German Word Order – Explained

german-word-order-explanatiHello everyone, and welcome. I and it’s been kind of a tradition here to kick off the new year with a deep look at German sentence structure. And I think the topic that perfectly fits 2015 is

Word order in German

Now you’re like “Wait, word order is super confusing. I don’t want 2015 to be super confusing. I want it to be awesome and illuminating and freaking epic.” But looking into German word order can be just that. Because once you dig a little deeper there are some really cool surprises. So here’s what we’ll do. First we’ll take a look at the commonly known rules for word order and we’ll explain why they suck…what their shortcomings are. Then, we’ll have a look at what German word order is really about and then, we’ll finally zero in on one core idea. An idea that explains… everything. (word dramatized, may not actually mean everything, no refunds)
So are you ready to dive in and find out? Great.Now, the term word order is actually not very precise. For example, word order could also be the order the verbs that pile up at the end in a sentence. Like here:

  • Ich habe gestern ein Bier trinken können gewollt haben worden  gesein.** (**example dramatized, does not represent a correct German sentence)

What I, and many others online, teachers and students alike, mean by word order is the order of boxes. Boxes? If that doesn’t ring a bell you should check out the the article on the box model (find it here). Here’s what that is in a nutshell. A sentence consists of a verb and a bunch of boxes. Each box answers one verb related question like where, when, how, why, what, who and so on. Possibly, there are some adverbs and dochs and jas cluttering the sentence but the essentials are really verbs and boxes.

  • verb:               to give
  • who:               I
  • what:              a book
  • to whom:      my horse
  • where:            in the stables
  • when:              today
  • Why:               because… uhm.. I got no idea, actually

For the student there are two challenges. One is where to put the verb. The other is the order of the boxes. And that’s what’s commonly called word order. Now, there are some rules about that out there. Problem is… they’re like apple trees. Only that they don’t grow nice juicy apples but confusing, random exceptions. More than we can stomach.

#Rules #epicfail

Probably the most famous one is probably the TeKaMoLo-rule. TeKaMoLo is  short for the German words temporal, kausal, modal and lokal. The rule  basically says that the order of boxes in a German sentence usually is:

  • Te       – ka       – mo    – lo
  • when why how where

I hope the colors are more helpful than they are distracting. If not let me know. But anyway… here’s TeKaMoLo in action.

  • Thomas ist gestern wegen seines Knies sehr langsam in den Park gelaufen.
  • Because of his knee, Thomas walked into the park very slowly yesterday.

And here’s TeKaMoLo as it fails.

  • Nach Berlin fahre ich nächste Woche. … place way before time
  • I’ll go to Berlin next week.
  • Dort steht seit 200 Jahren ein Haus.
  • For 200 years, there has been a house standing there.

Now some of you might be like “Wait, the rule is only for the stuff in the middle field. So the part after the verb.” Well, fair enough. That doesn’t change much though.

  • Das Haus steht dort seit 200 Jahren. … where before when
  • The house has been standing there for 200 years.
  • I was very angry about the meeting yesterday.
  • Ich habe mich gestern sehr wegen des Meetings geärgert…. how before why
  • Ich bin hier wegen Knieproblemen in Behandlung…. where before why
  • I’m under medical treatment here because of knee problems.
  • Der Fahrer wartet vor der Tür mit einer Tasche…. where before how
  • The driver is waiting with a bag in front of the door.

All these sentences break the TeKaMoLo-rule and there are about 74261294 more examples*** , many of them in print (*** number dramatized, may not be as ma… actually never mind, it’s probably just fine). But wait, there’s more. Sometimes, following the rule can even lead to wrong results.

  • That’s why I only rarely work alone there now.

That’s a normal everyday sentence. Nothing special. And using TeKaMoLo we’d get this

  • Ich arbeite nur noch selten deshalb allein dort….. wrong!

And this sounds just wrong. The natural order would be this:

  • Ich arbeite dort deshalb nur noch selten allein.

So… TeKaMoLo sure sounds catchy, and it’s not like it never works. But there are a LOT Of exceptions to it. Like… millions. And it’s no different for the next rule. I’ll just quote it as I found it on :

The dative object will always come before the accusative object.

 Sounds like a neat rule. But as it is it would fail in probably more than half of the cases. So there’s the following amendment… again, a quote from

If the accusative object is a pronoun, it will always be before the dative object.

