German Word Order – Part 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. Ich habe gestern nach der Arbeit auf dem Markt ein neues Shirt gekauft.
  2. Wie findetst du mein neues Shirt? Ich habe es gestern nach der Arbeit auf dem Markt ….
  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 :)

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2 months ago

In the example for “Early Pronouns”, I think you switched when you explained it. You say in the second version the item bought is refered by es, but that would be in the first one, right?

Anyway, is just a typo or I’m the one who is mistaken. The whole article is great, like always.

6 months ago

Are “boxes” always, sometimes or never separated by commas?

10 months ago

So, when shifting order for emphasis, like in  “Mich hat heute keiner angerufen.” and “Richtig angefangen hab’ ich ehrlich gesagt erst letzte Woche.”, the emphasis will always aftect both the term that is advanced and the term that ends up in the end of the sentence? Or will there be situations where only the term that is advanced, or only the one that ends the sentence, will be emphasized?

1 year ago

I think i get the basic idea besides some particular sentences.

For example:

“Gestern hat Thomas auf dem Markt trotz Marias Protest vier verschiedene Sorten Stinkekäse gekauft.”

Shouldn’t “auf dem Markt” be said after “trotz Marias Protest” because the answer for “from where?” is generally more important than “in spite of what?” ? (which i consider to be the same value with “how?”)

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

“Ich habe fast 100 verpasste Anrufe aus dem Büro”

The latter two are confusing to me for the same reason. I feel like These Ones should come later.

If you could clear that up, it would be so helpful.

Thanks in advance.

Sir Bob
Sir Bob
1 year ago

In “Early pronouns”, the first German sentences and their English translations are not in the respective order. Also the verb gekaufen is lacking in the first sentence. Oh, and watch out for the following paragraph, in “In the first version…”, it refers to the wrong sentence.

Anyways, this whole series was so mind-blowingly good, so enlightening! I always had a certain curiosity for word order in German, and thus a lot of questions in need to be answered, but this three-part series has explained all I needed to know to gain an intuitive feel for it, which is what someone learning a foreign language always wants to achieve! Gut gemacht, Emanuel! :D

2 years ago

It is refreshing to see some of Lucien Tesniere`s ideas used to explain grammar in non-academic contexts.

2 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

He was one of the first to talk about things like head-initial/final languages (although he used the terms „centripetal” and „centrifugal”) and „the subject is just a glorified complement, the verb is King”. I was taught in school that the Subject and the Predicate are the top dogs of a sentence, but your articles, on the other hand, casually use concepts that I havent really encountered outside university or dedicated forums. It is quite cool.

2 years ago

I thought of a sentence similar to one I saw on “subreddit” which shows Mich at the end to create emphasis. I am trying a similar one

Fernseher? Im Moment konzentriere ich auf die Hausaufgaben mich und nichts anderes

Concentration on Mich since (the hw is too important right now and need to be done)

2 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

The is the exact sentence I saw

Grillen? Kommt nicht in Frage. Ich sonne am Sonntag mich, und nicht irgendwelche Steaks.

2 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

“If you change that, mabye it works”, “nichts noch” mabye

The concept of less fixed reflexive seems weird to me. I guess I need to develop a sense to it

Mabye sich waschen works

I wasche meine Augen mir,aber keine Ohren.

2 years ago


Einhorn 1 : Mich is boring. It must come Early
Einhorn 2 : Du hast nachts im Bett mich.
Einhorn 1 : I was wrong ( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°)

The part seems easier than 2 and no large comment is needed ;)

For some reason, I am paranoid about this,thought it was explaindes

Direkt als erstes erzählt ihr ihre Sekretärin von dem Notfallmeeting.

Is “ihr” an indirect object. So the sentence is translated, Immediately, the manager is told about the meeting by the secretary

2 years ago

I digged deep into a book called “Deutsche Grammatik : ein völlig neuer Ansatz” by Darski, because I wanted to see the whole truth (and not just useful pragmatics). It says very clearly, that “pronouns precede nouns”, no exceptions. You suggest that, given enough emphasis, sentences like

Ich habe das Buch dir gegeben.

are possible. Therefore sentences like this are grammatical. This is a contradiction. :( I don’t like contradictions in my life, can you help me find the whole truth?

I started to research this topic when a Duolingo moderator commented on my explanation, that the sentence “Ich lese das Buch dir vor.” is grammatical, but the word order alters its meaning too much to be translated as “I read the book to you.”. (So Duolingo is right that you shouldn’t type “Ich lese das Buch dir vor.” when translating from English) The answer was that this sentence is not grammatical, full stop.

