German Word Order – Beyond Rules

german-word-order-explanatiHello everyone,

and welcome to a new chapter in our absolutely epic German language course.

And this module will be all about one of the most confusing topics of German grammar.
Which could of course be pretty much any aspect of German grammar, but for today, it is going to be

German Word Order

And if you think of German as a language that is big about rules, you’ll be VERY surprised actually at what’s going on under the surface. Because word order is NOT about rules. It’s a delicate dance of different forces and in most cases, there is not THE ONE correct answer.

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**.
(Disclaimer: word dramatized! Idea may not actually explain literally 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.

When rules for word order fail

Probably the most famous rule for German word order is the so called 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

Man, I hope the colors are more helpful than they are distracting :).
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 About.com :

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 About.com):

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. I’ll try to sneak a picture of German’s butt next time we go to sauna.

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.

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

 

German Word Order – Part 2

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Bissell
Bissell
7 months ago

Hi again. On Duo Lingo (yeah, I know…but it is working for me) the answer to: “What time does your family come today?” was: “Um wie viel Uhr kömmt deine Familie heute”. My (wrong) answer put the heute after kömmt. Why? Because Time, Manner, Place…TKML and all that. It ‘feels’ to me that Duo Lingo is a TKML – centric platform and putting time as early as possible usually works out. Thus, I was surprised to see the correct answer placing ‘Heute’ at the end.
Is there something I am missing or is did Duo Lingo choose a single option when either would have been ok? Any thoughts? Thanks

Bissell
Bissell
7 months ago
Reply to  Emanuel

Jein… mein ‘heute’ war immer NACH ‘kömmt’, nicht vor.
“Um wie viel Uhr kömmt deine Familie heute” <duo lingo> oder
“Um wie viel Uhr kömmt heute deine Familie” <mein – falsch>

Also to add: I read, and re-read your articles and enjoy them. Each time, something clicks or I understand its importance at a deeper level.

Schwein Hund
Schwein Hund
4 days ago
Reply to  Emanuel

Yes, you are right. Duolingo sucks and it is mediocre but I stick to it because i don’t know of another option.

PavelP
PavelP
1 year ago

Hello, in the text you wrote:
“In the first sentence, we have no pronoun and still the Dative comes after the Accusative.”
But the is in the text I see the following “first” sentence:

  • I don’t give you the book but your sister.
  • Ich gebe das Buch nicht dir sondern deiner Schwester.

There are in the both a pronoun: you and dir respectively.

So could you please explain what does your phrase “we have no pronounactually mean?

Rayuela90
Rayuela90
2 years ago

I cannot believe how much dedication and efforts you put on this. Also in answering to all messages (almost all, people just saying hi, is not an actual message) is really amazing. I really appreciate how enjoyable you make learning german.

Quick question: is there any specific articles you read (about all this grammar stuff) or is it just that you have developed this ability to understand language in this way (i’m interested in cognitive approach readings, that’s why i’m asking)

Shereesings
Shereesings
2 years ago

Hallo, a German colleague told me that the best order of the following sentence was the last of these three:
Ich verstehe jeden Tag den Dialekt ein bisschen mehr.
Ich verstehe jeden Tag ein bisschen mehr den Dialekt .
Ich verstehe den Dialekt jeden Tag ein bisschen mehr.

Could you explain why the Akkusative is first in the above scenario?

Vielen Dank im Voraus

Erika Bitter
Erika Bitter
2 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

Was bedeutet „Tekamolo“? Te-ka-mo-lo
“https://kyrosschule.de/was-bedeutet-tekamolo-te-ka-mo-lo/”

Matheuspin
Matheuspin
2 years ago

Wir brauchen wirklich sehr viele Liebe, dass deutsch zu lernen! Es ist kompliziert, aber mag es ICH.

Anonymous
Anonymous
2 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

“Das Buch gebe ich dir heute” is one of your flexible options for the English “I am giving you the book today”.

It appears in what seems to be what you regard as a fairly neutral German word order selection (with each word coloured in the same light blue).

Yet perhaps the shift of Das Buch to the front and heute to the end suggests powerful forces at each end of the see-saw, so that they balance each other with their “strength” in their key positions at either end?

Or am I creating tension where none exists? Your thoughts?

mjmj
mjmj
3 years ago

I’m bored

SpearheadBT
SpearheadBT
3 years ago

These posts are very illuminating, thank you! It think that sometimes, with enough exposure, a lot of the “standard” ordering becomes natural. It becomes hard to explain and it is just something that you feel. It’s like part musicality (it just sounds better) and part function or something.

Anonymous
Anonymous
4 years ago

hi

rodster
rodster
5 years ago

I am trying very hard to grasp the language. been at it for some tie now. Word order as well as Accusative and Dative are giving me trouble.
I hope you can point me in the right direction. Hopefully some of your articles will help. Please point the way. Thanks

trackback

[…] figure out the language as best we can and muddle along constantly fuddled by the dative and TeKaMoLo. At some point, our learning stops, and this happens at level […]

Jack
Jack
6 years ago

Does this make any sense in German ?
ein Buch gelesen ich

Anonymous
Anonymous
6 years ago

Hey, love your website. Quick stupid question! When reading German as English speaker.