Here’s the rule in practice:

  • Ich gebe dir das Buch.
  • I give you the book.
  • Ich gebe es dir.
  • I give it to you.

And here are some exceptions:

  • I don’t give you the book but your sister.
  • Ich gebe das Buch nicht dir sondern deiner Schwester.
  • Ich gebe dir das nicht.
  • I don’t give you that.
  • Ich habe dir einen gegeben.
  • I gave you one.

In the first sentence, we have no pronoun and still the Dative comes after the Accusative. So I guess we’d need to modify the rule and add some stuff like

“It’s Dative before Accusative except if blah blah blah yada yada yada.”

I’m too lazy to type that all out. In the second and third sentence, we do have a pronoun (das, einen) and yet, it’s Dative before Accusative. In case of number 2 it would actually border on wrong to stick with the rule.

  • Ich gebe das dir nicht…. wrong-ish

The problem is that das  is a demonstrative pronoun,  einen is an indefinite pronoun and the rule simply doesn’t apply to these. So we’d have  to modify the amendment  and say “personal pronoun” instead of just pronoun  and we need to know what the difference is between all these pronouns and how to tell which is… gee, I’m getting incredibly bored, just now. The whole point of this is to show you that these rules either have millions of exceptions or they need lots of additional side rules and some side rules for the side rules in order to actually be workable rules. And the reason why this is is that these rules are not part of German. They simply don’t exist.

What’s really going on

When it comes to  the order of boxes in a German sentence, there aren’t really rules. There are tendencies. Time info often comes before place, the dative object often comes before the accusative object, the subject often comes very early. But they’re not rules. The word order in a German sentence is not based on rules. It’s based on magic. Nah… kidding. The word order of a sentence is the result of different tendencies or forces pulling the boxes one way or the other. Let’s take a peek behind the scenes. Here are the parts:

  • verb :                             schenken
  • who :                              Thomas
  • what:                              ein Wiedergutmachungskuscheltier (that would be a “Make it up to you”-stuffed animal or stuffed animal of reconciliation)
  • to whom:                      Maria
  • when:                             am Freitag
  • where:                            in dem kleinen Park bei der Uni

So these are our parts and now all the tendencies or forces have a meeting to decide which order to put the boxes in. Subject before Object immediately starts by saying: “So, I don’t want to sound pushy but … Thomas defi-freaking-nitely has to come before Maria here! Because we have no case markers to indicate what role they have.” And the others agree. Then Short before Long speaks up: “I motion to have  and am Freitag come before the whole park-part. It’s just sooo much shorter.” They also agree that Maria should come before the animal because Dative before Accusative wants it and they  put it far to the right because it’s very connected to the verb. Finally, they talk about how to start the sentence and no one really cares but since it’s would be odd to have Thomas and Maria right next to each other, they decide to start with the subject. The result:

  • Thomas hat Maria am Freitag in dem kleinen Park bei der Uni ein Wiedergutmachungskuscheltier geschenkt..
  • Thomas gave Maria a reconciliatory stuffed animal on Friday in the small park next to the university.

Now, let’s assume we already know where Thomas and Maria were in that park. Then we could just say there (dort) as our where-box. That would change the conversation quite a bit. Pronoun before actual nounwho had been quiet in the other meeting,  would speak up and say that dort should come before am Freitag. Short before long would agree and so we’d get

  • Thomas hat Maria dort am Freitag ein…. geschenkt.

So.. this was really just a peek and you don’t have to remember it. I just wanted to give you an impression of the dynamics and hopefully you can see that rules just can’t do that justice. It’s a dynamic of forces, and one key thing to accept about German word order is:

 There is not the one right solution !

 I know it’s a step but you have to let go of the notion of right and wrong and start to rely on intuition. Every sentence has a default word order. That’s the order we get when we just let the forces balance each other out. It’s the most natural order (for that sentence) and it has very little emphasis. But we can use a different order too. We can take a box and put it elsewhere. Sometimes this doesn’t make much of a difference but if we go against a force that is really strong in that particular sentence we create… tension. Attention. Emphasis. The more unusual a spot is for a box, the more tension is created because we’re going against the natural tendencies there are. Sometimes this tension can be so strong that we need a very very specific context as well as a proper pronunciation to justify it. In grammar jargon these examples are  called “Highly marked”. But it’s not necessarily wrong. Let’s look at an example. I’ll mark any special emphasis in blue.

