Before you start reading…
This post is more of about a general theory as well as the terminology I use to explain German structure
(word order, position of nicht and so on)
I really recommend reading this, but if you want to get to word-order right away…
there’s a mini-series about that. Here’s the link to part 1 :)
and welcome back to the “readiest” German course of all time.
That’s right. While everyone is doing “short form content” (aka TikToks), I’m sticking with the deep dives here.
And today, it is time for the first part of the mini series series on German sentence structure.
And to do the subject matter justice, I have decided to organize this mini series as a loosely connected compendium of impressionistic essays, poems, songs and one or two Haikus inspired by the topic.
“WHAT?! But we want rules, Emanuel! Give us RULES, BRO!!”
I understand where you’re coming from.
But can a rule help us understand the erratic path of a butterfly?
Can a rule ever completely capture and produce the beautiful sound of small stream as it purls over mossy rocks?
And aren’t there exceptions where there are rules just as there is fire where there’s smoke?
Now you’re like “What the hell am I reading.” and you’re about to leave, but my whole point is this – and that’s the first key learning of this series:
German sentence structure doesn’t really work based on RULES!
Don’t get me wrong.
It’s not like you can put anything anywhere in a German sentence. When it comes to verbs, there are some iron clad rules and in books and other sources you can find other rules too, like, say, indirect object – direct object or time-manner-place.
But what’s really really important is that you try to see them like Berlin pedestrians see traffic lights: non-binding advice.
German sentence structure and word order is a complex thing that needs a lot of gut feeling. We’ll learn some rules in this mini series, but the more important parts are general ideas or characteristics of German, that will help you determine which word can go where and why.
And to start this all off we will have a look at what I call:
The Box Model
The box model is a way of looking at language or a sentence in particular that helps you understand how those many many many many words are organized. It holds for many languages but for German it is particularly useful… so let’s dive right into it.
Breaking down a sentence
Let’s analyze a sentence and see what parts we can identify there…
Probably the most important and defining part of a sentence is the verb. Pretty much every sentence has one. Without a verb, a sentence is just scenery, a stage, all set, but without anything happening yet.
Let’s do an example:
- I coffee in the kitchen.
Here, the verb is missing and it is pretty boring. There’s me, a coffee and we’re in the kitchen. That’s the scene. But we don’t know what happens. Do I make a coffee? Do I drink it? Do I spill it? Do I scold it?
The verb is so important because it represents what is happening, be it in our mind or the real world. Stuff happening, an action, is actually the main reason we talk. I think if there wasn’t ever anything going on we wouldn’t say very much. But luckily stuff happens all around us and verbs are the words for that. Theoretically, a language without verbs is possible.
- I cup on the table.
However, the reality is full of action and flow and this non-verb-language just doesn’t do that justice at all.
In fact, I don’t think there even is a language that doesn’t have the concept of verbs. If you know of one, let me know.
German is especially verb-focused by the way, verbs govern everything in German but we will get to that later on.
So… a sentence will always have a verb. Now what about this?
- Thomas has been reading.
There are 3 words in there that are all verbs but there is only one thing going on: reading. So to avoid confusion let’s call reading an action and modify the claim of before… every sentence has an action which is represented by one or more verbs.
Cool. So we have a verb now and we can think of that as “movement”.
But of course, in order to have movement, we need an entity that is actually “moving”. And that is called the subject.
Is the subject as important as the verb? No. There are many languages that do fine without having a subject in every sentence. Italian for instance. They just say
- Rains. instead of
- It rains.
And what is this it after all? Can you show me it? Describe it? In German and English we just have to say it because grammar compels us to have a subject in our sentence. In every sentence? Yes, absolutely. Save for the exceptions, of course :).
So, the two 2 basic parts of a sentence are an action and the one doing this action, the subject.
Every sentence in German will contain those 2 things. For your convenience those parts are marked with colors in the following fictional example.
