German word order

Single-clause sentences

Sentences can consist of several clauses, that is, portions that are themselves complete sentences with the possible exception that small changes may be needed to glue the portions together. All that will be explained in another chapter. Now, we concentrate on single clauses. Strictly speaking, not all examples are single-clause sentences; in fact all are single clauses some of which are complete sentences while others occur only as part of a larger sentence.

We start with an example. We want to translate the English sentence “Today Richard puts his books in the bookcase” into German and then arrange the German words properly. Translated word by word, we have “*Heute Richard räumt seine Bücher in den Schrank” but the words are in the wrong sequence. We have eight words, thus theoretically no less than 40320 ways of arranging them, for instance alphabetically as “*Bücher den heute in räumt Richard Schrank seine”. But no matter how little we know about German, we would be very surprised by such an order. We intuitively identify phrases which ought to remain intact, and we do not expect that these phrases be mixed up but rather that only the sequence of phrases in a sentence or the sequence of words in a phrase may be different from English. The meaning of the term “phrase” will be generalised later in this article, for the moment it denotes such a small group of words belonging together.

For this simple sentence, the phrases are pretty obvious; they are in alphabetical order:

heute in den Schrank räumt Richard seine Bücher

We see that each phrase in German corresponds to a phrase in English -- this is always or nearly always the case. Moreover, within each phrase the word order is the same in English and German, but this is only because all phrases are very simple -- be prepared to phrases where English and German word order will be different. But now, we want to arrange phrases and not words within the phrases, so we avoid such intricacies.

Now let us sort the phrases. First we find the verb and put it last. The remaining phrases get their places according to rules we will study later, now we take their sequence for granted:

Richard heute seine Bücher in den Schrank räumt

Let us call this sequence verb-last. We shall see that it is in some sense the simplest word order from which other orders can be constructed. With very few exceptions to be discussed later, verb-last is the right sequence for a dependent clause that is part of a longer sentence:

Ich weiß, dass Richard heute seine Bücher in den Schrank räumt.

Now we modify the order by putting the verb in front, otherwise leaving the sequence as is:

räumt Richard heute seine Bücher in den Schrank

Let us call this sequence verb-first. It is the right sequence for a question:

Räumt Richard heute seine Bücher in den Schrank?

Finally, we modify the order again by pulling one phrase in front of the verb, but otherwise leaving the sequence as is. There are as many possibilities to do that as there are phrases not counting the verb.

Richard räumt heute seine Bücher in den Schrank

heute räumt Richard seine Bücher in den Schrank

seine Bücher räumt Richard heute in den Schrank

in den Schrank räumt Richard heute seine Bücher

Whenever the subject is not a pronoun, there is one more possibility: to add a spurious °es° for the sole purpose of putting it in front:

es räumt Richard heute seine Bücher in den Schrank

Let us call these sequences verb-second. They are the right sequences for a complete sentence. So we have five different ways to arrange the phrases to form a correct German sentence:

Richard räumt heute seine Bücher in den Schrank.
Heute räumt Richard seine Bücher in den Schrank.
Seine Bücher räumt Richard heute in den Schrank.
In den Schrank räumt Richard heute seine Bücher.
Es räumt Richard heute seine Bücher in den Schrank.

The sentences have somewhat different emphasis, and not all of them are really elegant but they all are at least correct. In particular, the spurious °es° at the beginning sounds clumsy if there is no good reason to use it. Moreover, the sequence of the non-verb phrases is not absolutely fixed: there may be some variation but it is by no means arbitrary. These issues will be discussed later.

Now, what we just called "the verb" can be a sequence of several words. For example, imagine what Richard's mother might have said to initiate Richard's action:

I think that your room must be tidied up today.

or in German:

Ich denke, dass heute dein Zimmer auf- geräumt werden muss.

In both languages, four of the words of the sentence, those in the coloured boxes, have together the function of the verb. In the English version, only the first of these may depend in its form on the subject; such an occurrence of a verb is called a finite verb. The others are either infinitives like °be°, participles like °tidied° or separated portions of a phrasal verb like °up°; their form does not depend on the subject but rather on the preceding verb to which it is attached. Now, the German sentence displays exactly the same logic but the opposite sequence: There is one and only one finite verb which depends on the subject, but it is the last one. The others, just like their English counterparts, each depend on an adjacent verb in the chain, but the subsequent one.

