Sunday, 13 July 2008

Word Order - Exceptions to the Standard Main Clause

Word order has a highly complex set of rules in any language. So many, that I'm not convinced anyone has ever managed to write them all down for any given language. For pretty well every rule there is an exception, and there are even exceptions to exceptions.

This podcast focuses on the most productive rules about exceptions to standard word order, the ones that have a big effect on sentence structure and apply to lots of sentences. It also gives suggestions about what approach to take if you want to be right all of the time instead of most of the time (plus a guide to the level of effort that could take), or what to do to be right enough of the time to be fully understood, without attempting perfection (learning the most productive rules). It also gives some further detail on how standard word order works.

To listen to the podcast on your computer, click here.


Anonymous said...


I had the honour of reading a draft of the podcast and made some suggestions, which were almost all implemented by Laura. (Thus, if you think that the podcast is too long, I'm probably the one to blame.)

About the only suggestion that Laura didn't include in the podcast was to talk about a rule for the order of "animate" and "inanimate" objects. (Instead she suggested that I write a comment here, which I'm happy to do.)

OK, the rule is: animate objects (living things) before inanimate objects (non-living things). However, this is a very weak rule (or better: tendency) which is usually overruled by one of the rules that Laura has discussed: pronouns before definite nouns, and definite nouns before indefinite nouns. But this "animate before inanimate" rule may overrule "dative before accusative" (for nouns).

For an example we would need two definite objects (or two indefinite objects) where the dative object is inanimate and the accusative object is animate. Usually, however, if there are two objects, then the dative object is animate and the accusative object is inanimate apart from some exotic exceptions. And even in these exotic cases, some speakers may prefer to follow the "dative before accusative" rule instead of the "animate before inanimate" rule.

It is also possible that an animate object is put before an inanimate subject and neither is in the first position:
Gestern hat meinen Vater der Lärm sehr gestört. - Yesterday the noise annoyed my father very much.
But I think this kind of construction is not very common and the word oder with subject before object:
Gestern hat der Lärm meinen Vater sehr gestört.
has the advantage of being always correct.

There is, however, one case where the "inanimate before animate" rule is applied more often and this are verbs that take two accusative objects (e.g. jemanden etwas fragen - to ask someone something, jemanden etwas lehren - to teach someone something, jemanden etwas kosten - to cost someone something; and I think there is a fourth German verb that takes two accusative objects, but I cannot remember it right now). Thus you would say:
Neugier hat die Katze das Leben gekostet. - Curiosity cost the cat his/her life.
Reversing the order of the two accusative objects (die Katze and das Leben) would be considered incorrect.

Another example:
Ich fragte den anderen Lehrer die gleiche Sache. - I asked the other teacher the same thing.
In this case, reversing the order also works:
Ich fragte die gleiche Sache den anderen Lehrer.
but the latter would not be considered neutral word order. However, if we use two pronouns, the neutral order would be:
Ich fragte sie ihn. - I asked it him,
which contradicts the "animate before inanimate" rule! The best way to remember this is probably that in the case of two accusative objects, the animate object takes the position of the dative object and the inanimate object takes the position the accusative object. Then you can apply the usual rules for ordering dative and accusative objects.

O well, explaining this isn't easy and there probably won't be many situations where you need this since there are less than a handful of verbs that take two accusative objects and often the rules pronoun before definite noun and definite noun before indefinite noun will decide the order anyway. But it might be nice to know that there is a rule even for those quite exotic cases. ;)


Anonymous said...

Yes, the podcast is a bit too long, no criticism of the content though as Laura is as informative as ever...its just that some mechanism in my brain automatically switches my attention elsewhere after 20 mins. I generally listen to podcasts either in the gym or while driving so maybe some zanny music(Koreanclass101 has some interesting bars of music to prod)or maybe Laura could jump out of the screem with a cold water spray. Anyway, Laura congrats. witgh your weading. hope all went well. Thanks and keep up the good work it is taking my German to the next stage. DDD.

Paul said...

For some reason this is not showing up in iTunes.

Laura said...

Hi Paul,

It showed up in mine, and I looked, but I can't see any problems in the places I know to look for them. Could the problem be that your iTunes has decided to stop downloading it? Mine does that regularly to podcasts I listen to for reasons I can't fathom. Is anyone else having a problem?

Anonymous said...

Hi Laura.

I just found all of your podcasts on DW and really love them! I've only gotten through 4 (the most recent - congrats BTW - and the first 3). Keep up the great work - please :-)!


Anonymous said...


These podcasts are excellent and really making a difference for me while I'm out here living in Germany. I really hope there is more in the future... which helps to cover the seemingly endless amount of German grammar.

Thanks for the podcasts

Myrtone said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Myrtone said...

Actually, yoda does put unconjugated verbs first. An example is "When Nine hundred years old you reach, look as good you will not." Yes, hmmm.
This is also quite common in Low German as explained on this page of the Plattmaster website.

janellehardy said...


The page you refer to as having your grammar notes on it seems to have disappeared. When I go there, it brings up a message saying; the website you are trying to reach is no longer available. Can you help?

I am finding your podcasts amazing and thank you very much!

Janelle (in rural Australia)

Laura said...

Hi Janelle,

Do you mean my other website? I had to move websites a couple of years back, try here:

Googling German GrammarPod should also work, if this link doesn't.