German Word Order – 3

Hello everyone,

and welcome to the third part of our mini series on

German Word Order

and if you haven’t read part 1 and part 2 yet, you really should do that because today’s post won’t make much sense without it. So here they are:

And no, there will be no recap. Our poles won’t get one either.
Wow, Worst Pun Ever Award, I’m coming.
Anyway, so last time was all about head final and the notion of important stuff coming very late. But it turned out that this couldn’t quite explain everything. Because it’s actually only half of the the truth. Today, we’ll look at the other half. So… are you ready to jump in once more, even if the water looks a little nerdy?

The first half, the Yin of word order, was this:

The more interesting or defining something is the later it comes.

I got the second half, the Yang, on my notes right here and I’m gonna read it to you know. Behold:

The less interesting, less defining something is, the earlier it comes. 

I know what you’re thinking now. You’re like “This is really really really really dumb.” And you’re right. It does sound kind of stupid.  I mean… it’s the exact same idea as the first sentence. Just seen from the other side. Of course the less interesting stuff has to come early when the more interesting stuff comes late. Not                                                                                                                 everything can come late, right?
But it’s really helpful to actually spell it out that way. This “unicorn wisdom reversed”, as we’ll call it, puts focus on the early stuff and that’s exactly what we need. So let’s keep an open and mind and give it a chance.


Before we get all abstract again it’s probably a good a idea to see “unicron wisdom reversed” do some real, honest work. Like… making some real position decisions that we can understand without having to bend our mind. So we’ll start of with a look at elements that MUST come early.
Like for example certain  reflexive pronouns. Your favorite kind ;).

  • Ich habe [mich] gestern wie immer für Schwarzbier entschieden.
  • As always, I decided to go/opted for dark beer yesterday.

German needs the mich in this sentence and… it needs it there.

  • Ich habe gestern    [ mich  ]  wie immer   [ mich]  für Schwarzbier [MICH] entschieden.
    (the last position is ultra turbo hyper wrong because the thing I decide for or against is just so strongly connected to the verb itself)

All of these position create a HUGE amount of tension, a lot of emphasis on mich. The problem is… emphasis is for content but the word has none. Just imagine someone walks up to and goes like “I have something really cool in my hands” and then … there’s nothing. And the person is like “Isn’t that cool?”. That would be weird and it’s kind of like that here. The mich has NO substance. I mean…  I can’t “decide someone else”, after all. It doesn’t add any information to the verb. It’s completely boring and the only reason it’s even there is…  grammar. Having it come later implies that is has some interesting message, but it doesn’t. It’s pure function.And that’s why it has to come as early as possible.
Now, not all self references are completely empty meaning-wise.

  • Ich habe mich gestern im Fernsehen gesehen.
  • I saw myself on TV yesterday

Thomas could also have seen someone else on TV. So here, the self reference does make a difference for the message. And that’s why other positions are possible.

  • Ich  habe [mich]  gestern [mich] im Fernsehen [mich] gesehen.

The first slot is clearly the most natural one. The others do create a strong emphasis. But this mich can handle it because it has substance. It makes a difference to the message. And that’s why having it later doesn’t sound wrong.
Now, these self references that are only there for the structure are not the only examples for elements that are quite empty. Another one is this weather-es.

  • It is cloudy today.
  • Es ist heute wolkig.

What is this es? What does it stand for? Truth is, doesn’t mean anything. It’s just a generic subject we put in there because of grammar. So from a message point of view it is completely uninteresting. And that has consequences for where it can be put in a sentence.

  • Letzten Freitag hat [ es ]  in Berlin [es] zum ersten mal seit 6 Wochen [es] nicht den ganzen Tag [es ] geregnet.
  • Last Friday, it wasn’t raining all day for the first time in 6 weeks.

Only the first slot works. All the others create special emphasis and es has  no substance to live up to that attention.
All right.
So, these were some examples where unicorn wisdom reversed clearly calls the shots. But it’s more powerful than that. For instance it can help us with the subject.

the often early subject

One of the very consistent trend of German is that the subject usually comes very early

  • Despite Maria’s protest, Thomas bought 4 different kinds of stinky cheese at the market yesterday.
  • Gestern hat [Thomas] auf dem Markt [Thomas] trotz Marias Protest [Thomas] vier verschiedene Sorten Stinkekäse [THOMAS] gekauft.

