German Sentence Structure 1 – The Box Model

 

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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…
there’s a mini-series about that. Here’s the link to part 1 :)

German Word Order Explained

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Hello everyone,

and welcome to our German is Easy Learn German Online while reading titles that span over one line Course… ( get it? … one line is almost spelled like online… that was a joke by the way) .
Today, after a long looooong wait, it is time… for the first part of the mini series series on German sentence structure.
Wohooooo….
And to do the matter justice this mini series will be a loosely connected compendium of impressionistic essays, poems, songs and one or two Haikus inspired by the topic.
“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? My whole point is – and this is really really important:

rules won’t cut it with German sentence structure

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 (like Easy German… hey Cari ;)) 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 traffic lights: non-binding advice. Wait, is that actually right :)?
Anyways, 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 part are general ideas or characteristics of German, that will help you determine which word can go where and why.
And to start this all of 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 a scenery, a set stage without anything happening.

  • I coffee in the kitchen.

Here, the verb is missing and it is pretty boring.
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 and I actually don’t think there 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.

Now, in physics they say “no movement without mass”… which sound an awful lot like a completely unrelated phenomenon called “much mass without movement“… luckily we won’t have to deal with that until beach season… anyway, no mass without movement (or momentum) can be applied to language too. So far we have an action which in an abstract sense can be seen as movement. Now we need something that is moving or that has the momentum and this something 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… safe for the exceptions :).
So … our 2 basic constitti… contesttua… uh our 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.”
    “What?”
    “A kiss…
    “To whom?”
    “My girlfriend…”
    “When?”
    “Yesterday morning…”

I can take all those answers and just use them to build a sentence… like Lego.

  • Yesterday morning, I gave my girlfriend a chocolate bar.

Now… all these pieces of information were very short. But it works for long ones just the same way.

  • “I fell asleep.”
    “When?”
    “While learning German.”
    “Where?”
    “In that my new kick ass comfy armchair.”
    “Why?”
    “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.”
    “When?”
    “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 where I slept or why for fact. 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 slep 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 nightI 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 sentence 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.
  • It depends on the main action which boxes can be there, which 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 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… 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 answering 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 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.

for members :)

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cmalbrecht

Sometimes rule help. When I was a callow youth beginning high school, I intended to study German. Because the the BIg War that had broken out, and Nazis were highly unpopular, our high school decided to drop the German class so i opted for Spanish instead. But one day, sniffing about in a used book store I found a book called: Beginning German and I thought. who needs a teacher? This looks simple enough. It began: Karl ist ein Junge. Anna ist ein Mädchen, and so on. Wow, that looked so easy. Unfortunately I missed the importance of der, die, das and the accusative, etc. and it really messed me up for a long time later on. I guess after all, a teacher would have been helpful. Now with German is Easy, I can’t go wrong.

Gregory Matchado
Gregory Matchado

So.. Could you just tell if the below statements are all grammatically correct.. And also which one is actually used most often..

Heute ist der Verkehr sehr stark

Der Verkehr ist heute sehr stark

Der Verkehr heute ist sehr stark

Und danke sehr für diesen schönen Artikel.. :)

Manni
Manni

zuviele englische erklärung… mehr deutsche beispiele bitte

Emma
Emma

It’s his blog, he can do as he pleases. Or not at all!

Luis
Luis

Man I just have to say that your blog is AMAZING :D I just have skimmed a little over it, but some entries have already explained me things I had doubts with, in a way that makes so much sense. Really, THANK YOU! I just have one request, could you PLEASE explain when to use “wann” or “wenn” when you want to say when (like right now haha). That really is something that I still don’t understand and I would reaaaaally appreciate it if you could explain it. Keep it up with the amazing blog! I will start reading it since the beginning and follow its updates from now on!

basheersubei

I just thought the part about languages without verbs was very interesting. While I can’t think of a language that has no verbs at all, I know for a fact that in Arabic, there are no linking verbs (there is no verb form for “to be”, at least not in the present tense). The linking verb is always implied by the sentence structure.

For example, to say “I am smart”, you would literally say “I smart”. Action verbs exist in Arabic (and I can’t think of anything that’s special about them).

But that’s enough of Arabic on a German language blog :). I just thought the concept of languages without verbs was interesting enough to share.

Please keep up the great work!

Jurgen
Jurgen

Du hast “Freunding” geschrieben in unten genannten Satz:
Obwohl Thomas seit ein paar Tagen eine schlimme Erkältung hat, war er gestern mit einer Freunding, die er aus der Schule kennt schwimmen.
Ich weiß nicht ob es ein Tippfehler ist oder dass es wirkklich so gemeint war (hört sich auf jeden Fall lustig an ^^) aber ich wollte dir einfach mal drauf achten :)

barryharkcom
barryharkcom

Great article. Very interesting. thanks !

Would you answer a question for me please ? It’s about the gender of a German noun not matching the biological gender of the person it refers to, if that’s ever possible.
For example, nationalities are masculine. So what happens when referring to Der Britischer when she’s a woman ?

