German Sentence Structure – Position 1 and More

Hello everyone,

and welcome to the second part of our look at the basics of

German Sentence Structure

And because that sounds very boring and dry, we’ll from now on call it

“The Tao of Sen”

In the first part (find it here), we took a brief look at sentences in general and then focused on the struct… I mean Tao of main sentences.

Here it is again:

German Sentence Structure -The Basic Scheme

We then talked about the “verb second” and that’s where we left off.
Today, we’ll explore the other important positions, namely the first position and the end of the sentence.
And in part three, in the extra long season finale, we’ll then finally talk about side sentences, see what they are, learn a really intuitive hack why their structure makes sense AND we’ll find out one of the deepest, mind-bendingest and most surprising insights about the German language (and that you already know if you’re a long time reader ;)).
So yeah… the last episode is top notch. But the one of today isn’t bad either. You know… one of those bori... I mean slow mid-season episodes.
By the way, I desperately need series recommendations for the coming winter, so if you have suggestions, leave them in the comments.
But now, are you ready to jump back into the “Tao of Sen“?
Then let’s go.

As I said, we’ll talk about the beginning and the end of a sentence today, and of course we’ll begin with the beginning.

The First Element of a German sentence – “The Tao of One”

In the last episode, we learned that the verb in a German main sentence always sits in the second position. That means there is exactly ONE open slot in front of it.
That’s very different to English where you can pile up three elements in front of the verb without problems.

  • Yesterday (1) , because it was really boring (2) I (3) fell (4) asleep in class.

That does NOT work in German.
In German, it’s only ONE element.
This raises two questions and the first one is which elements we can put there.
And the answer is pretty simple: virtually all elements.
I mean, not all at once, of course. Just one at a time. But we can out virtually any element into the first position.
Take this sentence. 

  • I have had a beer today.

On first sight, we have the three elements subject (I), direct object (a beer) and time (today).
And they all can technically go into position one.

  • Ichhabe heute ein Bier getrunken. (subject)

  • Heute habe ich ein Bier getrunken. (time)

  • Ein Bier habeich heute getrunken. (direct object)


The last one might already be kind of a surprise to you but it doesn’t stop there. By all elements I really mean all of them.
Also the leftover part of the verb can be in position one.

  • Getrunken habe ich heute ein Bier.

Yes, that is proper German and people say that. And technically, even a lonely prefix could be in position one.

  • Raus gehe ich nicht, Luke.
  • Outside I go not, Luke.

Proud Yoda would be.
Now, a sentence like the one above does sound a bit strange in German as well, and it only works in the right context.
Which brings us to the second big question we can ask about position one, which is “Why and when do native speakers put a certain element in position one.”
Or put more simply

“What happens if we put an element in position one?”

When you look around for an answer in online courses or textbooks you’ll often find something like this:

“Putting an element into position gives it emphasis.”

But that’s not quite what’s going on.
Take the following sentence:

  • Thomas has seen a unicorn.

By default, the focus is on unicorn, because that’s the news. But let’s suppose we want to put the focus on Thomas.
In writing, we could use all caps, for instance…

  • THOMAS has seen a unicorn.

… and if we were to read that, we’d probably use a louder voice for Thomas.
But what really creates the emphasis is not the all caps or the louder voice. It’s the fact that these are a deviation from the norm.
All caps can only create emphasis because they’re not the norm and saying “Thomas” with a loud voice ONLY creates emphasis because we usually wouldn’t say it that way.
You might have an inkling where I am going with this :).
It’s the exact same for structure.
Putting an element in position one CAN give it special emphasis, but ONLY if it usually ISN’T in position one.

  • Ich mache die Tür zu.
  • Zu mache ich die Tür.

The ich in the first one doesn’t get special emphasis because position one is a natural spot for it. The prefix zu of the separable verb zumachen (to close) on the other hand will get an incredible amount of emphasis… billions and billions of emphasis. So much emphasis, it almost sounds wrong. Because its natural spot is AT THE END, not at the beginning.

Now, all this of course raises the question of which elements would naturally come in the beginning.
The real answer to that is actually the key to German word order and it’s a little too big a topic for today, so we’ll talk about it in a separate series.
Want a quick teaser trailer?

“Think of a sentence as a movie scene.”

That’s all I’m gonna say for now ;).
For today, let’s use a quick  dirty hack that’ll work for about 80% of everyday spoken sentences. The elements that sound very natural early on and hence in position one are the who-box (subject)..

  • Ich habe gestern Pasta gegessen.
  • I ate pasta yesterday.

the when-box ( time information)

  • Gestern habe ich Pasta gegessen.
  • Yesterday, I ate pasta.

and all referential elements that directly tie the sentence to what has come before, be it a word like there or a phrase like for that reason….

  • Das ist mein Lieblingsrestaurant. Dort habe ich gestern Pasta gegessen.
  • That’s my favorite restaurant. I ate pasta there, yesterday.
  • Ich hatte Hunger. Deshalb habe ich eine Pizza gegessen.
  • I was hungry. That’s why I ate a pizza.

