The Flexible German Sentence

A German Superpower: Flexible Word Order 🤸🏾

Page created by Roslyn Green in March 2023

The flexibility of German word order opens up expressive possibilities that are unimaginable in English. As a result, a German writer or speaker can emphasise key ideas in dramatic and memorable ways. Nevertheless, there are rules: the first and most important one is about the position of the verb.

Image by AndiP from Pixabay

The Verb is Anchored in the Second Position

The anchor of the German sentence is the conjugated verb in the second position. Once the conjugated verb is moored in place, the rest of the sentence can flow around it, freed from the constraints of English word order.

Positions 1, 2 and 3: Sentence Examples

Key: subject | conjugated verb | adverb

Example 1: Outwardly she seemed calm. ⇢

1st Position2nd Position3rd PositionThe Rest

Image by Pete Linforth from Pixabay

Example 2: I’m starting to get cross with you. ⇢

1st Position2nd Position3rd PositionThe Rest
Langsamwerdeichsauer auf dich.
Ichwerdelangsamsauer auf dich.

Image by Robin Higgins from Pixabay

Example 3: The party was a complete flop. ⇢

1st Position2nd Position3rd PositionThe Rest
Die Partywarleiderein glatter Reinfall.
Leiderwardie Partyein glatter Reinfall.

Image by andreas160578 from Pixabay

Example 4: They are supposedly filthy rich. ⇢

1st Position2nd Position3rd PositionThe Rest

Image by 3D Animation Production Company from Pixabay

Sandwiching the Verb Between the 1st and 3rd Positions

As the examples above show, the positions of the subject and the adverb are often interchangeable. They frequently inhabit the first and third positions, with the verb sandwiched between them.

In contrast to English, a subject and an adverb cannot appear together at the start of a German sentence. The verb must be placed in between and no comma is required. In fact, since German comma rules are far more exact and prescriptive than those of English, a comma is simply wrong.

  • Leider, die Party war ein glatter Reinfall. The comma must be deleted and the verb inserted between the adverb and the subject, as in the correct examples below:
    • Leider war die Party ein glatter Reinfall. ⇢ Unfortunately, the party was a total flop.
    • Die Party war leider ein glatter Reinfall. ⇢ The party was unfortunately a total flop.

Online Quizzes

Quiz: The Flexible German Sentence

Infer the sentence rules from colour-coded examples, then practise constructing and correcting sentences.

Quiz: The Flexible German Sentence: Word Order Patterns

A drag and drop quiz focusing on Positions 1, 2 and 3, with varying word order options to consider and apply.

Using Capitals in German – With the Help of an Elf 🔠

Posted by Roslyn Green in September 2022

der Hauself – the house elf

Dobby is not just a free elf. He is also a noun.

die Nase – the nose

Dobby hat eine lange, spitze Nase. – Dobby has a long, pointy nose.

The parts of his elvish body are common nouns and must be capitalised in German.

das Auge – the eye

Dobby hat auch große Augen. – Dobby also has large eyes.

Common nouns are always capitalised in German, along with all other nouns.

So this is how German capitalisation rules look in an English text:

The young Girl sat in the Courtyard reading a Book. She had a sweet, kindly Face, with dark brown Eyes and long black Hair. To the shy Boy, she seemed almost to glow in the Sunshine.

Although she was in his Class, he scarcely dared to approach her. For one Thing, she was deeply absorbed in her Homework, looking up Words in her Dictionary.

Then suddenly she saw him and gave him a Smile. She was wearing Braces.

At least her Teeth aren’t perfect,” he thought with Relief. “And she has lots of Freckles on her Nose.

It was actually those friendly Freckles that finally gave the Boy the Courage to speak.

OK, it’s a sappy English love story in the making, but the noun capitalisation is pure German.

Words Requiring a Capital in German

  • The names of countries: Deutschland, Neuseeland, Australien, China 
  • The names of languages: Deutsch, Englisch, Chinesisch
  • The names of cities: Berlin, München, Melbourne
  • People’s names (but not the first person subject pronoun, ich
  • Common nouns relating to everyday concepts and objects: das Handy (mobile phone), der Geburtstag (birthday), die Idee (idea), etc.

A word is always a noun if:

  • it can have der, die or das placed before it – or any other form of the definite article.
  • it can have ein, eine or einen placed before it – or any other form of the indefinite article.
  • it can be possessed, as indicated by a possessive term like mein, dein, etc.
  • it can be counted – e.g. 20 books, 20 Bücher
  • it can be described with an adjective – e.g. a free elf, ein freier Elf

A Quiz to Practise German Capitalisation

Quiz: Capitalising Nouns in German – With Dobby’s Help

A short story of Dobby’s life: find the missing capitals (quiz embedded below)