German Sentence Structure – Main Sentences

german-main-clause-image

Hello everyone,

and welcome to a new episode of our absolutely epic German online course.
And today, we’ll tackle one of the most confusing topics of German grammar

German Sentence Structure

German sentence structure seems like a twisted mess to learners, especially because very few languages can relate.
On some deep level, Japanese has more in common with German structure than English does.
But even though German sentences might seem quite weird at first and they definitely take some serious getting used to, the whole topic is actually not all that complicated.
There are essentially two key features that we need to understand and the rest is more or less a result of those.
One of them is this Vate™-stuff (“verb at the end”), which we’ve already touched on in the Essentials-lectures. And the other one also has to do with the verb.

So are you ready to jump in?
Then let’s go.

A little bit of background

To really understand sentence structure (and later on word order) in German, it’s quite helpful to understand what a sentence actually is. And a really helpful model for that is what I call the box-model. I’ve talked about this in detail in a separate article and some of you might have already read it.
But let me go over it real quick.
A basic sentence is always a description of something happening (or being) and we get a bunch of information about that event. Some really short sentences tell us only about who does what….

  • Maria is sleeping.

… others supply a whole truckload of info.

  • After her date with Thomas, Maria, who is feeling a little tipsy, is talking to her friend Maggie for an hour on the phone while walking home.

The two sentences look very different, but the essence is the same: a bunch of information slots in a row. I call them boxes.

  • [ box 1] [ box 2] [ box 3] [ box 4] … [ box whatever].

Some boxes contain words that connect sentences, like because for example, but most boxes contain a piece of information about what’s going on in the sentence. So one box contains the verb, one has the subject, one gives info about when, one about where, one for why and so on. Some or mandatory, others are optional. And what’s important to understand is that inside the box, there can be just one word, but also a full side sentence.

  • [tomorrow]
  • [After I finish the project I have been working on for a week]

Both these bits are a piece of information about “when” and you have to think of them like one solid chunk.
Cool.
So this box-view of a sentence is one of the tools we’ll use to get a handle on sentence structure and word order.
And the other thing we need an understanding that there are different types of sentences. An obvious example is the difference between questions and statements (we’ve talked about questions and their structure in a separate article). But at least when learning German, there’s another really important distinction: main sentences and side sentences.
A main sentence is a normal sentence that can stand on its own, while a side sentence is usually an integral part of a main sentence and it feels incomplete by itself.

  • I ate a cake. (main sentence)
  • After I ate a cake. (side sentence)

In everyday life, the second one would work as a direct reply to a question like “When will you do the 100 push-ups?” but I think you can tell that it’s kind of incomplete.
Anyway, in English you can kind of get away without knowing or caring about the difference. In German, however, that won’t work.
You see, one really … uhm… “unique” (aka annoying) feature about German is that it  looooves to “mark” different functions with different looks.
And it does that also for sentences, and so main sentences and side sentences have a completely different structure.

  • 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

In English, the only difference is that the side sentence has an extra word at the beginning.
A German side sentence, too, has such an “intro-word” but on top of that, the verb changes position and goes to… surprise, surprise…  the end. Yup, there really seems to be something going on with verbs and the end of the sentence.
Now, there’s actually another slight difference between main sentences and side sentences, and actually actually, the side sentences kind of reveal the REAL structure of German much better. Seriously, prepare to get your mind blown.
But we’ll get to all that later on in the module on structure.
Today, we’ll focus on main sentences and we’ll start with a look at …

The General Structure

Not the most pretty chart in the world, but here you go…

We have one box, then on position two comes the verb, then come all the various info boxes that we want to convey (might be none, actually) and then comes Vate™ (verb at the end) .
Oh and then may well come a bonus round.
This is the basic scheme and to further explore this, we’ll divide it into three topics:

  1. verb second
  2. position number one
  3. the ending and the bonus

First, we’ll talk about “Verb second”, check out what that really means in practice and see if there are any exceptions.
Then, we’ll explore which elements can be in position one and more importantly, what happens to them if we put them there.
And lastly, we’ll take a look at the end of the sentence. We’re already vaguely familiar with the Vating™ (“verb at the end”-ing) but a more systematic look won’t hurt and we definitely need to explore that weird bonus round a bit more, because that raises a LOT of questions for learners usually.
Actually, there’s a fourth topic, the order of the info-elements. But we’ll talk about that in a separate series on word order, once we’re done with the broader strokes of structure.
Anyway, let’s now take a closer look at like THE defining feature… the verb second. 

