Unit 1: Basics

8. Word Order

The various forms of the articles, both definite and indefinite, are important indicators of the function a noun plays in a given sentence. Consider that in English we use only one form for all cases (“a”, “an”, “the”). This allows German to have a more flexible word order (syntax) than English. In English we usually begin sentences with the subject, e.g. “The dog has the ball,” and that English word-order rule is necessary for us to understand that “the dog” is the subject and “the ball” is what is being hit.

However, in German, there is no expectation at all that the subject must come first (although it often does). These two German sentences share the same meaning:

Der Hund hat den Ball.
Den Ball hat der Hund.

The reader (and listener) does notice the word order, but first pays attention to the articles in order to understand the sentence. In this case the article der for Hund indicates that der Hund must be the subject, and likewise the article den for Ball indicates that den Ball must be the direct object. Changing the word order in English fundamentally changes the meaning, but not so in German.

Take another example: “Erst die Frau, dann den Mann beißt der böse Hund.” If you ignore the case signals given to you by the definite articles and rely on standard English word order, then you come up with the amusingly ridiculous meaning: “First the woman, then the man bites the bad dog.” In fact the sentence means “The bad dog bites the woman first, then the man.”

Side note: A subtle difference in emphasis is expressed between the two variants of the first example above:

Der Hund hat den Ball.
The dog has the ball. [without a particular emphasis]

Den Ball hat der Hund.
The ball is what the dog has.
[or:] The dog has the ball.
[or:] The dog has this ball.

Any of those four translations could be acceptable for the above two German sentences, given no further context, but once you begin working with longer passages that provide more context, your sensitivity to differences like this can help you make better sense of a text.

Verb in Second Position

In German, the main verb in a statement is always in second position, no matter how we begin the sentence: Morgen früh lande ich in Frankfurt (Tomorrow morning I will land in Frankfurt).

This absolute rule becomes a very powerful tool for you once you begin encountering longer sentences. Practice the skill of marking up German sentences you encounter to recognize:

  1. the part before the verb, which therefore must be a single unit of meaning,
  2. the verb, which – also usefully for you – will always be a verb form conjugated to match the sentence subject, and
  3. the part after the verb, which may include several units of meaning.

Yes / No Questions

Yes / no questions always begin with the verb:

Sind Sie gesund? (Are you healthy?)

Remember that sometimes English uses the verb “do”:

Hat er Fieber? (Does he have a fever?)
Hatte er Fieber? (Did he have a fever?)

English also complicates matters by using “do” to negate simple statements and questions. German’s straightforward “Haben Sie keine Schuhe?” is expressed in English as “Do you not have any shoes?” or “Don’t you have any shoes?” or “Do you have no shoes?”


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A Foundation Course in Reading German Copyright © 2014 by Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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