Maybe the free word order is just really possible in Umgangssprache? Maybe dialects something something? Or maybe just a bunch of stubborn kids decided to go against linguistics proffesors and Duolingo moderators in terms of grammar? Or maybe you’ve just oversimplified this topic, like in the post about adjective declension, where the first step was to just add -e to everything? I don’t know, but I want to know. :(

2 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

I surely haven’t made myself clear. That book that I reffered to is really complicated (also circ. 1000 pages), so complicated it doesn’t really names pronouns as pronouns and nouns as nouns, because it acknowledge that those are really fuzzy terms. I haven’t grasped the book in even 1%, so I won’t discuss it further. What I *do* know is that it has a rule (I won’t try to translate it)

*something something things that reffer to previously said things but bigger* precedes *something something object nounphrase* in *singled-simpled sentences*

and the example is given

Gestern hat er *ihr* *die Ohrringe* geschenkt.

where *ihr* and *die Ohrringe* are emphasised as (something something reffer) and (something something object)

The sentence I asked about was analogous,

Ich lese *dir* *das Buch* vor.

So one can use the something something rule here. And that I meant by “no exceptions” – “pronouns precede nouns” was just a shorthand in the context of this sentence.

Really sorry about that. Probably all that something something stuff stands firmly after your reconstruction.

But my sentence doesn’t and Duolingo moderator says that it will sound silly in any context while you say that no one will percive this as a grammar mistake.(in day-to-day speech, I don’t plan on saying it to the president or something)

2 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

1)I read this comment and I honesty have a question.

Does subordinates have any difference apart from verb at the end?

2) “– … , dass sich der Besitzer seiner entledigt.

“seiner” is a Genitive pronoun and its natural position is BEHIND the noun in proper written German”

So it should be “…dass sich Steiner…

2 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

2) I hate auto correct, I meant “seiner” and I chose that postion since you said natural postions is behind the noun

2 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

Yes hence, dass sich Seiner der Besitzer…
The gentive pronoun is placed (behind/before) it.

This was quoting from one of your comments
–> “dass sich der Besitzer seiner entledigt”

4 years ago

Hello there! First of all, thanks for writing this up.
However, I do have a few questions though, hope you can enlighten me once again.
Many thanks in advance!

Section: A Sentence – A scene

It seems that the word right after the 2nd-position-verb will be a pronoun, “Thomas hat sich gestern…” or “Danach hat er es”.
And I checked with for the meaning of ‘sich’. So it could be used as himself, herself, themselves, depending on the subject?

The next question:

“Sie hatte es sich aber schon….”
Why, in this case, ‘sich’ is after ‘es’?
Is it weird or wrong if I swap them and the sentence changes to:
“Sie hatte sich es aber schon…”

If you could shed some light on it.
Thank you!!

5 years ago

Ich finde dein Box-Model Theorie toll! Es hat mir erklären wie Deutsch funktioniert, hier du schreibst über einigen anderen Sätze Details, aber ich frage mich, wie kann dies neuen Dinge in das BoxModell eingeschlossen? Ich nur möchte dein BoxModell lernen. Es wirklich Sinn macht, alle die anderen Grammatikregeln sind so unnäturlich…

5 years ago

Hello Emanuel, thanks for replying to me around 2 weeks ago on a comment I made on your “German Sentence Structure – Main Sentences” blog. You told me to go through the other word order posts and I’ve taken a while to do this.

Everything I write here has to be taken with a very large pinch of salt, since it is all entirely theoretical. I have zero real life experience and so of course I have no Sprachgefühl.

Like others, I find your explanations very helpful but I think that, despite your many assertions that there is no rule, you try perhaps a little too hard to fit everything into one theory. For example, I wouldn’t describe German as a fully head-final language, and it may not be best to always explain word order on the basis of head-final reasoning.

One area where I am looking for some further clarity is in the difference between word order in a simple main sentence, and word order when the ‘action’ verb is at the end (because of the use of a modal verb in a main sentence or because it is a side sentence). Most of your examples are of sentences with modal verbs, which therefore have the key verb at the end, but my own (non-German) natural feeling is that word order is quite different when the main (action) verb is early in the sentence.

I am of course falling into the same trap as you (if it is a trap), in trying to come up with a ‘universal’ rule to guide me in word ordering. The rule which I am starting to formulate is that the verb ‘attracts’ the words with which it is naturally linked (or which are receiving emphasis by the speaker). In this case, the result is almost the same as following head-final logic … if the action verb is at the end. However, when the action verb is in the second position then the centre of gravity is quite different.

However, maybe this is my non-Germanic feeling that is misleading me. I have difficulty with your example “Ich gehe am Freitag mit Maria in den Park zum Trainieren”, because I cannot naturally feel that the emphasis is on “zum Tranieren”. What would be the emphasis if we said “Ich gehe zum Tranieren am Freitag mit Maria in den Park”?