In this article, we will use the term verb complement for the words that are in this way dependent on the finite verb in one or more steps, that is, those in the purple boxes in the charts. The finite verb and the verb complement together will be called the predicate; this will match more or less what is called a predicate elsewhere (there is more than one definition of it around).

The German word order was verb-last in this example because it was a clause beginning after °dass°, that is, a dependent clause of a longer sentence. Now, for constructing the verb-first and verb-second sequences, only the finite verb is shifted towards the beginning of the sentence while the verb complement remains at the end. For getting examples of this shift, let us listen what Richards asks back (in verb-first sequence) and gets as an answer (in verb-second sequence):

Muss mein Zimmer wirklich heute auf- geräumt werden?

Ja, dein Zimmer muss wirklich heute auf- geräumt werden.

Had we not seen how to construct these two sequences from the verb-last sequence, they might have appeared rather irregular with a chain of verbs interrupted by other words and scattered over the whole sentence. Only the verb-last sequence is straightforward to construct; this is why we shall always start from there.

In verb-first and verb-second word order, the finite verb and the verb complement act like a bracket: the opening left bracket is the finite verb which is always there, and the closing right bracket is the verb complement if present, or else the place where the verb complement would have been (for the mathematically inclined: it is always the verb complement which consists of zero or more words). This bracket structure is called the sentence bracket (German: Satzklammer), the place before the left bracket is called pre-field (Vorfeld), between the brackets middle-field (Mittelfeld), and after the right bracket post-field (Nachfeld). In all sentences we have considered so far, the post-field is void, and the sentence ends with the verb complement -- this is not necessarily so in more complex sentences. The pre-field contains one phrase in verb-second sequence and none otherwise, and the middle-field contains all the remaining phrases, which may be none or more.

So far, we have left a number of questions open:

They will be answered in the next sections.

The verb complement

In this section, we shall answer the first two of the questions just asked.

In the preceding section we defined verb-last sequence as the sequence where the last word is dependent on the subject, that is, is a finite verb, whereas each preceding word depends on the immediately following one. These dependent words or phrases are mostly verbs in an infinite form: an infinitive with or without °zu° (e.g. °{zu) gehen°) or a past participle (e.g. °gegangen°). Only the last in the chain, i.e. the first in the sentence, can be a word or phrase which is not a verb but which is so a closely related to the verb that it forms a single expression with it or even a compound word.

We will now list these "dependencies", each by a group of six example sentences. The first of the group is in verb-last order; it ends with the finite verb, and before that another word which depends on the finite verb. As verb-last order is used in dependent clauses, we put the word °dass° in front as an example of a word introducing a dependent clause; these first sentences in each group are thus not complete sentences. The second sentence in the group is a question in verb-first order, and the third is a declarative sentence in verb-second order. For the latter sentence there are several candidates to pull in front of the verb, we choose one that can be idiomatic in some context -- the others would have been possible as well.

The other three sentence in each group are the same as the first three, but in perfect tense. The fourth is different from the first by having the finite verb replaced by a past participle and a form of the auxiliary verb °haben° or °sein° added at the end as new finite verb. The fifth and sixth are then derived from the fourth by the same rule we have always used to construct verb-first and verb-second sequence.

Thus we study two kinds of dependecies in each group: with the first sentence of the group the dependency of the last but one from the finite verb, and in the fourth sentence the dependecy of the former finite verb from its auxiliary verb in perfect tense.

Inseparable verb

Here we have the simplest case: nothing is dependent on the finite verb. However, in the last three sentences, the finite verb of the first sentence has become dependent from its auxiliary verb in perfect tense.

dass Peter im Urlaub ein spannendes Buch liest

Liest Peter im Urlaub ein spannendes Buch?