The first slot is the default, the most natural position. The others are not wrong. But the tension and the resulting emphasis is HUGE. Like…

  • It was THOMAS, ‘T’ ‘H’ ‘O’ ‘M’ ‘A’ ‘S’, who bought 4 different kinds of smelly cheese despite… and so on and so on.

And the last slot it sounds even wrong.
It’s like that for most sentences. The subject comes super early. Combined with  “unicorn wisdom reversed” that would mean that the subject is the least or at least one of the least defining elements.
Well… it actually is.
Now you’re probably all like “WHAAAAT?”. And I understand. Of course it’s interesting for us to know who does something. But last time, we’ve learned that the verb itself is the head of a sentence. It’s the most important part. And so for word order we have to judge everything looking from the perspective of the verb. How defining is an element for THE ACTIVITY. How much does a certain activity change if the subject changes. And the answer for many activities is …not very much. The who is not defining for the activity. Like…   imagine a step by step video tutorial about how to make an onion tart. We’d want to see the hands doing stuff,  not the face narrating. We can define activities without a subject just fine… just think of receipes

  • die Zwiebeln in kleine Ringe schneiden
  • cut the onions into small rings
  • die Butter in der Pfanne langsam zergehen lassen
  • let butter slowly melt in the pan

Or calendars….

  • 28.1.:        nach der Arbeit mit Maria zum Trainieren in den Park
    (going to the park with Maria for a work out after word)
  • 30.1.:        bei Maria für die Sache bei der Party entschuldigen
    (apologize to Maria for what happened at the party)
  • Februar:  einen neuen Trainingspartner für Donnerstags suchen
    (find a new work out buddy for Thursdays)

Most activities can be described and defined just fine without mentioning the subject. And for these activities the subject will come very early, just like  unicorn wisdom reverse predicts.

  • Am 28.1. ist Thomas nach der Arbeit mit Maria zum ….
  • Am 30.1. hat sich Thomas (sich)  bei Maria für die Sache bei …..
  • Im Februar will (sich) Thomas (sich) einen neuen Trainingspartner ….

Now, that doesn’t apply to all subjects. There are some verbs for which the who is very defining. In fact, there is a whole construction in which the subject comes rather late. The passive voice.
In passive the direct object of the verb, which is often the most defining element, gets turned into the subject.

  • On Sunday,  someone saw wolves near the village for the first time in 30 years.
  • On Sunday, wolves were seen near the village for the first time in 30 years.

The first sentence is active, the second is passive. The wolves changed their grammatical role. But they didn’t change their role in relation to the verb. In both sentences they are what’s being seen, the most defining element for the verb to see. And the who, the person who saw them, is missing entirely in the second sentence. No problem, because it’s not that defining anyway. Now let’s see what happens in German.

  • Am Sonntag hat jemand in der Nähe des Dorfes  zum ersten Mal seit 30 Jahren   Wölfe gesehen.
  • Am Sonntag        wurden in der Nähe des Dorfes zum ersten Mal seit 30 Jahren Wölfe gesehen.

These sentences are the most natural orders and they have their subject at completely different positions. And while I can move around jemand without creating too much tension, the wolves shouldn’t be moved.  Because they are most defining for the verb while the who doesn’t matter all that much.
All right. So now we know why the subject often comes very early. The key thing is to realize that it’s not defining for the verb and then unicorn wisdom reversed does the rest.
All right. So this was the subject.
Another group of words that often comes early are personal pronouns.

Early pronouns

Let’s start with an example:

  1. Wie findetst du mein neues Shirt? Ich habe es gestern nach der Arbeit auf dem Markt ….
  2. Ich habe gestern nach der Arbeit auf dem Markt  ein neues Shirt gekauft.
  1. I bought a new shirt yesterday at the market after work.
  2. How do you like my new shirt? I bought it yesterday ….

