Willkommen zurück! I’m glad so many of you were interested in my first crash course German post and I hope you’ve had time to revise some of the things you’ve learned 😉 I’ve notices that quite a lot of you seem to struggle with sentence structure and word order so I thought I’d explain it again in more detail. To make things easier, I’m only using the present tense (Präsens) in the sample sentences and leaving out pronouns and adjectives as I think learning the different articles is enough work already.

So, here we go!

In German, a simple main clause has 3 components: a subject, a verb and an object.

1. Das Subjekt—The Subject

  • The subject is usually in the first position of a sentence:

Ich habe einen Hund (I have a dog).

Das Kind isst ein Eis (The child eats ice cream)

  • It can, however, also come after the verb if you want to put emphasize on the object instead of the subject. The verb remains unchanged:

Einen Hund habe ich. (If you want to emphasize that it’s a dog you’ve got)

Ein Eis isst das Kind (If you want to emphasize that it’s ice cream the child is eating)

  • As you see, word order is much more flexible in German than in English (e.g. you couldn’t say “ice cream eats the child,” that wouldn’t make any sense). That’s why cases are so important in German. You have to use ‘little words’ like articles in front of a noun to indicate who or what’s the subject or object in a sentence.
  • The subject of a sentence is always in the so-called nominative case. The definite articles singular in the nominative are “der” (m), “die” (f), “das” (n) and “die” for plural nouns. The indefinite articles are “ein” (m, n) and “eine” (f). These are the ‘simple’ articles you’ve probably already encountered.

2. Das Verb—The Verb

  • The conjugated verb is usually in the second position of a sentence:

Ich fahre in den Urlaub (I’m going on holiday)

Du lernst Deutsch (You learn German)

Die Frau liest ein Buch (The woman reads a book)

  • Some verbs in German are separable. Separable verbs are made of a prefix (often a preposition) and a core verb. When a prefix is added to a core verb, the meaning of the verb usually changes (e.g. “kommen” means to come, while “zurückkommen” means to come back). In the present tense, the prefixes are separated from the verb and placed at the very end of the sentence.

Zurückkommen: Ich komme aus dem Urlaub zurück. (I’m coming back from holiday)

Herkommen: Wo kommst du her? (Where are you from?)

Anrufen: Ich rufe dich an. (I call you)

Vorlesen: Die Lehrerin liest den Kindern eine Geschichte vor. (The teacher reads a story to the children)

  • Verbs with the following prefixes are separable: ab- (e.g. abfahren), an- (e.g. anrufen), auf- (e.g. aufstehen), aus- (e.g. ausmalen), bei- (e.g. beibehalten), ein- (e.g. eintreten), los- (e.g. losfahren), mit- (e.g. mitmachen), nach- (e.g. nachkommen), her- (e.g. herkommen), hin- (e.g. hinfahren), vor- (e.g. vorgehen), weg- (e.g. wegrennen), zu- (e.g. zuhören), zurück- (e.g. zurückkommen)

3. Das Objekt—The Object

What is called the direct object and indirect object in English, is referred to as accusative and dative case (or object) in German:

  • The accusative case, known as the objective case in English, answers the question wen oder was?” (who or what) and describes the direct object of a sentence (the person, animal or thing affected by the action of the verb). For example:

Sie schaut die Nachichten. (She watches the news):
Was schaut sie? (What does she watch?) » die Nachichten (the news)

Das Kind sieht den Mann (The child sees the man):
Wen sieht das Kind? (Who does the child see?) » den Mann (the man)

Ich schreibe einen Brief. (I write a letter):
Was schreibe ich? (What do I write?) » einen Brief (a letter) 

→ As you might’ve noticed, the masculine singular articles “der” and “ein” change to “den” and “einen” in the accusative case (So der Mann changes to den Mann and ein Brief changes to einen Brief). The feminine (die/eine), neuter (das/ein) and plural (die) articles don’t change.

  • The dative case describes the indirect object (usually the receiver of the direct object) of a sentence and answers the question, wem oder was?” (to whom or what).

Das Auto gehört der Frau (The car belongs to the woman):
Wem gehört das Auto? (To whom does the car belong) » der Frau (to the woman)

Der Junge schenkt einer Freundin einen Blumenstrauß: (The boy gives a friend a bouquet). Wem gibt der Junge einen Blumenstrauß? (To whom does the boy give a bouquet?) » einer Freundin (to a friend)

Er gibt dem Mann das Buch (He gives the man the book):
Wem gibt er das Buch? (To whom does he give the book) » dem Mann (to the man)

→ Unlike the accusative, which only changes with the masculine gender, the articles change in all genders and even in the plural:

The articles for masculine nouns change from “der” to “dem” and “ein” to “einem”
The articles for feminine nouns change from “die” to “der” and “eine” to “einer”
The articles for neuter nouns change from “das” to “dem” and “ein” to “einem”
The definite article for plural nouns changes from “die” to “den.” In addition, when the plural form doesn’t end in “s” or “n,” the plural form in dative requires an extra “-n” added on to the end:

Die Lehrerin zeigt den Kindern einen Film (The teacher shows the children a movie)

Der Lehrer liest den Schülern eine Geschichte vor (The teacher reads a story to the students)

To demonstrate again how flexible the German word order is, I could also rearrange the sentences as the following:

Den Kindern zeigt die Lehrerin einen Film.

Einen Film zeigt die Lehrerin den Kindern

Den Kindern liest der Lehrer eine Geschichte vor.

Eine Geschichte liest der Lehrer den Kindern vor.

So if you’ve ever wondered why there are so many articles in German, that’s why 😉 There is also a fourth case, the genitive (like the English possessive), which has a whole new set of articles, but I guess I’ll leave it for another post.

Let me know if you found this helpful and what further topics you’d be interested in!

8 thoughts on “Crash Course German #2: Sentence Structure and Word Order

  1. Omg🤗🤗 you honestly explain soo well!!❤❤I really struggle with the word order too and I never knew you could say “habe ich”!!!

    Also finally now I know what nominative means! Thank youu. This was literally so helpful that I copied down the whole thing. Xxx🤗

    Liked by 1 person

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