- Ich lese abends oft in der Küche ein Buch über Pferde.
- In the evenings, I often read a book about horses in the kitchen.
So…what’s with all the other stuff?
Besides the mandatory subject and action, we can put additional pieces of information into our sentence. It can be information about time or place or manner or circumstances or duration and so on…
Depending on the action there is information you must add, you may add and you can’t add.
- I slept.
This doesn’t require me to say more. I can add time-information or place information or others… if I feel like it.
- Last night, I slept.
- Last night, I slept in my bed.
Here is an example for something you can’t add.
- I slept my book…. is nonsense.
For other verbs, this very information is a mustache… oh… I mean must have.
- I give.
This doesn’t feel complete yet so here we need to add 2 pieces of info.
- I give you a book.
All right… now each piece of information is BY NATURE the answer to one specific question. Those can be obvious questions like when or where but also really specific ones like despite what fact? Actually the way the parts look in a sentence is exactly the way you would answer the respective direct question. Behold…
- “I gave.”
I can take all those answers and just use them to build a sentence… like Lego.
- Yesterday morning, I gave my girlfriend a kiss.
Now… all these pieces of information were very short. But it works for long ones just the same way.
- “I fell asleep.”
“While learning German.”
“In that my new kick ass comfy armchair.”
“Because I was tremendously tired from a long days work.”
And again, I can just take the answer to the question and put it into my initial sentence.
- While learning German I fell asleep in my kick ass comfy new armchair because I was tremendously tired from a long days work.
I did NOT change the word order or anything… I just stuck it in there without much thought. What’s that, you ask?… Oh… no, I don’t know if that’s what he said, sorry.
Anyway, let’s do it again with an even longer …. piece… of information… my god, is it just me or has the quality been going dow… uhm decreasing… anyway, back to the example.
- “I slept.”
“During the second half of the lecture that introduced the German case system to us and that was by far the most boring lecture I have seen so far in my entire career as a student.”
And just as before you can just use the answer to build a whole sentence
- During the second…. as a student, I slept.
- I slept during the second…. as a student.
Now, that during-chunk is a pretty elaborate answer giving all kinds of background information about the lecture and myself. Does this really qualify as one piece of information answering only one question as I claimed before?
Yes. Sure, it is also implicitly answering where and why I slept but those are nothing but assumptions. Maybe I was at home and slept while my friend was in that very lecture, which I then saw later on YouTube (hence my judgment) and my sleeping at the time had nothing to do with the lecture. We cannot know for sure where I slept or why. The way the whole chunk is phrased or more precisely the introductory word during makes it a valid answer to when and only to when?… not where, not even how long?
And that is what matters. This whole massive block is one time information stuffed with additional things that do not concern the main action (sleeping) explicitly. We could replace the whole thing with at that time… not just a part but everything together.
- I slept at that time.
We cannot just replace parts of the sentence with at that time.
- I slept at that time that was by far the most boring….
- I slept at that time that introduced the German….
- I slept at that time I have seen in my entire….
It doesn’t really work. From the perspective of the main action (sleeping) the whole during-chunk is one unbreakable unit and all the information therein is second level info that is not directly connected to the main sentence…. it is like a box labeled with when?.
The box model
What we have discovered so far is that a sentence can be seen as being comprised of one or more verbs representing one action and a bunch of boxes that each contain the answer to one question that could be asked about that action. Even the subject of the sentence is such a box. A box labeled who?.
Those boxes can contain all kinds of things. So far we have seen boxes containing just words
- Last night I slept.
or a dependent sentence
- I slept because I was tired.
but it can also contain other constructions like –ing-things or to-things.
- Doing my homework I fell asleep.
- I tried to call you.
The to call you-part is a box answering to what?. Grammatically it has the very same function as salmon would have
- I tried salmon.
Don’t believe me? Well, the following sentence could be a replacement for either example.
- I tried it.