Peter liest im Urlaub ein spannendes Buch.

dass Peter im Urlaub ein spannendes Buch gelesen hat

Hat Peter im Urlaub ein spannendes Buch gelesen?

Peter hat im Urlaub ein spannendes Buch gelesen.

Separable verb

Now, we look at a separable verb. This is very similar to a phrasal verb in English, but in English the separable part, typically a preposition, virtually always follows the base verb from which in depends as a separate word: °to give up°, °giving up°, °given up°, °he gives up° (but note the term °incoming mail° for mail which is °coming in°). In German, however, the separable part is treated as belonging to the verb complement, that is, it remains at the end of the sentence when the finite verb is pulled to the first or second position. The rules for these moves are nearly the same as always when the finite verb is moved, but with one important difference: Whenever the separated part happens to be positioned immediately in front of the verb, it forms one word with the base verb. This is the case in verb-last sequence and whenever the base verb is not the finite verb. For example, the words °aufgeben° (give up) and °einkaufen° (shop) are written as one word:

  • in the infinitive without °zu°: °aufgeben°, °einkaufen°,
  • in the infinitive with °zu°: °aufzugeben°, °einzukaufen°,
  • in the past participle: °aufgegeben°, °eingekauft°, and
  • in the present participle -- much less frequently used in German than in English --: °aufgebend°, °einkaufend°.

In the charts with the boxes, this situation is indicated by a hyphen at the end of the word in the box. If, however, the separable part is not in front of the base verb, it is written as a separate word: °er gibt auf°, °er kauft ein°.

dass ich heute in der Stadt ein- kaufe

Kaufe ich heute in der Stadt ein?

Ich kaufe heute in der Stadt ein.

dass ich heute in der Stadt ein- gekauft habe

Habe ich heute in der Stadt ein- gekauft?

Ich habe heute in der Stadt ein- gekauft.

The separable part of a German separable verb is mostly a preposition just as in an English phrasal verb, but can also be a former adverb which has lost its status as an adverb, e.g. °herein-° in °hereinkommen° (come in) or an adjective describing the result of an action, e.g. °glatt-° (smooth) in °glattstreichen° (smooth out). The latter construction forms a German separable verb only if the separable part can take the entire stress of the compound verb; if either part, or both, is too long for that, they are written as two words, e.g. °dunkelbraun anstreichen°. For German verbs whose separable part is a noun see the next section.

Verb with separable noun or verb

This is pretty much the same situation as in the preceding section, only that most nouns that are separable parts of verbs are now written separately with initial capital. Prior to the German spelling reform around the turn of the millennium there were more spelling variants around, with hardly any rule about their usage.

It is not always easy to distinguish such a separable part of a verb from an object. If it is an object, the noun phrase should be complete (°er liest die Zeitung° or °... eine Zeitung° but not only °... Zeitung°) and it should be possible to replace the noun: °er saugt Staub° (he uses a vacuum cleaner) hardly allows the question °was saugt er?° -- obviously °Staub saugen° is together the verb, thus °Staub° is a verb complement.

dass Ulla heute morgen Zeitung liest

Liest Ulla heute morgen Zeitung?

Heute morgen liest Ulla Zeitung.

dass Ulla heute morgen Zeitung gelesen hat

Hat Ulla heute morgen Zeitung gelesen?

Heute morgen hat Ulla Zeitung gelesen.

There are also separable verb-verb compounds. They are treated in the sections "acuusative with infinitive" and "other verb chains" below.

Predicative adjective

For verbs indicating how or what something is, the adjective or noun is part of the predicate and depends on the verb, mostly °sein° (be), °werden° (become), °bleiben° (remain) and similar ones.

dass im Sommer die Beeren reif werden

Werden im Sommer die Beeren reif?

Im Sommer werden die Beeren reif.

dass im Sommer die Beeren reif geworden sind

Sind im Sommer die Beeren reif geworden?

Im Sommer sind die Beeren reif geworden.

Predicative noun

This is the same case for a noun phrase as part of the predicate. In this particular example, the noun phrase is a bit too long for the verb complement; it is a hybrid between a predicative noun and an object, on the border between the middle-field (whose phrases have not yet been given a colour) and the verb complement. Hence the different colour which has no bearing for the word order.

dass Herr Müller unser Deutschlehrer bleibt

Bleibt Herr Müller unser Deutschlehrer?

