Sentence Structure & Word Order

A simple main clause in German can be written with the same word order as English:

Ich gab dem Jungen einen Ball.
I gave the boy a ball.

However, unlike in English, the word order in a main clause can also be rearranged to emphasize something other than the subject by putting it first – so long as the conjugated verb remains in the second position:

Einen Ball gab ich dem Jungen.
I gave the boy a ball. (as opposed to giving him something else)

Dem Jungen gab ich einen Ball.
I gave the boy a ball. (as opposed to giving it to someone else)

With a compound verb (consisting of a main verb and a helping verb), English usually keeps the two parts together. In German the conjugated verb must be in the second position, while the other verb almost always goes at the end of the phrase:

Ich werde das Buch bald lesen.
I will read the book soon.

In a subordinate clause, the verbs all go at the end of the phrase. If there’s more than one, the conjugated verb comes last:

Ich trinke, weil du mich verlassen hast.
I’m drinking because you left me.

This is also true of any other dependent clauses, like relative or infinitive constructions:

Da ist der Mann, den wir suchen!
There’s the man who(m) we’re looking for!

Ich finde es schwer, über mich selbst zu reden.
I find it hard to talk about myself.

However, with a few common conjunctions (and/or/but), the standard main-clause word order is kept in both clauses:

Die Sonne scheint und die Vögel singen.
The sun is shining and the birds are singing.

These are called ‘coordinating conjunctions,’ and the ones that introduce a subordinate clause (like because) are called ‘subordinating conjunctions.’ When we cover all the German conjunctions in VII.2, we’ll present them in these two groups. So don’t worry if you’re not exactly clear on what a subordinate clause is – you’ll just learn to tell from the conjunction whether the verb goes at the end or not.

In questions, the conjugated verb is again in the second position:

Was hast du gemacht?
What have you done?
Warum sagst du das?
Why do you say that?

In an imperative statement (a direct order), the conjugated verb comes first, just like in English:

Sei still!
Be quiet!
Gib mir das!
Give me that!