German Sentence Structure – Main Sentences

german-main-clause-imageHello everyone,

and welcome. I hope you’ve had a great start into 2014. Have you made new years resolutions? Our new plasma TV here in the cafeteria has. It’s HD…. … so much for my personal new years resolution to make better puns. I totally failed. That’s great though. I’m free now. Free while you’re still stuck with your “10 words a day” plan. We all know how this is gonna end ;). Seriously though, 2014 is a great year to learn German because it’ll be easier than ever before… okay not really but me and my team here at German is Easy we’ll try our best tomato sauce… er…. to make it so…. hey, I told you I’m free. Free to make puns so bad, they’d even make a vaccuum funny in comparison.
Anyway, we’ve got lots to do … more prefixes, noch, eben, gerade, ja, more and grimmer grammar… all this will be coming up. But we kicked off last year with a first look at German sentence structure and I thought I’d be nice to make this a tradition. So today we’ll add another piece to puzzle that is a German sentence.
Part 1 was a bit theoretical because it was basically about getting the tools. Now that we have them we can do actual work. We learned about the Box Model which is a model that is very helpful when it comes to understanding German word order and such. If you’ve read it – good; if you haven’t – well you can continue here but don’t complain if I keep using boxes without explaining what I mean :).
What? The link… I forgot… here it is:

So… what will we talk about this time? We’ll look at the structure of

Main Sentences

Structure of main sentences, ey… hmmm… that kind of implies that there is a structure of other sentences too. I sure hope it’s not dif… oh never mind. It is, of course.

There are different kinds of sentences that do serve a different purpose in communication. German has quite a few types but by far the most prominent ones are main sentences, side sentences and questions.

  • Der Kaffee ist kalt.
  • The coffee is cold.
  • Weil der Kaffee kalt ist…
  • Because the coffee is cold…
  • Ist der Kaffee kalt?
  • Is the coffee cold?

Other types are more or less weird and they have scary names like exclamations, imperative sentences, verb first conditionals, proclaimed wishes and supporting-doch verb first coordinated conjunction free main sentences… we’ll deal with those some other time. Maybe.
Anyway, back to the 3 important types. They all fulfill a different function and the examples above already kind of show that the they do have different structures. But they were too short to see what’s really going on. So…. let’s use a longer example.

  • Thomas geht heute mit Maria ins Theater. (main sentence)
  • Thomas goes to the theater with Maria today.
  • Weil Thomas heute mit Maria ins Theater geht... (side sentence)
  • Because Thomas goes to the theater with Maria today
  • Geht Thomas heute mit Maria ins Theater? (question)
  • Does Thomas go to the theater with Maria today?

While in English the only difference is the way the sentences are introduced, in German the verb moves around…. quite a bit. The rest however, remained as it is. Hmmm… so the verb moves around in a German sentence while the rest is fixed. That’s not so bad after al.. oh wait… it’s actually not like that. The verb is in fact the ONE element in a German sentence that really has a FIXED position – just a different fixed position for different kinds of sentences. All the other elements … well… there is a stunning degree of freedom, a freedom organized by some guidelines and one underlying core principle. The principle of  “what isn’t discussed today”… hahahaha… got ya’ right there. I am Rapunzel, you’re my hair…. get it?… get it? like.. I let you down… … .
So… there are different types of sentences that all serve a different purpose in communication. They all have a different structure and the main structural difference is the position of the verb.
Today, we’ll learn all about main sentences and save the side sentences for some other time.

If you want to know more about questions, you can find all you need to know and more here

How to ask questions in German – part 1

But now let’s get started. A good starting point would be to have a look at what exactly is a main sentence first. A look at their function. But if we want to do that right that could take a while. And it isn’t really THAT crucial here so… let’s settle with a purely grammatical definition and save the geek stuff for a “Grammar Jargon” episode. Sounds good? Cool.
A main sentence, or main clause, can stand alone and be a full sentence.

  • I ate a cake.

This is a main sentence because we can write that in a text.

  • After I ate a cake.

This is not a main sentence because we cannot write that in a book… unless we’re a renowned author. Then it’ll be artsy.
With that out of the way, here’s the scheme of a German main sentence or main clause, if you prefer.

  • 1 box – verb all the other stuff- leftovers of verb – (possible another box).

You’ve probably seen this before. Verb second, then all the stuff and at the end the rest of the verb. This is the structure and there is not much to understand about it as a whole. But there are certainly a lot of interesting things to say about the parts… like… position 1, the verb, the weird appendix at the end and so on. So let’s take a look at one element at a time. A detailed look. An intense, long look. More like a stare, actually. Let’s see who blinks first. German or we. We’ll start with the most important thing…

Verb comes second

Just as in English you can start your sentence in many ways with many different elements or boxes…  but in German the verb must come after the first box.  Not the subject. The verb. The verb comes second.  Remember that. Form a V with your fingers… you’ll need exactly 2. Verb second. Verb … second. Serb vecond. Verrrrrrb seconnnnnnnnnd. No matter what box is in position 1, no matter whether it contains just one word or a full paragraph. One box, then verb.