I can say “Die Frau ist hier. Ja, sie ist hier”. The pronoun matches the gender of the noun.
I can also say “Der Britischer ist hier. Ja, er ist hier”, The pronoun matches.
Would I still say “er” if Der Britischer is clearly a woman, or should I refer to her as “Die Britisherin ist hier. Ja, sie is hier” ??

thanks for any help – I’m still trying to get my head round German nouns being masculine and feminine :)

CINick
CINick

Why “Thomas war schwimmen” but not “Thomas war geschwommen”?

Daniel
Daniel

Hey Emanuel just wanted to let you know that this page needs updating with this article!

http://yourdailygerman.wordpress.com/learn-german-online-course/

By the way, I heard you were studying Italian and by all means please send me an email if you ever want help with anything/need something to clear up. I’m fairly fluent myself and study the language and I have several native speakers in the house, plus my knowledge of German should definitely help out too. Looking forward to more fantastic articles, keep up the good work!

blackwind123
blackwind123

Last night, I have been sleeping in my chair because I was tremendously tired.

‘Have been sleeping’ should be either ‘was sleeping’ or ‘slept’ depending on the context. I can’t really explain why, just that ‘have been sleeping’ sounds strange. Although ‘have been sleeping’ could work with ‘in my chair because’ such as ‘I have been sleeping in my chair because I don’t have a bed.’

James

For me (native English speaker from UK), ‘have been sleeping’ means it happened more than once, over a period of time, and is now finished. When you add ‘last night’ you restrict the duration such that it becomes a one off event, I.e. I slept/was sleeping. I think it’s the difference between pluperfect and perfect/imperfect but my knowledge of the grammatical terms is shaky.

sbm67753
sbm67753

James, you write ‘have been sleeping’ relates to an action that ‘is now finished’. Would not ‘had’ been sleeping relate to an action that was completed. I’m also English,UK and would understand ‘have been sleeping’ to could infer the action was still ongoing…

ubk
ubk

Present tense can also be habitual action. For example “I sleep 8 hours a night”. If you want to express though the same habitual action since retirement it would use have. It is in the past but also continuing. “Since retirement I have been sleeping 8 hours every night”

Alan
Alan

Your answer to barryharkcom did not quite cover my question. Which is correct
Das Mädchen ist hier. Ja, sie ist hier.
oder
Das Mädchen ist hier. Ja, er ist hier.

Alan
Alan

Here are the typos I saw:
as it purls(???) over … No idea
It hold(s) for many

•I coffee in the kitchen now. Bad example as we do NOT have a verb to Coffee. I take/drink coffee in the kitchen now. Just about works but
we would never put “now” at the end. “I am drinking coffee in the kitchen”is best

“no movement without mass”… exactly where did you learn physics??

is a mustache… oh… I mean May be me, I just could not work out what you pretended to say

“In(that) my new kick ass comfy armchair.” (remove)

•I slep(t) at that time.

sentence can be(e) seen as being comprised
for the action(-)words themselves You do love hyphens I will not mention again it is just your style I suppose

helpful to understand(ing) complex
sentences or chang(e)(ing) the order of things in

•Although he is having a really bad cold for a few days now, Thomas has been swimming with a friend whom he knows from school yesterday!!!”!!
This must rate as your worst mangling of English I have seen.
•Although he has had a bad cold for a few days now, yesterday Thomas went swimming with a friend whom he knows from school .

war Thomas (n)(m)it einer Freundin

Alan
Alan

My typo .

I intended to use
Das Mädchen ist hier. Ja, ES ist hier.

Alan
Alan

“purl” is possibly an onomatopoetic word (ie a word that sounds like the action it is describing) used by er… poets it is not used by anybody else except in another context.
In knitting (the thing that old ladies used to do to make woollen clothes) “to purl” is to take the stitch with the knitting needle from the back.
Sometimes you “knit” a row and then “purl” a row. to make a pattern. Other times you “knit one purl one” ie do alternate stitches to make another pattern.
How do I know all this – becasue I am OLD. None of my children would know any of this.

Logan
Logan

If I tried to say have a good day in German, would Haben ein guten tag be accepted?

Amy Sheu Dendere

Thanks for the blog. i might need a bit more voabulary before i can really make good use of your very clear explainations. Keep up the good work!!

Anonymous
Anonymous

Love your blog. Its helping me a lot on my incoming A2 exam.

All work and no play makes John tired
All work and no play makes John tired

German is too hard :(

Piers Morgan
Piers Morgan

Awful. Too many poor jokes taking away from the substance of the article. Truly weak.

Rusty
Rusty

The box method would not work very well for ancient Greek or Latin. Both of those languages can place words just about anywhere and in almost any order at all. Most adjectives, adverbs, and even prepositions can go before or after their noun or verb, be separated by several other words in between, and sometimes be located in another clause.