesn't really refer to the bike at all, it refers to what the person promised (that he would get/buy his kid a bike), so the whole phrase rather than specifically the object, which brings in a whole different level of complexity, as now es is the right answer for any gender of noun object!

I imagine though, that what your program wants is for you to use es when the object is neuter, ihn when the object is masculine and sie when it's feminine.

I suppose this is all part of the reason why machine translation is so difficult for programmers and linguists to perfect. I think your program is still useful though (much like I think machine translation is useful if you know what to do with it - I often use it as a starting point when trying to write emails in Polish or to work out what Swedish press releases say). You simply have to use it for what it is capable of - which in the case of your program seems to be testing whether you know which personal pronouns correspond to which nouns and how switching from nouns to personal pronouns affects word order. I think those are useful areas of grammar to master, and if the program helps, then it's a good thing.

I just hope you didn't lose any points in an exam for your answer, as it was well thought out and an appropriate answer to the question.

Anonymous said...


Thanks for your reply.

I agree that "Er verspricht es ihm." put the focus on the "promising" rather than the bike.

I don't know any other way to keep the focus on the bike, other that using "Er verspricht ihm eines."

If I may, have you considered doing a podcast on "lassen"? There's a topic to make one's head spin. Well, my head, at least.


Laura said...

@ John

Email me at germangrammarpod'at' & tell me more about your issues with lassen.

Unknown said...

hey i found you very easy to understand so i was hoping you could help me,im doing my irish leaving certificate and i am trying really hard with my german but one part of the exam is letter writing and my word order is really leaving me down i would love to sort this out and have some understanding as it is a big problem hopefully you can help a stressed student:(

Tôi said...

danke schön!

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