Everyone learning English knows the drill of sentence structure when forming sentences in the language: subject, verb, object. In many cases, German word order or “Wortstellung” follows the same basic rules, but the language can be more flexible and therefore more confusing for learners. The way to fluency in German is to start by constructing simple sentences. We’ll teach you the basics and give you some rules as well as tips!
Building basic German sentences the proper way
Sentence structure: parallels between German and English
For starters, the structure of the most basic sentences in German follows the example of English with an SVO order: subject first, verb second, object last. This means you can literally translate simple English statements into German:
- I’m eating cake becomes “Ich esse Kuchen.”
- You see the house = “Du siehst das Haus.”
- They follow the rules = “Sie befolgen die Regeln.”
German sentences with auxiliary verbs
However, basic German sentences soon become more complex as you start referencing things in the past or want to express conditions. Under many circumstances, you’ll need an auxiliary verb and suddenly a sentence has two verbs. In order to build the sentence structure correctly, you’ll have to establish which is the dominant one.
Easy: the dominant verb is always the conjugated one, which happens to be the auxiliary part of the verb. The rest of the verb phrase remains either in the infinitive or is conjugated according to tense, such as past or future as well as passive voice. German auxiliary verbs are “haben”, “sein” and “werden”: to have, to be and to become or will.
- Ich habe ein Boot gekauft = I have bought a boat.
- Du bist zu spät gekommen = You have come too late.
- Er wird belogen = He is being lied to.
Forming German sentences with modal verbs
Modal verbs form a predicate together with the infinitive of a full verb to specify or characterise a relationship between subject and verb in a sentence. In terms of sentence structure, they work in the same way as auxiliary verbs. However, modal constructions are possible with other verbs as well, which then form the infinitive with “zu” (to): “Du brauchst das nicht zu tun” means “You don’t have to do that.”
German modal verbs:
- Dürfen = to be allowed to, may
- Können = to can, be able to
- Mögen = to like
- Müssen = to have to, must
- Sollen = should
- Wollen = to want
How to structure questions in German
When you formulate a basic question in German, the sentence follows a structure similar to English in the sense that very often, you begin the question with a question word: when, why, what etc. Yet you can phrase a question without these. The conjugated part of the verb phrase then comes first, leading the question, while the second part of the verb goes at the end:
- Hast du das gemacht? = Did you do that?
- Haben Sie schon gegessen? = Have you eaten yet?
- Könnt ihr etwas sehen? = Can you see something?
German question words:
- Warum = why
- Was = what
- Wann = when
- Wo = where
- Woher = where from
- Wohin = where to
- Wer = who
- Wen = whom
- Wessen = whose
- Wem = to/from whom
- Wie = how
Building German sentences with conjunctions
A conjunction connects two sentences or two parts of a sentence. One part can depend on the other, forming a relative clause. The sentence structure for relative clauses in German differs from English. A dependent part of a sentence or sentences with certain conjunctions use a different word order. They follow the structure CSOV: conjunction, subject, object, verb. The important thing to remember is: the verb moves to the end of the clause.
- Er sagt, dass er beschäftigt ist. = He says he’s busy.
- Ich weiß nicht, ob ich das kann. = I don’t know if I can do that.
- Ich bleibe daheim, weil es regnet. = Ich stay at home because it’s raining.
- Wir essen, bis nichts mehr da ist. = We eat until everything is gone.
Common German conjunctions:
- Wie = how
- Weil = because
- Als / Wenn = when
- Falls / Wenn = if / in case
- Bis = until
- Dass = that
- Ob = Whether
- Obwohl / obgleich = although
- Als ob = as if
- Da = since / as
- Seit / Seitdem = since
- Bevor / ehe = before
- Nachdem = after
- Damit = so that
- Während / indem = while
- Sobald = as soon as
- Sodass = so that
- Solange = as long as
- Trotzdem = despite
Rules for basic German sentence structure
If you want to drill the rules into your head, here are a few prescriptions for forming basic German sentences:
- The basic order is SVO: subject, verb, object.
- The verb, the main verb or the conjugated part of the verb is always the second element of the sentence.
- If the subject does not precede the verb, main verb or conjugated part, it must follow it immediately.
Sentence structure: time, manner, place
English sentences follow place, manner and time in structure, which is another difference from German. “I am going to class by bike today” is an example for the place (to class), manner (by bike) and time (today) structure of English.
The German structure would be “Ich fahre heute mit dem Rad zur Schule.” Time (“heute) comes first, followed by manner (“mit dem Rad”) and place (“zur Schule”).
However, German allows you to break the rule of time, manner, place as well as the order of subject, verb, object for emphasis.
- “Wir sind gestern angekommen.” (We arrived yesterday) can become “Gestern sind wir angekommen.” (Yesterday, we arrived) if you want to emphasise the time.
- “Ich liebe dich.” (I love you) can become “Dich liebe ich.” if you really need to stress the object, i.e. the person you love.
- “Wir wollen schwimmen.” (We want to swim) can become “Schwimmen wollen wir.” in case you need to highlight the verb, i.e. the activity you want to do.
Tips for forming basic German sentences
The verb terminates the sentence when…
One of the many difficulties when learning German is the many possible cases of placing the verb at the end of a sentence. The most important to remember are auxiliary plus modal verbs and relative clauses.
The conjugated part of the verb, the auxiliary verb or modal verb, appears first in the sentence in its usual position, but the infinitive goes at the very end. This can be confusing for learners, because the infinitive expresses what is going on and therefore has some importance; however, you need to pay attention to properly conjugate the first verb.
In a relative clause, the verb phrase also appears at the end of the sentence, but the order is reversed. The dominant verb, auxiliary, modal or first verb is last.
Fit the adverbs into the puzzle
Remember that time, manner, place is different in German from English sentence structure. Adverbs need not be a single word for each of the three, but can take the form of longer and more complicated phrases. For example:
- Time: heute morgen (this morning)
- Manner: schnell und außer Atem laufend (running quickly and out of breath)
- Place: in der letzten Ecke des Büros (in the last corner of the office)
As much as you can play around with sentence structure in German and place elements such as time, manner or place first in a phrase, remember that the verb has to come in the second position!
Differentiate the conjunctions
German sentences beginning with a conjunction don’t automatically follow a different structure. So-called coordinating conjunctions keep the SVO order of the following sentence:
- Und = and
- Denn = for / because
- Sondern = rather / but
- Aber = but / however
- Oder = or
Opposed to that, subordinating conjunctions change the sentence structure in the manner we’ve outlined above, with the conjugated part of the verb in last position.
Learn the structure of everyday phrases in German
Lastly, pay attention to the everyday phrases you learn and hear and do a quick analysis of the sentence structure to see the order of words as they naturally appear in expressions. Identify the subject, verb, object and adverbial phrases, then attribute their position to the rules you’ve just learned.
In what ways other than sentence structure do German and English differ? Find out the 7 major differences between English and German grammar!