Main Sentence – The verb comes second

And that’s already one fundamental difference between German and English. English is commonly categorized as a SVO-language, just like Spanish or French.  That stands for subject-verb-object-language and it means that the verb typically comes after the subject.
Here’s an example..

  • [Ich]    [lese]  [ein Buch] .
  • [I]        [read]  [a book].
    1             2           3

Looks like German is the same, but it is NOT.
German is actually considered a V2-language. That stands for “verb second” and by the way… that’s actually a feature that comes from the Germanic language family. English is kind of the odd man out here.
Anyway, in a German main sentence, the verb always comes in the second position and that’s just different than English.

  • [Nach der Arbeit]    [bin]     [ich ]      [ nach Hause gegangen]   [gegangen].
  •  [After work]              [I]       [went]   [home]   .
    1                                    2             3                 4                                            5
  • [Weil ich sehr großen Hunger hatte,]  [bin]    [ich]    [nach Hause]   [gegangen].
  • [Because I was really hungry,]                 [I ]  [went]    [home].
    1                                                                           2       3                4                         5

The first example looks like German and English are the same, but the latter two really show the difference. In English, the verb comes after the subject and there might be something before that. In German, the verb ALWAYS comes in the second position.
And it doesn’t matter what the first element is.
Which brings us to something that courses and textbooks often call inversion.
Like… you might say this:

  •    1         2      3
  • Heute ich gehe
  • Today I go…

which is a really common mistake and your teacher might tell you that you forgot the “inversion”.
Inversion means that the verb and the subject have to switch places.

  •    1          2         3
  • Heute ich gehe… (WRONG… before “””inversion”””)
  • Heute gehe ich… (RIGHT… after “””inversion”””

Thinking of it this way is fine for a beginner, but you shouldn’t get too hung up on it because that’s not really what’s going on under the hood. Like… Germans don’t think of this in terms of switching places. They just put the verb second right away.
And also, while the subject will OFTEN come next to the verb, it doesn’t always have to.
It can lag a little…

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

… or it can come almost at the end.

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

We’ll learn more about what happened here in the series on word order.
But yeah, I think all I’m trying to say is that you shouldn’t think of a German sentence as an English sentence that you just have to modify a little by doing some inversion and moving parts of the verb last. I mean, you can, but that’ll be a LOT of modifications. German and English have fundamentally different views on sentence structure and word order.
That said, though, it can be really helpful to practice with the “inverted” versions of common phrasings…. hab ich, will ich, kann ich and so on.
Actually, let me make those into a little haiku

Manchmal bin ich müde.
Im Deutschkurs kann ich schlafen.
Dann will ich Kaffee.

Beautiful.
But seriously, maybe make a little list or a few poems like this and say them a few times each day like a little poem. Understanding the rule and doing it when writing is one thing, but when you talk, it’ll come out the way you say it in your mother tongue. You really need to get used to the flow of this.
It’ll take a while, so don’t get frustrated if you keep getting it wrong. Even people who are more or less fluent who do mess it up sometimes.
The upside is, though, that it’s still perfectly understandable if you forget to put the verb second.
Cool.
So that’s one of the key rules for a German main sentence: the verb is always the SECOND ELEMENT. Verb Second. V2 … like… you can form a v with two fingers, as a mnemonic.
Or how about this little rhyme:

Yo, yo, yo.. German learner in the buildin’
and when I’m buildin’
a German sentence
the verb is always second
I reckon….
yeah.