I’m reading this but it doesn’t make sense until you read the verb. Do you skip to the end when reading so you understand the verb straight away or read it completely left to right?

It just doesn’t make much sense to me if I’m reading it right to left in my head because at the end of the sentence I have to re-arrange the sentence in my head so I understand. Do you know what I mean?!!

“Wir dürfen uns keine Fehler erlauben.”

Eckhard Kuhn-Osius
Eckhard Kuhn-Osius
6 years ago

Ihr Beitrag zeigt überzeugend, dass mechanistische Regeln für die Wortstellung zum Scheitern verurteilt sind, weil sie damit den stilistischen Möglihckeiten des Deutschen nicht gerecht werden.

Es ist aber ein bisschen schwer, über die Wortstellung zwischen den beiden Verbpositionen zu schreiben, wenn man Sätze ohne weiteren Kontext benutzt. Das ist eine Schwäche, die viele deutsche Grammatiken haben, einfach weil es so vieler Grammatik innerhalb eines Satzes bedarf, dass man ganz vergisst, dass die Satzstellung eigentlich nur im Textzusammenhang zufriedenstellend beschrieben werden kann.

Natürlich kann man immer irgendein Element des Satzes an die erste Stelle setzen, aber ob das gut ist oder nicht, bestimmt der Kontext. Diese Möglichkeit berührt die Regeln für die Wortstellung zwischen den Verbteilen (“Satzfeld”) ebensowenig wie die Möglichkeit, erweiterte Attribute zu bilden. Wir sollten also genauer differenzieren, um zu wirklich praktikablen Ideen zu kommen.

Das Hauptprinzip innerhalb des Satzfeldes ist der ansteigende Nachrichtenwert. Dementsprechend stehen Pronomina (Akkusativ vor Dativ, aber einfaches Pronomen vor Demonstrativpronomen) vor der-Objekten und diese vor ein-Objekten (in diesem Fall geben die Wortbedeutungen schon einen Textzusammenhang vor, der etliche Regeln auch auf dem Satzniveau ermöglicht). Ein-Subjekte können ziemlich weit nach rechts driften, obwohl man sie immer direkt nach dem Verb unterbringen kann. Adverbiale können im Prinzip mit der-Objekten gemischt werden (ich habe das Buch dem Freund heute gegeben; ich habe das Buch heute einem Freund gegeben). Ein-Objekte folgen dagegen den Aderbialen fast immer (ich habe das Buch einem Freund heute gegeben — der Satz geht nicht gut).

Die Tekamolo-Regel ist in der Tat eher eine statistische Regel, die davon lebt, dass bestimmte Informationen erwartbarerweise eher als wichtig gelten als andere. Ein Zentralproblem der Regel ist: Sie differenziert nicht zwischen Lokal- und Direktivergänzungen (die im Deutschen anders als im Lateinischen) eben nicht eine Lokalergänzung sind, sondern zwei verschiedene (er geht in der nahen Stadt in die Schule; er kam aus der Schule nach Hause). Direktivergänzungen stehen im Prinzip immer ganz hinten, oft sogar nach Präpositionalobjekten (er floh vor der Polizei ins Ausland). Also ist die Wortstellung zum Teil davon abhängig, was der Sprecher/Schreiber als wichtig erachtet, aber die Sprache gibt auch vor, was wichtig zu sein hat.

Ich bemerke (vermutlich durch den Einfluss des Englischen), dass in vielen Web-Texten, die Satzstellung nicht mehr so ganz zu funktionieren scheint. Vielleicht verlieren die Sprecher des Deutschen hier gerade ein bedeutsames Stilmittel.

leyarn
7 years ago

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 :)

leyarn
7 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

Ewig! ;) Naaaa, Ich weiß jetzt nicht :) Aber ich habe ein einfaches Flugticket nach Berlin, vielleicht eine gute Arbeit (das werde ich Morgen herausfinden), eine paar Sofa in einen paar Häuser von Freunden…. und das ist ungefähr alles, was ich brauche ;)

Speaking of German newspapers….das habe ich noch nie herausgefunden… Wir armen Deutsche Lerner können am Anfang nur Bild oder die Badische Zeitung lesen… und Bild ist …. ehm…. keine Zeitung ;) und wenn man italienerin ist, ist Bild außerdem nicht so nett ;) Aber dieses Mal hoffe ich, dass etwas besser lesen kann (aber ich werde die Badische Zeitung ein bisschen vermissen :))

leyarn
7 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

Emmanuel, das ist sehr interessant: sagt man “die” Bild, weil Bild eine Zeitung ist? (oder, würde eine Zeitung sein ;)) und ist “würde” hier richtig? Konjunktiv 2 kenne ich noch nicht.

…und ich habe schließlich die Arbeit bekommen :)

harrowmykel
7 years ago

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
https://m.facebook.com/profile.php?id=311416482365378 it even has a website lerdeuger.tk
No wonder it has 2701 likes already
I learnt there!

Noor
Noor
7 years ago

Hello..
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

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…

Anonymous
Anonymous
7 years ago

Head finals forever tattoo…
LOL!

Carsten Schultz
7 years ago

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.

Gruß

Carsten

Daniel
Daniel
7 years ago

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.