  • Ich gebe dir heute  das Buch. (default, very little special emphasis)
  • Ich gebe dir das Buch heute.
  • Heute gebe ich das Buch dir.
  • Heute gebe ich dir das Buch. (almost default)
  • Das Buch gebe ich dir heute.
  • Das Buch gebe ich heute dir.
  • Dir gebe ich heute das Buch.
  • Dir gebe ich das Buch heute.

Hey, remember when we had that rule that the dative come before the accusative?  But wait there’s more.

  • Dir gebe das Buch heute ICH. <uber-Emphasis
  • Das Buch gebe dir heute ICH.<-mega-emphasis
  • ((Heute gebe das Buch dir ich. ))
  • ((Das Buch gebe heute dir ich. ))

Of all these examples only the last two sound wrong. And why? Well, think of it this way, we gone against pretty much all the forces that there are and there’s just  too much tension now. It hurts. A bit like Yoga. Bending and stretching your limbs can be nice. It’s physically demanding, may even hurt a bit but it also makes you feel your body, feel more alive and stuff. But over-bending … that’s not fun anymore. So, now you’re probably like “My god how on earth are we supposed to learn that???” But it’s not going to be as confusing as it sounds. We’ll see that there’s actually a lot of common sense involved. “But learning all these forces and how they interact and where they pull which box when… that doesn’t sound easy.” Well, no it doesn’t. It’s actually impossible. But the good news is this:  The various forces or tendencies actually don’t really matter because they’re just expressions of one fundamental underlying idea. And that idea has to do … with the head.

Head final

Head final is a linguistic term and it basically describes that the main thing comes after all the specifics.

  • a hot, tasty coffee

This is the perfect example for a head-final phrase. The main info, the head, is coffee and the specifics come before it. The object is coffee. That’s the head. And all the describing words come before it. The opposite of head final is … head initial. I think head-first sounds cooler though, so we’ll just use that. Anyway, and example for head-first would be how the Romance languages treat (most) of the adjectives.

  • un café chaud et delicieux

The main thing, the head, comes first and the specifics come after. Here’s another example, this time without adjectives.

  • der Sicherheitschef
  • the chief of security.

You probably guessed it. The German compound nouns follow the head-final structure while the English version (in this case) is head-first. So that’s the idea of a head and it also works for whole sentences where the head is … the verb. Hold on someone’s at the do.. oh wait, it was just a bell ringing ;). Now, most languages do use both ideas in their grammar somewhere, but still they usually lean toward one of the two paradigms. And German… well it is marbled with head-final structure You can see it in the compounds, the adjectives and most important of all… the verbs

  • Dünndarmpassagenuntersuchung
  • small bowel follow-through examination
  • Die bei Star Bucks arbeitende, schöne Frau hat mir eine Latte gemacht. (*ahem)
  • The beautiful woman working at Star Bucks made me a latte.
  • I promise, that I’ll give you the book tomorrow.
  • Ich verspreche, dass ich dir morgen das Buch gebe.
  • Ich habe dir das Buch gestern in der Uni gegeben.
  • gave  you the book yesterday at school.

Sure, there’s examples where the real verb is in position 2. As I said, it’s rarely that strict. But at it’s heart German is head-final. It even has it tattooed on its butt. “Head final forever” it reads, with hearts and flowers and humming birds, it’s quite cheesy. So… German is a languages that is used to boring us with all kinds of specifics before it gets to the main thing. But before we get to talking about how that can help us clear up word order once and for all let’s … wait a week :). This is it for today. Here’s what we’ve learned so far:  rules about word order suck, there’s no right or wrong, just normal and not normal, and German saves the best for last. If you have any questions or suggestions just leave me a comment. I hope you liked it and see you next time. And welcome to 2015 :)

If you want to get to part 2 right away click here... part 2

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Word order fascinates me! I had already given up on the rules and have been patiently waiting for intuition to kick-in … it has been a long wait, but now with your ‘head final’ paradigm, I can sense the possibility of new momentum.
Happy New Year!


Not sure about the half time allein bit…



Just thought I should let you know of some typos there in the sentence “The drivers is waiting with a bad in front of the door” (driver, bag).