In the first version, the shirt is at the end right next to the verb. That makes sense because for the verb to buy the thing being bought is very defining. In the second version however, the item bought is referred to by es. And this es comes very early. The question is: why.
And the answer is… because it’s boring. We know the shirt already. It has been established. So in this very sentence it is the least interesting bit. And that’s why it comes so early. Having it later would be really odd. Like… imagine I walk up to you and say

  • How do you like my new shirt? I bought IT, ‘I’ to the ‘T’ yesterday at the market ….

You’d would be like “Why the heck is he putting that weird emphasis on it? What is he trying to tell me?”. Moving es further to the rear suggests that it is an interesting piece of news. But it isn’t. And that’s not limited to es.It goes for many pronouns. Their natural position is early because we already know the thing they refer to. It’s an established part of the conversation and so it’s not that interesting. At least it’s less interesting than the stuff we don’t know yet.
And that brings us to a very intuitive way of seeing German sentences.

A sentence – a scene

A German sentence kind of works like a movie scene. There’s a set up and then there’s a pay off. We see our protagonists, there’s a scenery with stuff we might know and then the scene unfold and we learn something new. Like… the manager walks into the office in the morning and the first thing her secretary  tells her about the emergency meeting

  • Die Managerin kommt morgens ins Büro. Direkt als erstes erzählt ihr ihre Sekretärin von dem Notfallmeeting.

Look at the second sentence. The pronoun ihr comes even before the subject (the secretary) because the secretary hasn’t been mentioned yet. But the main news is the emergency meeting and that is … at the end. The sentence gets set up and then comes the pay off, the new information. And as simple as this sounds, this is actually a blueprint for most German sentences. Here’s a little story.

  • Thomas hat sich gestern ein Hörbuch bestellt.
    Am Samstag hat er es beim Aufräumen gehört.
    Danach hat er es Maria gegeben. Sie hatte es sich aber schon aus dem Internet heruntergeladen… illegal natürlich. Deshalb war sie sehr erschrocken als sie einen Brief der Polizei in ihrem Briefkasten fand. Sie hat das ihrem Anwalt erzählt….
  • Thomas ordered an audio book yesterday.
    On Saturday, he listened to it while cleaning.
    After that he gave it to Maria. But she had already downloaded it from the web… illegally of course. That’s why she was quite shocked to find a letter from the police in her mail box. She told her lawyer about that….

Not the most interesting read but can you see how in each sentence the stuff we know comes first setting the stage for the new, interesting bit we learn in the second half.  It’s a bit like domino, too, actually.
That simple notion of “first set up- then pay off”, in all it’s simplicity, works surprisingly well to explain why a  a sentence is the way it is.
Let’s just look at a few examples with that idea in mind…. some of which we’ve already seen in previous posts because I’m too lazy to think of new on…  I mean, because for pedagogical reasons… or something.

  • Ich habe gestern im Supermarkt ein Brot gekauft.
  • Ich habe das Brot gestern im Supermarkt gekauft.

Why is das Brot earlier than ein Brot? Well, by saying das we’re implying that the bread is already part of a broader scenery. The audience knows what bread. And that’s why it’s natural spot is in the front. It is setting, not news. Ein Brot on the other hand could be news. We’d say that if no bread was established before.
Same here

  • Ich habe meiner Freundin eine Waage gekauft.
    (I bought a scale for my girlfriend).
  • Ich habe die Waage einem Freund gegeben.
    (I gave the scale to a friend)

In the first sentence, the scale is the news. In the second, the scale is part of the scenery already and the news is what happens with it.
And the example with the wolves? Well, the wolves are the grammatical subject. But they’re not really the protagonist. They are the news. They are the main thing we learn after all the scenery has been set up. So the scene-analogy also holds for these sentences.

  • Ich habe [meiner Freundin] gestern nach der Arbeit [meiner Freundin] einen Apfel gegeben.
  • I gave my girlfriend an apple  after work yesterday.