On the first position issue, and having studied all your postings on word order, I remain of the opinion that the selection of the first element in a simple main sentence can certainly create emphasis on this element (when, as you say, it is not in the default position). For example, if we say “Zum Tranieren gehe ich am Freitag mit Maria in den Park”, I think that we have certainly turned the emphasis onto the workout.

I’m sorry to be too cerebral about all this but for me it is a precursor to hopefully getting real exposure to how people talk in German.

5 years ago

Ich habe deutsch seit sechs hundert Stunden studiert und diese drei Artikels über Wortstellung sind die besten Dinge haben Sie geschrieben. Die einfache Idee, das deutsche Sprache ist Kopf letzte war für mich ein Glühbirnenmoment. Vielen Danke! Ich liebe deine Arbeit. Entschuldigungen für irgendwelche Fehler.

6 years ago

Liebe Manni, Ich liebe dich – fuer immer!!! What another great post, but this trully blows everything out of the water. This is a massive,massive help and I love you for it. I always think of German as so structured and rule based, but syntax has made no sense to me for so long, and so to think of it as a movie scen is nothing short of genius!! Thank you Mani, and I hope your book comes really soon. I will buy 5 copies. All for me. And then I’ll everbody else about your book that I tell about your website, which is a lot :)

6 years ago

These three parts of German Word Order have been reeally helpful and made a lot of things clear! Now I think we need a forth sequel to explain how crazy Modalverben exactly behave in Nebensätze in Perfekt, Plusquamperfekt and Konjunktiv II (!) I was conditioning my brain to always put the conjugated verb at the end of the sentence after all infinitives and Partizip II only to find out that’s not always the case. It’d be great if you explain this further. Thank you so much!

6 years ago

Warum hat es mir vorher niemand so erklärt, wie du es hier gemacht hast!? [Is the word order correct here? :)]

Thank you, really. This is understandable and makes much more sense than all the explanations I´ve seen about Akkusativ and Dativ fighting for the first position. It makes me definitely more confident with the language after experiencing sooo many disappointments with the Tekamolo fail(rule).

Keep going!! I follow the blog since not too long and I’m very very happy that I found it :)

Grüße aus Österreich!

6 years ago

That definitely helps! Very informative thoughts, and a very clear explanation. I find German word order and grammar fascinating (hated learning English grammar found it boring- weird I know) and have found this 3 part article to be the best source of information on the subject.
I know that my sentence was very simplistic but I wanted to add a little nuance to a comment that I read earlier. About putting a plate on a table:
““Sie hat die Teller auf den Tisch gestellt.””
-“I think this is a sign that the destination is ultimately (subconsciously of course) considered being part of the verb. So in your example, the verb is not “stellen” but “auf den Tisch stellen”. That seems a bit arbitrary and contrived at first but it makes sense when you think about it. For one thing, a sentence with just “stellen” does sound absolutely incomplete”

So I thought.. “What if the location was already determined? Would that change the ebb and flow of the sentence structure?” But it seems as though “technically” the location for verbs is the most important information even though it might have already been established. Can I assume that this is always the case? Where location for movement verbs is the most important information?

“Not least because the location actually tells us whether it’s a destination or a fixed location” -This is a great point!

Not to heap too much praise on you :) but as an educator myself I greatly appreciate the time you take to help others. Thanks again!

6 years ago

First, let me say how appreciative I (and thousands of others) are of your blog. It is by far one of my favorite things to read as I study German. It is one of the more clearer, concise and funny sources that I use. But enough of that :)
I was wondering if I could ask you a question about “your favorite” : German word order!

I have been trying to get a grasp on tension and emphasis when using different word orders, which is explained in your 3-part word order section; and have a quick question. To say:

“Do you want to go to the theater on foot or take the city train?”

Would you say:
“Möchtest du ins Theater zu Fuß gehen oder die S-Bahn nehmen?” or “Möchtest du zu Fuß ins Theater gehen oder die S-Bahn nehmen?”

My first inclination was the first sentence because the “more important” information would be ” to go on foot or S-Bahn” therefore “zu Fuß” would be behind “ins Theater”. As if the theater was already decided upon in a previous correspondence, so it wouldn’t be new information. Any help would be greatly appreciated!

6 years ago

Vielen Dank!! Ohne diese Erklärungen, könnte ich den Satzbau im Passiv nicht verstehen, wie in diesem Satz: “Mit diesen Bräuchen wird dem Brautpaar ein glückliches gemeinsames Leben gewünscht” – hier ist Leben das grammatische Objekt.

7 years ago

Though it is weird, I still feel slightly compelled to say “Ich gebe etwas einem Freund.” even in my last example.

7 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

I made that particular reply before your informative answer :) But you brought up something that I thought I understood. I’ve been taught that present tense is also acceptable as future tense. Like “Ich gebe” could be “I’m going to give” but the way you talk about it makes me think it’s only possible with a future time element. I hate to clutter up the comments on this word order page with a non -word order question though. :p