Actually, if there is such a “connector” it’s most natural to start with that. Especially if you’re telling a story, it just makes for a nice narrative flow. 

  • Gestern bin ich mit Maria ins Kino gegangen.
    Dort haben wir einen Film geguckt.
    Danach hatte Maria Hunger.
    Deshalb sind wir ins Restaurant gegeangen.
    Ich habe Pizza gegessen und Maria hatte Fledermaussuppe.
    Der Rest ist 2020.
  • Yesterday, I went to the cinema with Maria.
    We watched a movie there.
    After that, Maria was hungry.
    That’s why we went to a restaurant.
    I ate pizza and Maria had bat soup.
    The rest is 2020.

Oh…uh…  that example took a weird turn.
But anyway, subject, time and references… that’s a good rule of thumb for what naturally goes into position one without creating any special focus.

Now, besides creating (or not creating) emphasis, there’s another reason why something might be put into position one. It’s not that important in daily speech, but it definitely matters when you start writing, so I want to mention it real quick.
And that reason is balance.
We’ve learned in the first part, that an element like for instance time information can be just one word like “today”, but it can also be a full side sentence.

  • Weil mein Chef krank ist, muss ich diese Woche mehr arbeiten, obwohl ich gar keinen Job habe.
  • Because my boss is sick, I have to work more this week although I don’t have a job.

That makes no sense, but many things don’t this year, so let’s just ride with it. What matters is the structure. We have a why-box in the beginning and a “despite what”-box at the end, each containg a full side sentence.
And by putting one in the beginning, we get a nicely balanced structure:

[Weil__________,] muss———(main sentence)————-,[ ________habe].

The alternatives would be to either splice the weil-box in between or add it at the end.

———, [weil_______ ], ———,  [_______ ].  //   —————-, [ ________ ] , [ ________ ] .

And neither is a nice balance.
As I said… this is more relevant for written German, but still I wanted to mention it.
So now that we know about the beginning of a sentence, let’s pack up and move all the way to the other side.
But first, it’s time for you to get active and recap with a little quiz

And now, let’s take a look at the end of a sentence.

The End of a German Sentence – The Tao of End

And of course that means that we’ll talk about Vate™  – Verb at the End. One of German’s most famous features besides Der,Die,Das™ and Die Fälle™.
And I’m sure most of you are already fairly familiar with Vate™. In the Essentials-module of this course, we’ve actually started dealing with Vate™ pretty much from the second or third lecture because it’s just such an integral part of the language.
If the verb has just one part, it goes into the second position. But as soon as we have two parts the part that carries the ending goes into slot 2, and the rest goes to the end.
And that can be a prefix

  • Ich mache das Licht aus. (prefix)
  • I turn the light off.

or a second verb...

  • Ich will heute abend in die Sauna gehen.
  • I want to go to sauna this evening.

or a ge-form

  • Thomas hat gestern bis um 12 geschlafen.
  • Thomas slept till 12 yesterday.

or the Z-Beta-3- Goethe-Gödel Configuration that we talked about last time. You probably don’t remember it though… the grammar of that is quite traumatizing, and most brains repress it.
Here’s an ex… uh… I… uhm… wait, what were we talking about?
Oh yeah, verb at the end.
I don’t actually want to spend much time with practical examples today because you’ll see Vate pretty much all the time anyway and if you’ve followed the course, then you should be at least past the first two stages of grief – denial (“What kind of crap is that. It can’t be.”) and panic (“OMG, I can’t do that!!“).
And I also don’t want to talk about the big question of WHY German does that.
There actually IS an answer to that, but we’ll save that for the final part of this series. Because … you know… tension.
Today, I’d rather talk about a few things that sooner or later come up as questions and that we could call exceptions… if there weren’t so many of them.

The Verb is Last in a German Sentence – Or is it?!

Yes, you read that right. There are actually plenty of instances where the verb doesn’t “go to the end”.
The first one is side sentences.
Content-wise, a side sentence is just a piece of information for the story of the main sentence, one box that answers a specific question.
The side sentence “when my alarm rings” has the exact same function as the words “at 9” – it tells us when I get up.

  • [Wenn der Wecker klingelt], wache ich  auf.
    When the alarm rings, I wake up.
  • [Um neun] wache ich auf.
    At nine, I wake up.

Structurally, however, a box with a side sentence is a bit different than a box with just a word.
Let’s take the same example and start with ich this time.

  • Ich wache [um 9] auf…. GOOD!
  • Ich wache auf [um 9].… WRONG!

This is in line with what we’ve learned.
But for the version with a side sentence, it’s different.

  • Ich wache, [wenn der Wecker klingelt], auf. .. okay
  • Ich wache auf, [wenn der Wecker klingelt]… okay

Here, BOTH versions are grammatically correct and the second one is probably a bit better. And the reason is… simplicity.
Yes, I just said German does something because of simplicity.
Here’s the structure of the examples we just had:

  • ————-, __________ ,–.
  • ——————–, ________.

