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 :

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.

German Word Order – 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.

A Core Concept of German – 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

  • Dünndarmpassagen-
  • 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

4.6 63 votes
Article Rating

German in your inbox

Sign up to my epic newsletter and get notified whenever I post something new :)
(roughly once per week)

No Spam! Read our privacy policy for more info.