Ugh… eternal cringe!!
Seriously though, if we have a rule like “the verb is always second” of course that raises the question: are there any exceptions or is it really always always.
But before we look at that, it’s time for you to get active and recap and practice a little.

And now, on to everyone’s favorite feature… exceptions.

Exceptions to “verb second”

And the big surprise is… there kinda sorta low key aren’t any.
Whoooaaaaat?!
Yup, you read that right. The “verb second”-rule really is a rule for once.
However, there are a few things that might look like exceptions to the untrained eye, and you’ll run into them sooner or later, so let’s take a look at what they are and why they’re totally not exceptions.

The first one are combinations with und and oder. Like this one:

  • Thomas und sein bester Freund gehen in eine Bar.
  • Thomas and his best friend go to a bar.

If you’re new to language learning and thinking about it analytically, this might well look like two elements to you – Thomas (1) and his best friend (2). So that would mean that the verb is in position three instead of two.
But that’s where thinking in terms of questions is really helpful.
The phrase Thomas and his best friend forms one piece of information, one box that contains the answer to “Who is going to a bar?”. And that’s what matters for sentence structure.
Here’s another example, this time with oder (or).

  • Heute direkt nach der Arbeit oder spätestens, wenn ich zu Hause bin, muss ich den Flug buchen.
  • Today directly after work or at the latest, when I am at home, I have to book the flight.

Damn, looks quite complex, right. But in essence, we’re given two options of time so we kind of have two “elements” but in terms of information, they’re both part of the same box – the when-box. And so the verb is still very much where it’s supposed to be – in position number two.

Cool.
Now the second non-exception is already little trickier.
Take a look at this example…

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

The part before the verb is “Yesterday at the party” , so we have an indication of time AND  indication of place. So it’s perfectly reasonable to say that we have two pieces of information here before the verb; two boxes.
The thing is…  it doesn’t feel like two boxes to a German speaker. Yes, talking about how something feels is a thing now.
It feels like one box that’s answering the question “whern“… like… mix of where and when. You know… like… what Einstein said, that time and space are connected, or whatever. When they’re apart, they’re two distinct elements but when we put time and space information next to each other they might kind of fuse a little.
The phrase “yesterday at the party” can be used to answer either one of those questions.

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

And that’s why it feels like one unit to a German and it only takes one position in the sentence.
So once again… no exception.
And if you’re like “Hmmm, that low key does feel like an exception that was rationalized away.” then you’ll absolutely LOVE the last non-exception.
Which goes as follows: there are a few small connecting words that count as position 0.
Here’s an example…

  • “Here… take an apple.”
    But I am not hungry.”

But means aber in German and if we take it as the first element, we should have the verb after it…

  • “Hier… nimm einen Apfel.”
    Aber bin ich nicht hungrig.”… WRONG

But the proper way is this:

  • “[Aber]   [ich]   [bin]   nicht hungrig.”
    0              1            2

but aber doesn’t count. And the same goes for oder (or) and und (and) if they connect sentences as well as for denn, which is an option for because.

  • When you’re there, let me know and I’ll drop by.
  • Wenn du da bist, sag Bescheid, und ich komme vorbei.
    Wenn du da bist, sag Bescheid, und komme ich vorbei. WRONG

Actually, sometimes mistakes like this one happen when our brain, eager to apply the new rule, over-corrects. But yeah, the und here counts as position zero, and so the verb still sits in position two, as per usual. So no exception!
And yes, I know it sound like something a bunch of high paid lawyers came up with, just so we can’t call this an exception. But hey… lawyers gonna law.
Cool.
So this was out look at the three main things that might make you go like “Wait, I learned the verb should be second?!” and I hope you could see that it kinda sorta always is.
And I think that’s enough for the verb.
And it’s also enough for today, I’d say :).
Next time, in the second part, we’ll explore the beginning and the end of a German main sentence and in the third part, we’ll then get to side sentences and a big big reveal about German.
As usual, if you have any questions or suggestions about this so far, just leave me a comment.
I hope you liked it and see you next time.

Want to keep reading?
Here’s episode two:

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