German, Word order

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Summary

German ( ) is a West Germanic language. It derives most of its vocabulary from the Germanic branch of the Indo-European language family. A number of words are derived from Latin and Greek, and fewer from French and English. Widely spoken languages which are most similar to German include Luxembourgish, Yiddish, Dutch, the Frisian languages, English and the Scandinavian languages.

Details

There are two common word orders: one is for main clauses and another for subordinate clauses. In normal affirmative sentences the inflected verb always has position 2. In polar questions, exclamations, and wishes it always has position 1. In subordinate clauses the verb occurs at the very end.

German requires that a verbal element (main verb or auxiliary verb) appear second in the sentence. The verb is preceded by the topic of the sentence. The element in focus appears at the end of the sentence. For a sentence without an auxiliary this gives, amongst other options:

' (The old man gave me yesterday the book; normal order)
' (The book gave [to] me yesterday the old man)
' (The book gave the old man [to] me yesterday)
' (The book gave [to] me the old man yesterday)
' (Yesterday gave [to] me the old man the book, normal order)
' ([To] me gave the old man the book yesterday (entailing: as for you, it was another date))

The position of a noun in a German sentence has no bearing on its being a subject, an object, or another argument. In a declarative sentence in English if the subject does not occur before the predicate the sentence could well be misunderstood. This is not so in German.

The flexibility to vary the word order allows one to emphasise specific words:

Normal word order:

Der Direktor betrat gestern um 10 Uhr mit einem Schirm in der Hand sein Büro
The manager entered yesterday at 10 o'clock with an umbrella in the hand his office.

Object in front:

Sein Büro betrat der Direktor gestern um 10 Uhr mit einem Schirm in der Hand.
His office entered the manager yesterday at 10 o'clock with an umbrella in the hand.
The object Sein Büro (his office) is thus highlighted; it could be the topic of the next sentence.

Adverb of time in front:

Gestern betrat der Direktor um 10 Uhr mit einem Schirm in der Hand sein Büro. (aber heute ohne Schirm)
Yesterday entered the manager at 10 o'clock with an umbrella in the hand his office. (but today without umbrella)

Both time expressions in front:

Gestern um 10 Uhr betrat der Direktor mit einem Schirm in der Hand sein Büro.
Yesterday at 10 o'clock entered the manager with an umbrella in the hand his office.
The full time specification Gestern um 10 Uhr is highlighted.

Another possibility:

Gestern um 10 Uhr betrat der Direktor sein Büro mit einem Schirm in der Hand.
Yesterday at 10 o'clock the manager entered his office with an umbrella in his hand.
Both the time specification and the fact he carried an umbrella are accentuated.

Swapped adverbs:

Der Direktor betrat mit einem Schirm in der Hand gestern um 10 Uhr sein Büro.
The manager entered with an umbrella in the hand yesterday at 10 o'clock his office.
The phrase mit einem Schirm in der Hand is highlighted.

Swapped object:

Der Direktor betrat gestern um 10 Uhr sein Büro mit einem Schirm in der Hand.
The warden entered yesterday at 10 o'clock his office with an umbrella in his hand.
The time specification and the object sein Büro (his office) are lightly accentuated.

The flexibility to use different word orders also broadens the options to use language "tools" (e.g. poetic meter and figures of speech) more freely.

Auxiliary verbs

When an auxiliary verb is present, it appears in second position, and the main verb appears at the end. This occurs notably in the creation of the perfect tense. Many word orders are still possible, e.g.:

' (The old man has me today the book given.)
' (The book has the old man me today given.)
' (Today has the old man me the book given.)
Modal verbs

Sentences using modal verbs place the infinitive at the end. For example, the English sentence "Should he go home?" would be rearranged in German to say "Should he (to) home go?" ('). Thus in sentences with several subordinate or relative clauses the infinitives are clustered at the end. Compare the similar clustering of prepositions in the following (highly contrived) English sentence: "What did you bring that book which I don't like to be read to out of up for?"

Multiple infinitives

German subordinate clauses have all verbs clustered at the end. Given that auxiliaries encode future, passive, modality, and the perfect, this can lead to very long chains of verbs at the end of the sentence. In these constructions, the past participle in ge- is often replaced by the infinitive.

Man nimmt an, dass der Deserteur wohl erschossenV wordenpsv seinperf sollmod

One suspects that the deserter probably shot become be should

("It is suspected that the deserter probably should have been shot")

The order at the end of such strings is subject to variation, though the latter version is unusual.

Er wusste nicht, dass der Agent einen Nachschlüssel hatte machen lassen

He knew not that the agent a picklock had make let

Er wusste nicht, dass der Agent einen Nachschlüssel machen lassen hatte

He knew not that the agent a picklock make let had

("He did not know that the agent had had a picklock made")

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  • WikipediaThe Goethe Institute

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