4 Quick Tips for Learning German Word Order

The German word order, when you translate it literally into English, comes out looking like some kind of bizarre, Shakespearian knot that needs serious untying.

It’s one of the many obstacles that need to be overcome for German learners.

Hopefully, this post can help you tame German word order.


How to Master German Word Order in 4 Simple Steps

We’ll go through each tip in detail in just a second. To immerse yourself in German word order, and get plenty of practice, try FluentU.

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With interactive captions that give instant definitions, pronunciations and additional usage examples, plus fun quizzes and multimedia flashcards, FluentU is a complete learning package. You can check it out with the free trial, and try some of the sentence-assembling exercises to test out your mastery of German word order.

1. Learn which conjunctions change word order in German and which don’t

There are different kinds of conjunctions that have different effects on the sentence.
The “normal” word order, as we expect it to be, is Subject Verb Object.

Ich werfe den Ball.

Coordinating conjunctions have no effect on word order: und, denn, sondern, aberand oder.

Ich renne vorwärts und ich werfe den Ball.
Ich kann den Ball nicht gut treten, aber ich werfe den Ball ziemlich gut.
Entweder sagst du mir die Wahrheit, oder ich werfe dir den Ball ins Gesicht!
Ich bin stark, denn ich werfe jeden Tag im Basketball-Training den Ball.

Subordinating conjunctions do something much more confusing—they kick the first verb in the clause to the end of the clause. The most common subordinating conjunctions are: während, bis, als, wenn, da, weil, ob, obwohland dass.

Ich kann ihn nicht leiden, weil er so ein egoistischer Idiot ist.

Normally, the word order would be:

Er ist so ein egoistischer Idiot.

But if you use a subordinating conjunction, then the verb gets moved to the end of the clause:

Ich habe auch schon immer gedacht, dass er ein egoistischer Idiot ist.
Obwohl er ein egoistischer Idiot ist, sollten wir nett zu ihm sein.

In the famous essay “the Awful German Language,” Mark Twain has a good example of how ridiculous this rule can be:

“But when he, upon the street, the (in-satin-and-silk-covered-now-very-unconstrained-after-the-newest-fashioned-dressed) government counselor’s wife met,”

Wenn er aber auf der Strasse der in Samt und Seide gehüllten jetzt sehr ungenirt nach der neusten Mode gekleideten Resräthin begegnet.

Remember, even if it seems difficult, that’s just German! Stick with it.

2. Learn when to hold the verbs until the end

In German, there are many situations where the verb absolutely has to come at the end of the sentence. This is one of the reasons why German is considered to be such a strange and difficult language.

Modal Verbs

In German, the infinitive of the verb is usually easy to spot – almost every verb in the entire language ends in “-en.” (there are some like sammeln– to collect, and segeln– to sail, which are a little different!)

Laufen, gehen, sagen, singen, lieben, führen, usw. (und so weiter…)

Modal verbs are a very common kind of “helping verb,” and in German you’ll see them, in various forms, all of the time.

müssen, können, sollen, möchten

When you use a modal verb, the second verb in the sentence is always in the infinitive and comes at the end of the sentence.

It’s not going to feel natural for you at first to put the infinite at the end of sentence! Just imagine picking it up, juggling it, and putting it down in the right place.

Müssen wir ihm mit seinem blöden Umzug nochmal helfen?

NEVER: Müssen wir helfen mit seinem blöden Umzug?

Relative Clauses

In German, in every relative clause (Nebensatz), the verb comes at the end.

Kommt auch der Idiot, der mich so nervt,  zur Party?
Kommt Magdalena, die letztes Wochenende so witzig war, auch ins Kino?

If there are two verbs in a relative clause, the verb that gets booted to the end of the sentence is always the first verb. That means the “habe” in “habe…. geschlafen” or the “ist” in “ist… gegangen,” or the “muss” in “muss… lernen.” The other verb stays in its normal position. (past participle is the jargon but i can understand you leaving that out!)

Das Geschenk, das ich meinem Vater gekauft habe, ist nicht mehr in meinem Auto!
Ich möchte nur Mitarbeiter in meinem Café haben, die richtig gut Latte Art machen können.

3. When in German invert you the sentence?

These Yoda-esque inversions are another reason why Germans who are bad at English might say things like “Today can we going to the store?” Any time a temporal adverb or prepositional phrase comes at the beginning of the sentence, the verb has to come in the second position.

Morgen gehen wir feiern.
1914 fing der Erste Weltkrieg an.

It’s still correct for you to put adverbs in another part of the sentence:

Wir gehen morgen feiern.

But don’t mess this up! You can even put the object at the beginning of the sentence and invert it to add emphasis on the object.

Seine Umzüge habe ich niemals gemocht – Er hat einfach zu viele Möbel!

Do you see? habe comes before ich in the sentence.

Here are some examples of prepositional phrases at the beginning of the sentence that put the verb at the end:

Gestern hat sie mir etwas unglaublicheerzählt.
Gegenüber von mir sitzen zwei andere Deutsche.

4. Putting adverbs in the right word order in German

The basic rule for a German sentence is: Subject, Verb, Indirect Object (dative), Direct Object

Ich warf ihm den Ball.
Sie gab mir ein Geschenk.

Finally, when you’re putting together a long string of information in a sentence, all of the information should come in in the order Time Manner Place (TMP). That means that adverbs describing when something happened should come first, followed by how adverbs, and finally where adverbs.

Try looking at long German sentences that you find in newspapers or on FluentU so that you can get some real-life examples of how to use adverbs correctly.

Using FluentU for this purpose gives you a huge advantage over using a newspapers, because FluentU has so many built-in learning tools.

Ich ging gestern gelangweilt in die Uni.
Toby kam heute morgen ins Büro gelaufenund sagte, dass Tanja heute Kuchen mitgebracht hat. Ich musste mich beeilen,weil ich noch etwas davon kriegen wollte!

Here, the modal verb wollte is booted to the end of the sentence because weil is that kind of conjunction. Dass does the same thing, moving hat to after mitgebracht.

  • Time: heute Morgen
  • Manner – laufend
  • Place- in das Büro (note that here it’s in das Büro and not im Büro because Toby ran in, so it’s a verb with movement and that means that in takes the accusative case)

Learning German Word Order with Punk Band Steel Panther

Let’s try to find some examples of these rules in some sentences that I took from this Spiegel Online article about the band Steel Panther:

Offenbar nicht ohne Grund muss man in Deutschland volljährig sein, um Ihre Konzerte zu besuchen.

In this sentence, Offenbar nicht ohne Grund takes the first position, meaning that muss comes before manSein, the infinitive of the verb for to be, comes at the end of the clause.

Ich habe mich heute mit Interesse im Zug von Köln nach Hamburg mit einem Steel-Panther-Fan unterhalten

  • Time: heute
  • Manner: mit Interesse
  • Place: im Zug von Köln nach Hamburg

Als ich 1981 diese Band gründete, wollte ich nicht nur einen Sänger. Ich suchte auch jemanden, der die ganze Zeit genau das tut, was ich will.

Als, a subordinating conjunction, moves gründete to the end of the clause. In the relative clause, der die ganze Zeit genau das tut, the verb tut also comes at the end of the clause.

Jetzt sind wir fertig! Wenn du noch dringend mehrGrammatik-Tipps brauchst, stöbere weiter im FluentU-Blog.

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