Note that is not so important to know what the box is answering to but rather where it ends. Let’s analyze 2 sentences using the box model. please ignore my inconsistent use of colors.
- Last night, I slept in my chair because I was tremendously tired.
- [When?], [who?] action [where?][why?]
- Yesterday morning, for reasons I don’t want to discuss in detail, I gave my brother a book although I would have needed it.
- [When], [why] [who] action [whom?][what?][despite what fact?]
- A few days ago I was planning on going to the gym because I had realized that I had gained weight.
- [When], [who] action [planning on what] [why].
Anything inside those sentences except for the action-words themselves is part of some box. In the second example, the whom-box is not just brother but my brother and the despite-box is also the whole thing.
Now you might be like… oh great, now I have to worry about identifying boxes, how does that help me?
Well… the box metaphor has 3 main advantages. Firstly … a box is solid and so are the units in the sentence. You can only move or replace them as a whole chunk and you cannot split them with parts of other boxes.
- Yesterday evening, Jim’s girlfriend made him an incredibly tasty vegetable dish because he was very hungry.
I cannot say
- Yesterday evening Jim’s girlfriend made him an incredibly tasty because he was very hungry vegetable dish.
I have broken a box with another box and that is not possible… never!
The second reason why box is a good metaphor is that we can close it. You can carry boxes for a friend who is moving to a new flat without knowing what’s inside.
This is important because the content of a box will NEVER affect the order of other boxes in the sentence let alone the words in those boxes. Whether there is one word in the box or a whole paragraph with a whole lot of second and third level info doesn’t matter from the perspective of the main sentence.
- I am going to eat a pasta dish in the kitchen now.
- I am going to eat a pasta dish in the kitchen after having finished watching the romantic comedy that my friend who works at this movie -company recommended to me despite her knowing that romantic comedies are not exactly my favorite genre.
The main sentence, the main action is that I am going to eat. All the stuff in the when-box is second level info. We could have just said after the movie and the listener would still know when I am going to eat. But I decided to squeeze more info in there… I mean why not. However, if my main message had been the stuff about the comedy I would have phrased things differently, probably without the whole eating part. The main sentence is
- I am going to eat [when?].
and the exact content of the when-box is of no grammatical consequence to it. So… box-content doesn’t really matter grammatically.
The third reason for thinking of boxes is that you can use them to move lots of stuff easily and conveniently. In our example the time information is the last info but we could also put it in the beginning.
- I am going to eat a pasta dish in the kitchen now.
- Now I am going to eat a pasta dish in the kitchen.
Well, that was easy. We just moved one word. But what about the other example? There are a lot of words to move. The good news is we’ll just close the box, move it and then reopen it. We don’t have to touch a single word inside. We just move the whole chunk….
- After having finished watching…. favorite genre, I am going to eat a pasta dish in the kitchen.
So … to sum it all up
- Boxes contain information that answers exactly one question of interest for the main action.
- The main action determines which boxes can be there, which ones must be there and which ones don’t make sense.
- A box cannot be split up.
- Boxes can contain a single word or several layered minor sentences. All additional information inside a box about other stuff in the same box has NOTHING to do grammatically with the main action. The main sentence doesn’t care what exactly is in a box.
- Boxes can be moved as a whole. You don’t have to touch anything inside. Just move the whole thing.
Now, no model is ever perfect… except for Heidi Klum of course ( I am kidding)… so when it comes to certain adverbs and especially the German particles it kind of doesn’t apply… the thing is that you cannot ask for particles. There is no question to which schon could be a valid answer. So I suggest we just look at particles as part of the action so they are not part of a box.
All this is pretty universal I think. I am not sure though. But it definitely does apply to German.