Herr Müller bleibt unser Deutschlehrer.

dass Herr Müller unser Deutschlehrer geblieben ist

Ist Herr Müller unser Deutschlehrer geblieben?

Herr Müller ist unser Deutschlehrer geblieben.

Passive voice

When the word °werden° is used as auxiliary verb for passive voice, the main verb, having the form of a past participle, is dependent on it, so that it precedes °werden° in verb-last sequence. In perfect tense, the past participle of this usage of °werden° is °worden°, not °geworden° as in the already discussed meaning "become".

dass die Katzen jeden Tag gefüttert werden

Werden die Katzen jeden Tag gefüttert?

Die Katzen werden jeden Tag gefüttert.

dass die Katzen jeden Tag gefüttert worden sind

Sind die Katzen jeden Tag gefüttert worden?

Die Katzen sind jeden Tag gefüttert worden.

Future tense

When the word °werden° is used as auxiliary verb for future tense, the main verb, having the form of an infinitive, is dependent on it, so that it precedes °werden° in verb-last sequence. It makes no sense to put a future-tense sentence in perfect tense, so there are only three sentences.

dass Frau Schneider nächstes Jahr unsere Deutschlehrerin sein wird

Wird Frau Schneider nächstes Jahr unsere Deutschlehrerin sein?

Nächstes Jahr wird Frau Schneider unsere Deutschlehrerin sein.

Modal verb

When a modal verb like °müssen°, °können°, °dürfen°, °sollen°, or °nicht brauchen° – indicative or conditional (°müsste°, °könnte°, °dürfte°, °sollte, °bräuchte nicht°) – is the finite verb, everything works as with auxiliary verbs as long as we have no other auxiliary verb for the tense:

dass Peter bei seinem Freund übernachten darf

Darf Peter bei seinem Freund übernachten?

Peter darf bei seinem Freund übernachten.

The perfect tense of a sentence with a modal verb, however, works quite differently from English. There are three things to remember:

  1. In English, the action verb is put into perfect tense, in German it is the modal verb. This is the only case where the logical sequence of dependencies in German (read from right to left) is not exactly the same as in English (read from left to right). Instead of learning abstract rules, one should remember the following sentence and then construct other examples in the same way:

    Wir hätten das [nicht] tun sollen.

    We should [not] have done that.

  2. The past participle of a modal verb is replaced by its infinitive when it is preceded by another infinitive: °Ich habe einen Brief schreiben müssen° (I had to write a letter). Such an infinitive standing for a past participle is called substitute infinitive (Ersatzinfinitiv). The past participles °gemusst°, °gekonnt°, °gedurft°, °gesollt° are only used when they do not follow the infinitive of the dependent verb, which is rare.

  3. When the preceding rule applies, the verb-last sequence ends with the finite verb preceded by more than one infinitive:

    Peter bei seinem Freund übernachten dürfen hat

    Now, in dependent clauses where there is normally verb-last order, the finite verb is in this case moved to the beginning of the verb complement, the exact position will be discussed later. See the next sentence of the example what this looks like. This shift of the finite verb away from its final position in verb-last sequence occurs only when a substitute infinitive precedes the finite verb, not a real infinitive like °gehen° in °dass er einkaufen gehen wollte°.

dass Peter bei seinem Freund hat übernachten dürfen

Hat Peter bei seinem Freund übernachten dürfen?

Peter hat bei seinem Freund übernachten dürfen.

Modal verb as comment on credibility

Modal verbs are sometimes used with a very different meaning than the usual one, to wit for commenting the credibility of the information or its source: °Er soll in Berlin sein.° (He is reported to be in Berlin.) -- °Er wird/dürfte in Berlin sein.° (He is probably in Berlin.) -- °Er muss in Berlin sein.° (He must be in Berlin.) -- °Er müsste in Berlin sein.° (It can safely be assumed that he is in Berlin.) -- °Er kann/könnte in Berlin sein.° (He can/could be in Berlin.) -- °Er will gestern in Berlin gewesen sein.° (He asserts to have been in Berlin yesterday.)

