An Alternative Word-
  Order Scheme

Component Parts of Main Clauses
  I. The Predicate
  II. The Subject
  III. Objects
  IV. The Mid-Field
  V. Negations
  VI. "Non-elements"

Other Kinds of Clauses:
Compound Sentences
Dependent Clauses
Relative Clauses
Infinitive Clauses

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Dartmouth German
    Studies Department

  Best of all was riding bikes.

Note: The following description of German word order is conceptual in nature. Those who would prefer a more mechanical set of rules would be better served by linking to a set of prescriptive instructions for German word order. That site and this one, despite their differences in approach, overlap considerably.

English tends to rely mostly on word order to indicate the grammatical function of a word or phrase, while German uses inflections. The German endings, such as those indicating the nominative, accusative, dative, and genitive cases in three different genders, allow for some greater flexibility in clause construction. Nevertheless, German word order is extremely important, even when it is not vital to meaning, and its correctness plays a major role in how a foreigner's command of the language is evaluated.

At the same time, word order is an infinitely complex aspect of language, never wholly mastered by non-native speakers. Very few rules cover all possibilities, and context often trumps other considerations. When Robert Frost writes, "Something there is that doesn't love a wall," it's poetic; if someone with a foreign accent says the same thing in conversation, it sounds like Yoda.

German Word Order in Main Clauses (Hauptsätze)

The following description of German word order is based on the structure of main clauses, also called independent clauses. A "main clause" has a subject and a predicate and can form a complete sentence that is able to stand alone. It can take a number of forms, but we will begin with the simple declarative sentence (der Aussagesatz). Here are some English examples:

"You are wrong."
"The square of the hypotenuse of a right triangle is equal to the sum of the squares of the two adjacent sides."
"It looks like rain."
"An invitation to a Sunday midday meal in Germany can include a leisurely walk, coffee and cake later in the afternoon, and an evening supper."
"He ought to know that."

Again: this section first establishes the basic structure of declarative main clauses in German. After that it will provide links to treatments of the variations that are provided by questions, commands, and three categories of dependent clauses: subordinate, relative, and infinitive.

The examples that are treated in this section are in the active voice and indicative mood. By and large, sentences in the passive voice or the subjunctive mood adhere to the same basic rules of word order.

I. The Predicate (= Verb Phrase):

The most important concept for determining word order is the predicate, sometimes called the "verb phrase" or "the verbal idea". In its most basic form, it consists only of a single, finite verb. The finite verb is the one that gets conjugated to agree with the subject, as well as to reflect voice, mood, and tense:

"Der Mann beißt den Hund" (The man bites the dog)
"Die Männer beißen den Hund" (The men bite the dog)
"Ich biss den Hund" (I bit the dog).

    1 Sometimes this structure houses the highly colloquial use of "tun" with an infinitive: "Arbeiten tut er nicht" [Work (is something) he doesn't do]. "Tun" plus an infinitive is generally found only in dialects and in the speech of small children ("Sie tut es wegwerfen" [She throws it out]), but some set phrases are common: "Sie tun nichts als klagen" [They do nothing but complain]. Note the historical link to the English use of "do" plus the infinitive, both in emphatic statements and questions ("I do like that"; "Do you think that's necessary?").
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    2 Note that "denn," in contrast to "weil," does not cause the finite verb to go to the end.
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    3 Note the distinction between this sentence and "Nun können wir zu Fuß gehen" [Now we can go on foot], in which the adverb nun occupies the first position and thus inverts the word order.
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