TeKaMoLo: The When, How, Where and Why of German Sentence Structure
As an intermediate speaker, you might find that anything other than the simplest of sentences requires some serious forethought.
While articles like this great one on conjunctions, verbs and clauses deal with the more nerve-shredding technical aspects of German word order, we’re going to focus today on the content of what we want to say, and how to say it.
By the end of this post, you’ll be more comfortable with German sentence structure and turning your thoughts into coherent sentences.
TeKaMoLo — The Theory
TeKaMoLo. It looks weird. Get used to it. It’s an important rule concerning word order if you want your German to look and sound correct. Fortunately, it’s also pretty simple.
TeKaMoLo governs in which order the adverbial phrases fall in your sentences. By which I mean it governs in which order we answer the following questions:
- Wann ist es passiert? (When did it happen?) TEMPORAL
- Warum ist es passiert? (Why did it happen?) KAUSAL
- Wie ist es passiert? (How did it happen?) MODAL
- Wo ist es passiert? (Where did it happen?) LOKAL
These are the Te, Ka, Mo and Lo. Or, as I have just noticed, the “Al Brothers,” which brings a nice musical family vibe to things.
The importance of getting this word structure right can’t be understated. For one thing it ensures you’re going to be understood.
For another it allows you to develop your sentences in length and complexity, instead of relying on being super basic all the time.
And knowing what you’re doing with word structure means knowing what you’re emphasizing, bringing a bit of rhythm to the way you speak. (Hey, this Al Brothers thing has another level.) This will really help develop your confidence.
For any sentence you want to use to explain how something was done then this order is standard. And whilst there are a few exceptions—which we’ll go through with rich scrutiny in a few lines—be reassured that these are largely dependent on your own intentions. (Whilst we’re explaining and describing things, it might be good to brush up on your adjective endings.)
First, some examples.
TeKaMoLo — In Action
“Josh spoke loudly at the kitchen table yesterday out of consideration for his grandmother.”
This is a packed sentence. It contains each of the component parts of TeKaMoLo, but in the wrong order. Or, rather, in the right order for English, but the wrong order for German.
So, let’s readjust things:
1. Temporal (when) — yesterday
2. Kausal (why) — out of consideration for his grandmother
3. Modal (how) — very loudly
4. Lokal (where) — at the kitchen table
And now we’ve got it in order let’s translate it.
Josh hat gestern aus Rücksicht auf seine Oma sehr laut am Küchentisch gesprochen.
When, why, how, where.
1, 2, 3, 4.
Importantly, you need to pay close attention to where the two elements of the verb are. This is a primary clause—I’ll have a bit more to say on this in a moment, so don’t worry—so the first part of the verb has to stand in position 2 with the past participle at the end. Have another look at the sentence. Right now, read it again. See?
But is all this easier said than done?
Reformulating the order of a sentence before translating it takes time, especially when it feels as though the order would be clunky or illogical in English.
“Josh spoke yesterday out of consideration for his grandmother very loudly at the kitchen table” is ugly in English.
But as an intermediate German speaker, developing your conversational skills requires a change in thinking. Instead of creating the sentence in your head in English first, take a crack at it in German directly. This way you don’t have to worry about two different orders, just the one.
It takes time, but it pays off. And once you know the rules, once you’ve obeyed them, you can pull a big old Picasso and break them.
Listening to German media can help you to internalize exactly how natives will put their words in order, and there’s no shortage of this on the internet. FluentU’s language learning program, for example, has gathered a collection of authentic media across a range of difficulty levels and topics of interest. You can use the program (or others like it) to hear German in use by native speakers, and see sentence structure, grammar and vocabulary naturally and in context.
TeKaMoLo — The Exceptions
The point to be made about TeKaMoLo is that its use is predominantly for sentences where no special emphasis is made.
If we go back to our example above, with Josh and his nearly deaf grandmother, it’s difficult to detect a specific point being emphasized. Which is fine until we want to point out that it was out of consideration for his grandmother that Josh was speaking loudly at the kitchen table yesterday.
As Nana says, he is a good boy.
And so in order to emphasize this point we cut and paste it to the beginning of the sentence. This obviously disrupts our TeKaMoLo order—one of the Al Brothers is going solo.
But changing the position of one of these adverbial phrases doesn’t leave the others in chaos. They stick to their order.
So now we have: Ka – TeMoLo. The Temporal still comes before the Modal and the Modal still comes before the Lokal, just as in its original form.
And don’t forget the verb in a primary clause will always be in position 2.
Let’s take a look.
Aus Rücksicht auf seine Oma hat Josh gestern sehr laut am Küchentisch gesprochen.
It ought to go without saying, but just in case (because there are no stupid questions) TeKaMoLo doesn’t only apply when all of the criteria are in use.
So we’ll take a look at a few examples now to get the blood pumping.
1. “We can drive the car to Berlin tomorrow.”
Wir können morgen mit dem Auto nach Berlin fahren.
Morgen können wir mit dem Auto nach Berlin fahren.
Mit dem Auto können wir morgen nach Berlin fahren.
Temporal, Modal and Lokal in action there, all the same words but each version expressing a slightly different emphasis than the one before. The importance of it depends on the context. For example if you’re being asked when you’re going to get somewhere, it would make sense to address that question immediately.
2. “You can pick us up on Thursday on the way to the beer garden.”
Ihr könnt uns Donnerstag auf dem Weg zum Biergarten abholen.
Auf dem Weg zum Biergarten könnt ihr uns Donnerstag abholen.
Be careful—there’s only two of the four here, Temporal and Modal. Zum Biergarten isn’t Lokal, it’s part of the Modal phrase auf dem Weg.
The way you can tell the difference is that the two won’t split up. Auf dem weg könnt ihr zum Biergarten doesn’t make any sense just as “you can pick us up on the way on Thursday to the beer garden” doesn’t either. It’s one piece of information and it’s describing how the action is being performed.
3. “A rude waiter brought us the bill in the pizzeria yesterday, before we had finished our meal.”
Ein dreister Kellner hat uns gestern in der Pizzeria die Rechnung gebracht, bevor wir mit dem Essen fertig waren.
Here it looks as though there are two temporal adverbs: Gestern and bevor wir mit dem Essen fertig waren.
So why is the second one positioned last in the sentence?
Because it’s a subordinate clause indicated by the comma and the conjunction bevor. The same goes for certain prepositions.
The word because is pretty inextricably linked with the Kausal, but as it’s also the beginning of a subordinate clause, it has no place in the TeKaMoLo configuration.
4. “Josh spoke very loudly at the kitchen table yesterday because his grandma is nearly deaf.”
Josh hat gestern sehr laut am Küchentisch gesprochen, weil seine Oma fast taub ist.
IT ISN’T, I REPEAT, IT IS NOT
Josh hat gestern, weil seine Oma fast taub ist, sehr laut am Küchentisch gesprochen.
This is a mistake I made a lot when I was learning German. I was very confident that with its reputation for efficiency, the German language would do its utmost to confine as much as possible into single clauses. I was wrong, but friendly people pointed it out to me…
…und jetzt habe ich dank dieses Tipps keine Probleme mehr in Deutschland zu sprechen.
So there we are, TeKaMoLo, the least painful technique to getting German word order to work for you. Soon enough you’ll be dazzling everyone with your complex poly-adverbial master sentences, using the Al Brothers to bring music to everyone’s ears.