For all these usages, the modal verb expresses always the present credibility of the assertion which may be about the past. Therefore the modal verb is in present tense whereas the dependent verb may be in perfect tense. We take as example the last of these sentences:

dass er gestern in Berlin gewesen sein will

Will er gestern in Berlin gewesen sein?

Er will gestern in Berlin gewesen sein.

Accusative with infinitive

Here two verbs are involved: one has the subject of the sentence as its subject, the other, occurring as an infinitive, has the object of the first verb as its subject, e.g. in English °Anne sees Peter come° where °come° has as its subject not °Anne° but °Peter°. This is different from modal verbs where the dependent verb has the same subject as the modal verb from which it depends.

In German, basically the same construction is possible: °Anne sieht Peter kommen°. At first glance, this looks as if each word were dependent on the preceding: in English because this is normally so, and in German because the two rearrangements for the verb-second sequence have ordered the phrases. In the German verb-last sequence, however, we see that the two verbs are adjacent as if °kommen sehen° were a single verb whose object is °Peter°:

dass Anne Peter kommen sieht

Sieht Anne Peter kommen?

Anne sieht Peter kommen.

dass Anne Peter hat kommen sehen

Hat Anne Peter kommen sehen?

Anne hat Peter kommen sehen.

The independent verb is transitive to have an object, so technically a passive-voice sentence would be possible. In practice, these are restricted to the case that the dependent verb is intransitive, e.g. °ich lasse sie schlafen° (I let her sleep), in passive voice °Sie wird schlafen gelassen° with an ordinary past participle, in contrast to the perfect tense with substitute infinitive: °ich habe sie schlafen lassen°.

Thus the independent verb has some features of a modal verb (but these are always intransitive) and some of an ordinary transitive verb. And this is how it is treated in perfect tense: sometimes with substitute infinitive like a modal, sometimes with ordinary past participle, and sometimes either way. The position of the finite auxiliary in verb-last sequence follows the choice: at the end after an ordinary past participle but before the verb complement if that ends with a substitute infinitive.

Now, when is the substitute infinitive used? Always until not very long ago, but now some of its uses sound somewhat stilted or archaic. Here are some observations:

  • °lassen° has always a substitute infinitive when it has its original meaning "let/make someone/something do something". The same holds when its object (that is, the agent of the infinitive) is not mentioned as in: °Der Richter hat den Dieb verhaften lassen.° (The judge had the thief arrested.) – °Ich habe mir die Haare schneiden lassen.° (I had my hair cut.) – °Die Flasche hat sich leicht öffnen lassen.° (The bottle was easy to open.)

  • Of course, there can never be a substitute infinitive when there is no dependent verb as in °allein lassen° (leave alone), °übrig lassen° (leave behind, spare), or °offen lassen° (leave open). Now, some combinations of °lassen° with preceding verbs, in particular two-syllable ones, are more perceived as one separable compound verb than as an accusative-with-infinitive construction, e.g. °liegenlassen° in "ich habe meine Mappe im Zug liegengelassen" (I have left/forgotten my briefcase in the train) where the briefcase was neither allowed nor commanded to lie in the train. In many cases of that kind, both constructions are possible. It is a feature of such compounds that passive-voice constructs are used more freely: °die liegengelassene Tasche° is absolutely normal whereas *°die schlafen gelassene Frau° sounds very awkward.

    By this explanation, one would expect that the compounds (with ordinary perfect participles) are written as one word and the accusative-with-infinitive constructs as two. It is a good habit to do so but the orthographic rules allow all four versions: "er hat ... liegengelassen", "er hat ... liegen lassen", "er hat ... liegen gelassen", "er hat ... liegenlassen".

  • The substitute infinitive is always used with °sehen°, and with °hören° at least when it means "be informed" as in °ich habe davon erzählen hören°. Other uses of °hören° or °fühlen° allow both forms: °Sie hat ihn zur Tür hereinkommen hören/gehört.° (I heard him come in by the door.) – °Ich habe mein Herz schlagen fühlen/gefühlt.° (I felt my heart beat.)

