German Word Order Basics
Hallo, Deutschlerner. In my last lesson I briefly talked about some word order things in German, but today I want to take a closer look at the basics of German word order. Last week, we talked about putting the time element at the beginning of the sentence and moving the subject to the other side of the verb. We also talked about putting the time element between the verb and direct object. This lesson will focus on writing more complicated sentences including more prepositional phrases.
You can also get the extra materials for this lesson about the basics of German word order including a worksheet with answer key and mp3 files along with the text guide to help you practice your pronunciation by clicking here.
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German Word Order Basics: ZAP
Let’s start with the abbreviation “ZAP”. This stands for Zeit, Art, Platz. We talked about the first one last week. It is time. Generally in a German sentence, the time will go before other bits of information. “Art” refers to the way in which something is done. In English this is usually translated as “manner”. This can often be a mode of transportation or a means of accomplishing something. This is definitely the most vague part of today’s lesson, but it is usually a good assumption that if something is neither “Zeit” nor “Platz”, it is probably “Art”.
“Platz” refers to the place a sentence takes place. Some people choose the German word “Ort” for this descriptor, but that doesn’t let you have a cool mnemonic like “ZAP”. “ZAO” just doesn’t have the same ring to it. In English I don’t have a mnemonic for this. I simply say “Time, Manner, Place”. Here are a few examples of this in action.
ZAP: Example 1
Ich kaufe morgen einen Hund mit meinem Taschengeld im Kaufhaus.
I am buying a dog tomorrow in the department store with my allowance.
Disregarding the fact that I’ve never seen a department store with a pet department, the breakdown is as follows. “Ich” is the subject, the one doing the action of the sentence. “kaufe” is the conjugated form of the verb “kaufen”. This indicates what is being done, buying. “morgen” indicates when it happens, which falls into the category of “Zeit”. “einen Hund” is the direct object. That is the accusative object or the thing receiving the action of the verb. “mit meinem Taschengeld” explains how you are paying for the dog. This counts as “Art” or “manner”. “im Kaufhaus” indicates where the purchase is taking place and so counts as “Platz”.
ZAP: Example 2
Mein Bruder fährt heute mit dem Bus nach München.
My brother is driving to Munich today with the bus.
My brother is the one driving, which makes him the subject of the sentence and is first. The verb, fährt, is in second position. “heute” counts as the time in this sentence and is directly after the verb. “mit dem Bus” is the manner, as it indicates a means of transportation. The last thing in the sentence is “nach München”, which is the destination or place.
German Word Order Basics with Missing Parts
You obviously don’t have to have all of these elements in every sentence you say. If you leave one or two out, the word order doesn’t change. You simply move on to the next phrase that should be in the sentence.
Wir lesen um 3 Uhr Bücher in der Bibliothek.
We are reading books at 3 o’clock in the library.
Geht ihr um 18 Uhr nach Hause?
Are you going home at 6 pm?
Multiple Time Elements
What happens when you have more than one time element in a sentence, like today at 3 o’clock? You have both “today” and “at 3 o’clock”. How do you choose which one goes first? The answer is simple. The order goes from least specific to most specific. For example:
Montags diesen Monat um 10 Uhr 30 lerne ich Deutsch.
Mondays this month at 10:30, I am learning German.
Mondays happen every month every year, which means this is the most broad time term in this sentence. This month only happens once, which makes it more specific than Mondays. At 10:30 is clearly the most specific time in this sentence, as it gives the precise time of the day.
Heute um 3 Uhr gehe ich mit meinen Freunden einkaufen.
Today at 3 o’clock, I am going shopping with my friends.
Implying the Future Tense in German
The future tense in German can be formed with a special verb called “werden”, which is conjugated weirdly and requires you to use another verb at the end of the sentence, but you can avoid this more complicated grammar lesson and still use the future tense by simply using a time element that has not yet happened. The same is done in English. For example.
Ich gehe morgen ins Kino.
I am going to the movie theater tomorrow.
Wir essen am Wochenende Pizza.
We are eating pizza on the weekend.
Nächsten Monat kaufe ich ein neues Auto.
Next month I am buying a new car.
Inverted German Word Order
In the last lesson I told you that you can put the time element at the front of a sentence and push the subject over to the other side of the verb. Time isn’t the only thing that can be moved over like this. Technically you can start a German sentence with pretty much any of the elements I have introduced you to today. This even includes the direct object. You can do this to show special emphasis on the thing at the beginning of the sentence. It should be used sparingly, however.
Warum magst du diesen Mann nicht?
Why don’t you like this man?
Seinen Anzug mag ich nicht. Den Mann kenne ich gar nicht.
I don’t like his suit. I don’t know the man at all.
Mein Bruder fährt nach Chicago.
My brother is driving to Chicago.
Wohin fährt er?
To where is he driving?
Er fährt nach Chicago.
He is driving to Chicago.
Nach Chicago fährt er.
To Chicago is where he is driving.
German Word Order Basics: The Bottom Line
No matter what you put at the beginning of a German statement, the verb is in second position. The subject can be on either side of the verb, but in simple sentences like what beginners are going to write, you need to have the subject and verb next to each other. It is very common to put the time element at the beginning of a statement. This moves the subject to the other side of the verb. Other things can be put at the beginning of a statement. This puts special emphasis on the words at the beginning of the statement. Therefore it sometimes makes the sentence feel a bit contrived.
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