Damn, these examples are starting to get boring. I’m sorry. But anyway, this one is actually an example for one of the questions we had last time. The question was why for a transfer-verb like geben  the receiver (here: my girlfriend) often comes quite early even though it’s quite defining for the verb AND it isn’t a personal pronoun either.
Well, the easiest way to make sense of it is to think of the receiver as  a protagonist. And protagonists come early. The receiver is usually part of the set up, not of the pay off. And that makes sense because….  my girlfriend is not really news. Maybe she wasn’t part of the conversation until this point BUT…. she is definitely part of what we could call “my broader scenery”. So when I’m go on stage, she’s kind of established too because she is part of my world. And in fact, that isn’t limited to people. My friend, his mother, her flat, your bike... everything that has some relation to the subject of a sentence is to some extend always part of the scenery. At least more than a friend, a mother,  a flat or a bike. So his bike is more likely to come early than a bike.
All right.
Now, so far we’ve looked at the default order.But the whole scene-idea also helps with some crazier orders. So let’s look at two of those.

  • CEO 1 : “Was war heute morgen los? Ich habe fast 100 verpasste Anrufe aus dem Büro.”
    CEO 2: “Mich hat heute keiner angerufen.
  • CEO 1: “What was going this morning? I have almost 100 missed calls from the office.”
    CEO 2: “Well, I wasn’t called AT ALL.

This is definitely special. The subject is late and the direct object is in first position. That creates a strong stress on both, keiner and mich. But it makes perfect sense that way. Why? Because keiner is the actual news in this sentence. That’s the message, the punch line. Mich on the other hand is just picking up the mantle of who is being called, and that was already part of the conversation.

  • “Wie läuft’s mit deiner Masterarbeit? Kommst du voran?”
    “Geht so. Richtig angefangen hab’ ich ehrlich gesagt erst letzte Woche.”
  • “How’s it going with your master’s thesis. Are you making progress?”
    “Meh, so and so. Like… I actually really started only last week.”

This is even weirder. The verb itself has been moved forward. I don’t even know how to create a similar effect in English. There’s a lot of tension and there’s a strong focus on richtig angefangen but again… it makes perfect sense. Starting is a part of writing a master’s thesis. And so it was already part in some way part of the conversation, even though it wasn’t named specifically. The real news in the sentence is last week. That’s what we learn, and that’s at the very end.
Now, we could go on going over examples forever but hey.. it’s not these details that you’ll remember. So let’s just stop here and do the rest in the comments.
What matters is that you got a feel for the basic idea. German is a head final language and that shows big time in word order. The set up comes first and with it the subject and all the stuff we already know. Then comes the pay off, the news we learn in the sentence and the most defining element of that comes last.
And that’s the secret of word order. Not rules. Just a natural story progression.

Now, I actually wanted to include an extra bit about position 1 as well as some words about oral emphasis. But I’m tired and I really need a break from word order now so we’ll do it in a nutshell.

On position 1:

Stuff that was early anyway will sound natural in position 1 and won’t create any notable emphasis. Stuff that comes late will create a strong emphasis and you need a good reason to do it. Grammar filler cannot be put into position 1.

  • [Gestern/ich] habe [ich] mir [gestern] ein Bier gekauft…. natural
  • Ein Bier habe ich mir gestern gekauft. … emphasis on beer.

On oral emphasis:

The interaction between oral emphasis and word order is too complex to describe it. Sometimes oral emphasis is needed to justify an order, sometimes oral emphasis can overrule the order and shift focus.

  • Ich habe DIR das Buch gegeben. … oral stress shifts focus from book to dir
  • Ich habe das Buch DIR gegeben… sentence only sounds right with the oral emphasis there.

And I think that’s it. That was our mini series on word order.
Obviously, there’s a lot of Sprachgefühl involved, so don’t get frustrated if not everything you’re trying out, works.  But I hope you got an impression that German word order is not a wild forest of random rules and exceptions but a fascinating, dynamic and flexible thing that you can only get a hold of if you’re able to “let go”. Common sense, intuition and the stuff we’ve learned should get you much further than rules.
Now,  there are heaps of specific cases and structures that don’t immediately fit in with what we’ve said and that could use some explaining. So let’s collect them here in the comments. If you come across an order that is weird or that seems to defy what we’ve said, just post it and we can analyze it together.
And of course, if you have general questions about what we’ve learned today, or something wasn’t quite clear or didn’t make sense just leave a comment and I’ll try to clear it up.
Next week we’ll do something softer. That was a spoiler by the  way. Until then, have some great days.
Bis nächstes mal :)