  • Accusative-with-infinitive constructions with °helfen°, °lehren°, and °heißen° (with the meaning "command") are obsolescent. If used all the same, the archaic-sounding substitute infinitive matches the style better. °heißen° in this sense is no longer used. °helfen° and °lehren° are now mostly used with °zu° or with a noun: instead of °ich habe ihm das Auto waschen helfen° one would say °ich habe ihm geholfen, das Auto zu waschen° (a sentence with a post-field to be explained later), and instead of °ich habe ihm arbeiten helfen° one prefers °ich habe ihm bei der Arbeit geholfen°.

When there is free choice of using the substitute infinitive or not, its use sounds slightly more formal and the use of an ordinary participle slightly more colloquial.

Other verb chains

These are mainly combinations of °kommen°/°gehen°/°schicken° with an action at the destination, or of °bleiben° with a verb like °stehen°/°sitzen°/°liegen°/°hängen°. In the latter case, the combination can also be written as one word like a separable verb. There are no surprises how such verb chains are ordered:

dass Paul sehr früh arbeiten geht

Geht Paul sehr früh arbeiten?

Paul geht sehr früh arbeiten.

dass Paul sehr früh arbeiten gegangen ist.

Ist Paul sehr früh arbeiten gegangen?

Paul ist sehr früh arbeiten gegangen.

Modal verb with °zu° and infinitive

The modal °nicht zu ... brauchen° (need not) is the only modal requiring °zu°. This is a somewhat more intricate example of the rules explained above.

dass Frau Müller heute nicht ein- zu- kaufen braucht

Braucht Frau Müller heute nicht ein- zu- kaufen?

Heute braucht Frau Müller nicht ein- zu- kaufen.

dass Frau Müller heute nicht hat ein- zu- kaufen brauchen

Hat Frau Müller heute nicht ein- zu- kaufen brauchen?

Heute hat Frau Müller nicht ein- zu- kaufen brauchen.

Between middle-field and verb complement

We described the verb complement as a sequence of infinite verbs (infinitives or participles) each dependent on the following, and the last dependent on the finite verb. In some cases, the leftmost phrase in the verb complement, dependent on the second, was not a verb. Then it is a matter of taste whether such a phrase before the first verb in the verb complement is indeed the leftmost part of the verb complement or the rightmost part of the middle-field; either view makes sense. Here is a list of possible such words or phrases and their relationship to the verb:

  1. a preposition or an adverb not having the form of an adjective as first constituent of a compound verb, e.g. °aufstehen°, °hineingehen°,
  2. a noun acting as an object of the verb but forming a set phrase with it, e.g. °Staub saugen°, °Zeitung lesen°, °Rad fahren°,
  3. an adjective describing the result of the action of the verb, e.g. °glattstreichen°, °dunkelgrün anstreichen°,
  4. a noun, adjective, or adverbial of place having a predicative rôle, i.e. telling what, who, how, or where somebody or something is, becomes, appears, remains, etc., e.g. °Lehrer sein°, °erwachsen werden°, °in Hamburg bleiben°,
  5. an adverbial of direction complementing a verb of movement, e.g. °aus der Stadt kommen°, °nach München fahren°,
  6. an adverbial of place complementing a verb of being or leaving something in that place, e.g. °am Tisch sitzen°, °im Kühlschrank aufbewahren°,
  7. a prepositional object, e.g. °sich für Grammatik interessieren°, °an seinen Freund denken°.

For all these, an important aspect is whether the two components appearing together in the verb complement are stressed like a single word with only one stressed syllable as are separable verbs (item (a)). The less this is the case, the more the non-verb component belongs in the middle-field like any other object or adverbial. The difference can be seen in item (c): The adjective °glatt° is short enough to take the stress of the entire expression, it is thus treated as a separable verb; on the other hand, the adjective °dunkelgrün° is too long, so they are treated as two words. Items (d) and (e) are never written as one word with the verb, but can have a only one stressed syllable for the entire expression.