The second version is clearly simpler and even though the sentence is quite short, the dangling prefix right after the verb “klingelt” of the side sentence makes the brain work a little harder.
Here’s a longer example:

  • Thomas hasn’t talked with Maria for three days, because she laughed at his new hair.
  1. Thomas hat seit drei Tagen nicht mit Maria geredet, [weil sie über seine neue Frisur gelacht hat].
  2. Thomas hat,[weil sie über seine neue Frisur gelacht hat], seit drei Tagen nicht mit Maria geredet.

and as structures…

  1. —————-, _________ .
  2. —-, _________ , ———–.

Again, BOTH versions are correct. And a hundred years ago, writers would probably have preferred the second one, because making sentences as complicated as possible was fashionable back then. But not anymore. The current fashion is to “compartmentalize” and put more and more stuff after the verb at the end.
Side sentences are the most obvious choice because they’re complex units and they themselves have a verb at the end, so the overall construct still has a verb at the end. I mean… German LOVES that stuff, make no mistake. Verb final for life, bro.

  1. Ich habe eine Suppe gegessen, weil ich Hunger hatte.
  2. Ich habe, weil ich Hunger hatte, eine Suppe gegessen.

But it doesn’t stop there. Also constructions with zu or um zu are often put after the final verb.

  • I tried to call you three times.
  1. Ich habe drei mal versucht, dich anzurufen…. GREAT
  2. Ich habe drei mal dich anzurufen versucht.… Meeeehhhhh
  • Thomas opens the fridge to take a beer for himself.
  1. Thomas macht den Kühlschrank auf, um sich ein Bier zu nehmen…. YUP
  2. Thomas macht, um sich ein Bier zu nehmen, den Kühlschrank auf…. NOPE

The second version of either example is not really wrong… but they sound overly complicated and no one really talks or writes that way.
And while these zu-constructs still have their own verb, it still doesn’t stop there.
Because also comparisons can be put after the final verb.

  • Thomas sieht mit seiner neuen Frisur aus, wie Billie Eilish.

    Thomas sieht mit seiner neuen Frisur wie Billie Eilish aus.

  • Thomas looks like Billie Eilish with his new hair.
  • Ich habe hier mehr gelernt als im Deutschkurs.

    Ich habe hier mehr als im Deutschkurs gelernt.

  • I learned more here than in German class.

In these examples, both versions are equally idiomatic and common but the longer the comparison-part gets, the better it is after the verb.
For more details on that, you can check out the article on comparisons.
But yeah… side sentences, zu-constructions and comparisons … all those can commonly come after the final verb. And these cases are so common, that it would be weird to call them exceptions.

So I think we need to say it as it is… this whole Vate™-thing  isn’t quite as universal as it sounds in beginner courses and learning material; including my own, by the way. I think it makes sense to present the simplified rule in the beginning, because mentioning all these “exceptions” would be overwhelming and also because the Vate™ is an expression of a fundamental feature of German that we need to get used to.
But I also think it’s important to tell learners early on, that it’s not that fixed.
And just to make sure… that’s NOT just colloquial German. This does apply to written German as well.

In spoken German, this goes much further, actually, because there, people also put prepositional phrases after the final verb, and sometimes even usually well integrated elements like time.

  • Maria hat sich gefreut auf den Film.
  • Maria was excited for the movie.
  • Ich habe mit Maria gesprochen gestern…
  • I talked to Maria yesterday….

Sentences like these are quite common in spoken German, and at least for me I can say… it’s not even just a glitch. Like, sometimes it just happens because my brain was too slow and decided to have an afterthought. But at other times I legit prefer this flow.
But if you now  go like “Yeah, I’m totally gonna do that.” let me tell you… nope. Because first of all, if you do this and you have an accent, people might assume you made a mistake and correct you rather than applaud you for being super native…. yeah, not fair, I know.
And also, like with any street language, there are dos and dont’s, written by “what sounds right.”
To take the example again…

  • Ich habe mit Maria gesprochen gestern.
  • Ich habe gestern gesprochen mit Maria.

No native speaker would ever say the second version, unless they’re REALLY confused.
It’s actually virtually impossible for you to know which element might work in the bonus field, because it depends on the context. So… if you hear people do something like this, then don’t get confused.
But for your active speaking, stick to the three types of elements for which it’s universally custom:

  1. side sentences
  2. zu-constructions
  3. comparisons

And that’s also what we’ll practice in the second exercise for this lecture.
But first let me wrap this up, because we’re actually done for the day.
This was our look at the first and the last position in a main sentence. Next time, in the grand finale, we’ll finally talk about side sentence, and the big reveal that I keep hinting at.
For now, if you have any questions about what we’ve learned so far, just leave me a comment and I’ll do my best to clear it up.
I hope you had fun today, have a great week and enjoy the exercise and I’ll see you next time.

further reading:


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