  • Ich bin nach Hause gegangen.
  • I went home.
  • Langsam bin ich nach Hause gegangen.
  • Slowly (how? box) I went home.
  • Nach Hause (where to? box) bin ich gegangen.
  • Home I went.

In English it is (almost) always subject-verb. In German it is always verb second.
Now, there are two questions.
First of: are there exceptions to this? Well… there are things like this:

  • Gestern bei der Party habe ich Maria kennengelernt.
  • Yesterday at the party I met Maria.

Gestern is an indication of time, bei der Party is by itself an indication of place. So we could argue that we have two boxes here… when-box and where-box. But it doesn’t feel like two boxes. It is like one box answering to whern? Seriously…

  • “When have you met Maria?”
    “Yesterday at the party.”
  • “Where have you met Maria?”
    “Yesterday at the party.”

It works for both. We can also take it apart and say

  • Gestern habe ich auf der Party Maria getroffen.
  • Yesterday I met Maria at the party.

And now it feels like two distinct boxes. But when it comes as a chunk, it feels like just one box. So.. bottom line. There are actually no exceptions to the verb second rule. Even if it looks like there are two boxes from an objectives point of view… to a German native speaker it’ll feel like one. And that doesn’t work for all combinations.
All right. Now the second important question about this whole verb second thing is … will I be understood if I get it wrong?
And the answer is no… get the position wrong and a German will look at you with a question mark as a fac.. nah, kidding. The answer’s
YES! Definitely. Everyone will understand without the slightest problem.No doubt about it :).
The verb second thing is deeply ingrained into the brain of a German native speaker… but it is nothing that affects meaning. There are people who speak fluently and still misplace the verb. It just sounds foreign, that’s all. So don’t stress over it.You will start doing it right when you’re ready for it. Research has actually shown that. Be patient and wait for it. Just be aware that it’s there and that it’s correct. Oh and of course… pay close attention to it when you write. There, you have enough time to think. But when you talk to friends…well, just let it flow and if you’re like “Crap… I forgot the “inversion”… don’t worry. Everyone understands you. Now, speaking of “inversion”… I guess we can talk about that real quick.

Inversion  or:  Where does the subject go?

In many books and sources you can find advice like the following: if the  subject is not in position 1 then you have to make the ‘inversion'”. Inversion. That sure sounds fancy. No German knows what it is but anyway… “inversion” simply means that you have to switch subject and verb … and that leads us right to our new segment. German sentence structure is like the structure of a termite hill. It resembles chaos. So it is no wonder that there are all kinds of myths out there trying to make sense of the randomness. They sound simple, and some of them are helpful for a beginner. Others however are not. And in their essence, most of these myths misunderstand the language. I think you deserve better. You deserve the truth. For if you pray to false gods, confusion shall cloud your mind ever more as you venture through the lands of the language where exceptions lurk behind every senten…  am I being to pompous? I guess so…. I’ve watched a lot of Game of Thrones lately and that shows :). Anyway, all I’m trying to say is that I think it can only be helpful to have a glimpse at how the language works internally every now and then so you can be a smart ass in German class´:)
So here we go…

German Sentences Structure Myths Exposed™ – Part 1:

The subject usually comes before the verb.
If not, then it switches places with the verb and comes right after.

None of that is true. First of all, the subject is NOT usually in position 1. I am quite sure you’ll find more sentences in a German book that do NOT start with the subject, than there are with the subject first. Secondly, the subject and the verb do not switch places. The verb doesn’t move. It sits in position 2 like it weighs 1000 tons. And also, the subject does not always come right before or after the verb.

  • Gestern hat mir Maria ein Buch gekauft.
  • Yesterday, Maria bought me a book.


  • Gerstern wurde in Berlin von einigen betrunken Leuten ein UFO gesehen.
  • Yesterday, a UFO was seen by some drunk people in Berlin.

Super see?
German does not make an “inversion” because there is no such thing as a default subject-verb order. In German, the subject box is nothing special or privileged. It is just another box you can move around and put places and sometimes the best place for it is near the end. That said… it is true that the subject box tends to be very far on the left and often it will come either before or after the verb. So for a student it is fine to think of it as an inversi… achoooo…  oh my, my Latin allergy is acting up, sorry… uhm achoo... it is fine to think of it as a switcheroo. I just wanted to tell you that it is not what is going on in the language and you shouldn’t be surprised if you come across something that does not fit that system.
All right. So, we know about the verb second and we know that the subject usually comes either before or soon after that.
Now let’s talk about the actual start of the sentence…

The first element – box 1

The first box is quite an exposed position and the first question is of course: “What elements can we put there?”
The answer is… all of them.

  • I have had a beer today.
  • Ich habe heute ein Bier getrunken.
  • Heute habe ich ein Bier getrunken.
  • Ein Bier habe ich heute getrunken.

Uhm…  all of them as in ALL of them.

  • Getrunken habe ich heute ein Bier.

Yep, people do say things like that. Not only in books but also in real life if the context is right. Even prefixes can be put into position 1… … no no…  this wasn’t a joke, actually.

  • Ein kaufe ich morgen.
  • Ich kaufe morgen ein.
  • I’ll do groceries tomorrow.