Another thing, how come the “vor” in the German sentence becomes “in front of” in the English translation? Doesn’t “vor” mean “before” or “behind”, rather?

Please explain :)


And hi again :)

Echoing MegaMu, please explain the “allein” bit there. Doesn’t it mean “alone”? For awhile I did think it might represent “only” (in the same vein as the “ja”s and “doch”s peppering many German sentences) but there’s already “nur” there for “only”, isn’t there?


Hello again!
Yes, you are right about that. “Allein” would be “lonely”, “sole”, “alone”, “lone” and so on. See my above post for further details


Tut mir leid! I was referring to the example “Ich arbeite dort deshalb nur noch selten allein” there just now.

Cheers :)


Very very helpful….thank you


Again tut mir leid! Another typo there in the paragraph just before the subtitle “German – where’s your head”, in the second line: “Bending and stretching your limps can be nice” (limbs, methinks).

Also, “Ich habe dir das Buch gestern in der Uni gegeben” should translate into “I gave you the book yesterday at school” rather than “I have given you the book yesterday at school”. This literal/parallel translation of “haben + verb” into “have + verb” when a simple past tense should do, I liken to speaking English in German (which is adorable, by the way, albeit incorrect).

Cheers :)


This was fun to read and entertaining to read as well as helpful! Thanks you :) It’s fine that you are not giving refunds — none needed :D Happy New Year!

Concerning the exceptions to the TeKaMo rule of thumb, what determines the excepton? The meaning best-description? Other rules? My translation’s discretion, or personal touch?


This has actually helped me a great deal with understanding word order in German. I’ve been studying it a lot lately and learning all these rules and while I can say the rules are relevant, they aren’t as strict as one may presume a language like German would be. Which kind of struck me in this instance at how flexible the language can be, but if I really think about it, like you said it’s a bit of common sense and it’s that way to show more emphasis on saying something and create tension. I mean how boring would the language be if it ALWAYS followed this A,B,C,D word order. My best advice to people though is to talk to Germans and kind of get a feel for how it’s used by real natives. I like chatting and e-mailing a lot more than speaking to learn these types of things because I can look back and read over what they said to absorb it a bit and take grammar notes and try to make connections and notice consistencies.


i will really like to meet people online or get on watsapp with people we can cultivate my german together



Thanks once again for such a great post on a very ambiguous and seemingly unnecessarily difficult topic, haha! In classes now we’ve actually just finished going over the Te-Ka-Mo-Lo rule and, for some reason, it annoys me how pedantic it seems to be… I’d personally rather just intuitively pick up word order rather than always having to remember this rule. How important would you, as a native German speaker, say Te-Ka-Mo-Lo (TKML) is? Especially when a speaker chooses to “disobey” TKML in order to emphasize certain aspects of a sentence? I like how you say that German doesn’t have “rules” regarding word order, it has “tendencies”. This sharply contrasts to what our teacher says about the TKML “rule” and I personally agree with you.

Would you be able to further elaborate on the “Die bei Star Bucks arbeitende, schöne Frau hat mir eine Latte gemacht.”? How common is this construction in written and spoken German, and how long can these descriptions go on for? I feel like I’ve never seen or heard it, of course that is largely due to my minimal exposure to native speakers, but still haha.

For instance, what would be the preferred translation of “I broke the window that my mother installed”?
– Ich brach das Fenster, das meine Mutter eingebaut hat
– Ich brach das meine Mutter eingebaute Fenster
– Something else?

How important are these types of constructions? Thanks!!!


Could you do something on the more complex verb structures? Like say .. Er konnte gesungen haben… If that’s even right. And the differences between hätte sollen and sollte and sollte gehabt and … Oh now I’m getting a tiny bit confused… But those triple participle and suble differences when usin modal verbs in Konj…..? Maybe?

Grateful Reader
Grateful Reader

“Er konnte gesungen haben”

In this case it’s instructive to begin with “Peter kann gesungen haben”. “Kann” is in present tense, so you know that the structure references the current moment. Yet there’s perfect past there. What this means is that we, at this particular present moment, are speculating that he might have sung in the past. We, right now, think this is a possibility.

Now compare it to “Peter konnte singen” = “Peter hat singen können”. This references the past directly, and specifically it asserts that in the past Peter had the ability to sing.

