Direct & Indirect Object Word Order
Hallo, Deutschlerner. Ich bin Herr Antrim and in this lesson I will teach you the word order for direct and indirect objects in German sentences. By the time you get to the end of this lesson, you will know:
– what direct and indirect objects are
– how to use direct and indirect objects in German
– how to switch up the word order in your German sentences
– and become more conversational
Simple Statement Word Order in German
Let’s just jump straight to the important bit and the reason for the title of this video being what it is. In a simple German statement, you start with the subject. The verb is in second position. Then comes the indirect object followed by the direct object.
This sentence starts with the subject, the one doing something, which is “ich” (I) and is indicated by the nominative case. The verb is in second position, as it always is in simple sentences like this. The indirect object is third, “dem Schüler” (the student) and is indicated by the dative case. The direct object, “den Bleistift” (the pencil) is the last thing, which is the thing being acted upon by the subject and is indicated by the accusative case.
What are Direct & Indirect Objects?
If you don’t know what direct and indirect objects are, the simplest explanation is this. A direct object is the thing being acted upon by the subject. If I kick, bite, hit, or throw something, that something is the direct object of the sentence. In German this is indicated with the accusative case. When the direct object is sent in the direction of another person or thing (most often a person), that person is the indirect object. The indirect object is indicated with the dative case.
Short version: Direct object is what is being verbed. Indirect object is to whom or for whom the direct object was verbed. In German the direct object is marked by the accusative case and the indirect object is marked by the dative case.
Why are there 4 cases in German?
In case you are just starting your German learning journey, you may not be aware that there are 4 grammatical cases in which nouns and pronouns can be used in German. Cases help to identify how a noun is being used, which provides context and insight into the meaning of the sentence. It also makes it so that German is much more flexible when it comes to word order than other languages like English, for instance.
Word Order Rules for Direct & Indirect Objects in German
When it comes to direct and indirect objects, the basic rules are simple. If the direct object is a noun, it goes after the indirect object. If it is a pronoun, the accusative object goes before the indirect object. Let’s go back to our first example.
If neither the direct nor indirect object is a pronoun, the indirect object is first. If only the indirect object is a pronoun, the indirect object is still first.
If the direct object is a pronoun, regardless of whether or not the indirect object is also a pronoun, the direct object is first.
Some people prefer to have the rules in one slide. For those people, I have created this image.
English Word Order isn’t as Flexible
In German, all of these sentences have the same general meaning. The pencil is the thing being given and the student is the one receiving it. In English, if you rearrange the word order like this, the meaning changes.
“I am giving him it.” is VERY different than “I am giving it him.” The first one is a normal everyday sounding sentence. The word “him” refers to some masculine person and the word “it” refers to an object that is being given to him. The second sentence is creepy at best. Pennywise is running around your town looking for his next victim. When he meets you and a friend of yours, you give your friend to Pennywise in an effort to escape. “I give it him.” sounds like you are sacrificing this person to “It”.
Personal Pronouns in German
Now that you know the word order rules, let’s go back and learn the pronouns.
ich – mich – mir = I – me – me
“Ich” (I) becomes “mich” in the accusative and “mir” in the dative.
du – dich – dir = you – you – you
“Du” (you) becomes “dich” in the accusative and “dir” in the dative.
er – ihn – ihm = he – him – him
“Er” (he) becomes “ihn” in the accusative and “ihm” in the dative.
sie – sie – ihr = she – her – her
“Sie” (she) stays “sie” in the accusative, but becomes “ihr” in the dative.
es – es – ihm = it – it – it
When “es” is used to replace neuter nouns in the nominative and accusative cases it remains “es”, but in the dative case it becomes “ihm”.
wir – uns – uns = we – us – us
When “wir” is not the subject of the sentence (i.e. nominative), it becomes “uns”. This is true for both direct (accusative) and indirect (dative) objects.
ihr – euch – euch = you – you – you
If “ihr” is not the subject of the sentence, it becomes “euch”. This is also true for both direct (accusative) and indirect (dative) objects.
sie – sie – ihnen = they – them – them
Sie – Sie – Ihnen = you – you – you
Both the plural “sie” (they) and the formal “you” “Sie” stay “sie/Sie” when they are the direct object (accusative), but become “ihnen/Ihnen” when they are the indirect object (dative).