And while it is totally contrived and pointless here, you can use that for some nice effects.

  • Auf mache ich das Fenster. Zu mache ich den Kühlschrank.
  • The window, I open, the fridge, I close.

By the way… a little side note for those who are a little advanced already… the only element that cannot ever be put into position 1 are these small coloring words like doch or schon. They are not answering a question, they are not in a box. No box, no slot 1. But all other elements can be put there. Now that begs the next question.
Why would I put a certain  element into position 1? What effect does it have?
And that brings us to our second myth… a quite stupid myth actually.

German Sentences Structure Myths Exposed® ™- Part 2:

You can put other elements into position 1
if you want to emphasize them.

Wrong! WRONG, I say! Oh god… it is everywhere on the web… GUUUUUAAAAAAHHHHH. NERD SMASH!!!!!
Phew… this is just so wrong, it is astounding how widespread this is and how is it being preached by language learning sites and teachers. It is NOT FREAKING TRUE.
Just as in English, emphasis is just one of many reasons why an element may be put into the beginning of a sentence. One very important reason is connection.  Take the word deshalb. It can fill up a why-box .

  • Ich hatte Hunger. Deshalb habe ich eine Pizza gegessen.
  • I was hungry. That’s why I ate a pizza.

The second sentence picks up where the first left off – with the hunger. Deshalb points at it while screaming “cause”. The sentences feel connected and that is nice. But is there special emphasis put on deshalb? No. It is in the beginning to create a nice connection, not to be stressed.
Another possible reason why an element is in position 1 is simply to avoid being repetitive.

  • Ich bin gestern in die Bar gegangen. Ich habe dort ein Bier bestellt. Ich habe es getrunken. Ich habe dann noch eins bestellt. Ich habe das auch getrunken.
  • I went to a bar yesterday. I ordered a beer there. I drank it. I ordered another one then. I drank that too.

Here, we always have the subject first and… it is super boring. At least the German version is, because German would definitely vary the position 1.

  • Gestern bin ich in eine Bar gegangen. Dort habe ich ein Bier bestellt. Ich habe es getrunken. Dann habe ich noch eins bestellt. Auch das habe ich getrunken.

This is a nice narration. The sentences are connected and I used a place-box, 2 time-boxes, only 1 subject-box and even 1 object-box to start my sentences.
And then, sometimes, a box is put into slot 1 simply to get a nice balance…

  • Als du angerufen hast (when-box), habe ich mich gefreut, weil ich lange nichts mehr von dir gehört habe (why-box).
  • _____________, —————,_____________ . (systematic)
  • When you called, I was happy because I hadn’t heard from you in a while.

This is just much better balanced than

  • Ich habe mich gefreut, als du angerufen hast, weil ich lange….
  • ——————, ___________,__________ .
  • I was happy when you called, because I hadn’t….

Now, emphasis can also be a reason to put an element into position 1, too. But here’s one very important thing to understand about emphasis. It’s not how something is, that makes it stick out. It is how different it is.
And this totally applies to German sentence structure. Emphasis happens when you do something out of the ordinary.

  • Ich hatte Hunger. Eine Pizza habe ich deshalb gegessen.
  • I was hungry. A pizza I have eaten therefor. (lit.)

This is out of the ordinary. The stuff we eat usually comes far on the right. But here it comes first and bam… HERE we do see a strong emphasis on pizza. Everyone will be like “Why is he saying pizza first? That’s unusual.There must be more to that…”.
However, just what is the ordinary totally depends on the verb AND even on the context. And besides… word order emphasis is way weaker than voice emphasis.

  • GESAGT habe ich das, (nicht geschrieben).
  • I SAID that, (I didn’t write it).
  • Gesagt habe ICH das, (nicht er).
  • I said that (not he).

Having gesagt first is definitely out of the ordinary so that shines a spotlight on it. But by simply raising my voice and stressing ich is as bright as the sun compared to that. So… forget the whole emphasis thing. Position 1 is mainly used for connection and variation. And the good news is, that you know that already. You do it in English too. The only difference in German is that the verb has to come ALWAYS second. Verb second verb second verb second. Stop.
I guess we should also mention that, for stand alone statements that aren’t part of a larger chunk of text or a conversation, 2 boxes are especially position 1 prone… the who-box (subject) and the when-box

  • Ich habe Lust auf eine DVD.
  • Gestern hatte ich keine Zeit.

You’ll find those in the beginning a lot. And then, having the object box first is rather unusual and so is having prefixes or leftovers of the verb there.
All right. That was quite a lot to digest. So I think it is not too bad to make a break here and continue next time. Then we’ll talk about how to handle the left overs of the verb and of course we’ll answer the question you all secretly had… “I though the verb is supposed to be at the end, so what’s with that box in the scheme?”
Let me know if things are clear so far or if you have questions. I am not a beginner in German so sometimes … actually a lot of times I have my doubt whether I am being too complicated. If so then tell me. Let me you if you think it is too detailed or too complicated or too theoretical and I’ll do my best to improve… just don’t ask for better puns. That’ll never happen.
I hope you liked it and see you next time.

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