But what about “Peter konnte gesungen haben”? Past and past? Well, think about the book language. E.g. in a novel all actions are usually described using simple past (“Peter sang das Lied”). “Novel past” functions as sort of a “present time” in a novel. [Side note: logically then, the past in the novel (i.e. the past relative to the novel’s current events) is expressed through past perfect, that is, the “past before the past”.] So such a construction references a speculation in the novel’s “present” (which is formally grammatically expressed through simple past) about something in the novel’s past.

Ultra-convoluted, I know.

What concerns “hätten … sollen” and “sollte”.
Sollte is both a simple past form of sollen (sollen, sollte, gesollt) and its present subjunctive form (like könnte for können), which can lead to a confusion. I suppose formally one could always just use “sollte” instead of “hätten [verb] sollen”, but I think the latter is preferred to express the subjunctive because of the possible confusion. “Sollte” is usually used to express something in present/future.

Du solltest etwas essen. = [Right now] you should eat something. Formally also “you should have eaten something”, but I don’t think this is so used.
Du hättest etwas essen sollen. = You should have eaten something. In both cases the subjunctive part is formally optional, but I suppose it adds a polite vibe.

“sollte gehabt”… I don’t think this construction exists. What you may mean: “Peter soll eine gute Stimme gehabt haben.” This is also “book language”, where modal verbs can take on special meanings. In this case it would mean “[Somebody claims that] Peter had a good voice”. Whereas “Peter will eine gute Stimme gehabt haben” would be “[Peter claims that]…”, “Peter kann eine gute Stimme gehabt haben” = “[It is possible, that]…” (like above) and so on.


If only I had this article when I went to Germany. I had to develop this idea when I was over there and I felt like rules were always being broken.

heheheh.. latte.

Carsten Schultz

Hallo Emanuel,

sehr interessantes Thema. Ich habe den Artikel nur überflogen, und an einer Stelle bin ich nicht Deiner Meinung. „Dir gebe das Buch heute ich.“ und „Das Buch gebe dir heute ich.“ erscheinen mir nicht nur übertrieben, sondern falsch. Das Subjekt so lange offen zu halten, scheint mir nur in der dritten Person zu funktionieren, wahrscheinlich weil die anderen Personen es ja schon bestimmen. Ich glaube, nach „Dir gebe das Buch“ oder „Das Buch gebe dir“, spätestens aber ein Satzteil später, habe ich das „gebe“ deshalb schon als Konjunktiv der dritten Person Singular verstanden und das „ich“ passt dann nicht.




Head finals forever tattoo…

Michael Chucks (@manfish7)

I picked up more interest in learning Deutsch since I stumbled upon your blog, my word, you made this sehr difficult language look like a play thing and right now without even knowing it, I’m taking my B2 at the moment and can speak not so very good Deutsch but a very understandable one for someone who only has spent a year in Bayern. Thanks a million, you are a life saver or do I say a german saver…


I would like to know what are the first one thousand words I have to learn in german language, do u have a list of them?
I have started learning german recently and your website helped me a lot in understanding and learning so many words by heart..

Thank you and God bless you


excuse me but i think it is .. Ich habe dir EINS gegeben not einen as you have written. but all the same good job.

ps: to all german lehrer and lerner like me.

here is a link to a cool page as this it even has a website
No wonder it has 2701 likes already
I learnt there!


Hi Emmanuel and everybody!
I am coming back to Germany in less than a week, so I suppose I am a bit sentimental right now, but I must say that German structure and, namely, word order, are AWESOME!!! After a while you realize that German structure is not the cage everybody think it is, but it is exactly the opposite: apart from verbs (mein Gott, verbs!), you can move part of the sentence around so freely that position itself becomes miningful. Something that has to do also with style, I suppose, whatever this word means…. I don’t feel ready for German poetry yet (I almost finished the children book Momo from Michael Ende and I feel myself exausted ;)) but I am sure word order would make it amazing… nothing compared with the boring order of other languages, but way more similar to that crazy wonderful mess that were Latin classes :)
(by the way, this is OT, but I would really appreciate poetry togheter with fables in your listening lessons… just a suggestion!

Talking about this lesson, that was really interesting, why don’t you put a link in the Online Course section? It would be really useful and easy to find for newcomers… when I first found this website, I used to go there every now and then and pick up a random lesson :)