German Personal Pronoun Chart
For those of you who like charts, this is what the personal pronouns chart looks like for the nominative, accusative and dative cases.
If you want to practice sentences like this on your own, you can do that with the worksheet available here. When you download the worksheet you will also get an answer key to check your work and an mp3 version of this lesson.
More Complex Example Sentences with Direct and Indirect Objects
Hint: The images are not meant to be charts with each column corresponding to a particular part of the sentence. They are color coded so you can follow the changes across all of the versions.
What happens if you have a time element? Or if you start the sentence with the time element instead of the subject? What would it look like as a question? How do modal auxiliaries affect word order? What happens if you use the future tense? All of those questions shall be answered in the images below. Each image will come with a short explanation of how the word order was decided.
German Word Order with Modal Auxiliaries
In this example, we see how to use a modal auxiliary with this type of sentence. The first one simply has the modal where the verb normally would go and “geben”, the other verb, at the end of the sentence as an infinitive. The word order rules for the objects are as they were before. When both are nouns, the indirect object goes first. If one of them is a pronoun, the pronoun goes first. When both are pronouns, the direct object goes first.
German Word Order with Time
There is a little bit of flexibility for time elements in German sentences. For this example we show that we can put the time element between the indirect and direct objects as long as the direct object is not a pronoun. When the direct object becomes a pronoun, it moves to the position in front of the indirect object. This would mean that, according to the rule book, the time part could go before the direct object behind the verb, but to my ear, it sounds a bit odd to put it there. I would prefer to put the time element at the end of the last two sentences just based on “Sprachgefühl” (the intuitive feeling for the natural idiom of a language).
As I mentioned in the 3 Minuten Deutsch episode about inverted word order, you can usually start a sentence with the time element to spice up your word order. This moves the subject to the other side of the verb and the objects get shifted over a space because of it. The first example here is normal word order. The next three sentences start with the time, which moves the subject to behind the verb. The rest of the word order follows the same rules as before. If one of the objects is a pronoun, the pronoun goes first. If both are pronouns, the direct object comes first.
German Word Order with Prepositional Phrases
If the prepositional phrase refers directly to one of the objects, the prepositional phrase should follow that object. The example above shows what this looks like if the prepositional phrase describes the indirect object. If the sentence is formed like this, the object and the prepositional phrase that follows act as one part of the sentence. If one part of it is a pronoun, the whole thing is a pronoun. It simply wouldn’t make sense to say “her of my father” in German or English.
The same thing is true of a prepositional phrase that describes the direct object. The prepositional phrase can only be used when the object it refers to is a noun and not a pronoun.
Of course, if the prepositional phrase isn’t actually describing one of the objects, then the prepositional phrase should go after the objects in the same order it normally would (time, manner, place).
German Question Word Order with Direct and Indirect Objects
If you write a question with a direct and indirect object, but you don’t use a question word, the subject is simply moved to the other side of the verb and you change your punctuation. This doesn’t change anything about the direct and indirect object.
If you do use a question word, normally this won’t affect anything with the direct and indirect object either. The subject still goes on the other side of the verb (unless the question word is “wer” or “was” and is the subject). The direct and indirect objects retain their normal word order rules.
I hope with these examples you are able to understand some of the German word order rules with more clarity. If you are still having trouble, leave a comment below and I will gladly answer your questions.
Next week, I will show you the tools that I think are indispensable for German learners. If it is already next week, you can click here to see that. Das ist alles für heute. Danke fürs Zuschauen. Bis zum nächsten Mal. Tschüss.