And it is tremendously helpful to understanding complex sentences or changing the order of things in a sentence… and boy oh boy I tell you… German is REALLY flexible right there. Like it has been taking Yoga lessons for centuries. What’s that you say? English is flexible too? Well…
- To you I say…
If you think having the indirect object first is crazy – well Germans do that for breakfast :). I will use the last part of this to show you the full scope of:
German Sentence Structure Madness
What you’re about to see might scare you. Meet a moderately complex sentence… its name is Frederick* (*name changed for privacy reasons)
- Obwohl Thomas seit ein paar Tagen eine schlimme Erkältung hat, war er gestern mit einer Freundin, die er aus der Schule kennt, schwimmen.
- Although he has had a bad cold for a few days now, Thomas went swimming with a friend whom he knows from school yesterday.
First let’s break this down into parts…
- [despite what fact] action part 1 [who] [when] [with whom] action left overs.
- [Despite what fact] [who] action [with whom] [when].
Now, here are a few German options that also work… just a different order of boxes…. no words are added, altered or left out.
- Thomas war gestern mit einer Freundin, die … kennt, schwimmen, obwohl … Erkältung hat.
- Gestern war Thomas mit einer Freundin, die… kennt, schwimmen, obwohl er…. hat.
- Mit einer Freundin, die… kennt, war Thomas gestern, obwohl… hat, schwimmen.
This is not all… but notice that you have to change NOTHING in the chunks. Many people learning German keep splitting boxes and rearranging box content when they try to change box order. It is NOT necessary. Just pretend to move a wooden box from one place to another place and you will get it right.
So where were we… ah yeah… the options. So here they are. The ones in parantu… parana.. in those things “()” sound off while not being entirely wrong…
You can just insert the building blocks from the original example to get a 100% correct sentence without worrying about verb position and stuff like that.
- ([when] war [who] [with whom] [despite what fact] schwimmen.)
- [when] war [who] [despite what fact] [with whom] schwimmen.
- [who] war [when][despite what fact][with whom] schwimmen.
- [who] war [when][with whom][despite what fact] schwimmen.
- [who] war [with whom][when][despite what fact] schwimmen.
- ([who] war [with whom][despite what fact][when] schwimmen.)
- [who] war [despite what fact][when][with whom] schwimmen.
Crazy German… 7 different ways of structure…hold on… I think there are some more…
- [despite] war [who] [when] [with whom] schwimmen.
- [despite] war [who] [with whom] [when] schwimmen.
- [with whom] war [who][despite][when] schwimmen.
- [with whom] war [who][when][despite] schwimmen.
Wow… this is impressive. It is so many that I c.. oh wait… there are more.
- [who] war [when][with whom] schwimmen, [despite].
- [who] war [with whom][when] schwimmen, [despite].
- [when] war [who] [with whom] schwimmen, [despite].
- [with whom] war [who][when] schwimmen, [despite]
So… quite a lo… oh this just in: in theater speech there is even morerer….
- (Schwimmen war [who][when][with whom][despite].)
- ((Schwimmen war [who][with whom][when][despite].))
- (((Schwimmen war [when][with whom][who][despite].)))
- ((((Schwimmen war [despite][who][when][with whom].))))
I think that’s it… a total of about 12 feasible version (not counting the off-ones) and mind you… those are NOT all possible combinations. Some combinations are grammatically wrong and thus not listed.
So… this example, which by the way I spent half an hour on and which I will never do again, shows 2 things: there are patterns visible .. clear as a crystal and they have to do with the verb. And there is no such thing as this one simply rule like time-manner-place that could adequately explain this onslaught of versions.
Anyway… I figure you might be a bit tired… I certainly am so we’ll call that a day here.
What we’ve learned today is that a sentence basically consists of a representation of the action, that is some verbs and certain adverbs and particles, and a bunch of pieces of information, each of which answers to one question. Some are optional, some mandatory and some nonsense but that depends on the action.
In the following posts we will first have a look at sentence types and then try to find some guidelines for which box orders work and which don’t.
If you have any questions just leave me a comment. I hope you liked it and see you next time.