One of the most confusing parts of the language is German word order. However, it is not complicated at all if you understand the rules. These are only two and they are easy to comprehend.

Let’s get started!

German word order in simple sentences obeys two fundamental rules:

The First Rule

Rule 1
Subject and verb have to stick together. Sometimes it’s the subject that goes first, sometimes it’s the verb, but they are always together.

Think of Subject and Verb like a pair of lovers. They have to be together. If they break up, you break the grammar. Sometimes the order is subject + verb, sometimes the other way around but always together.

German Word order represented by a pair of stick figures holding hands.

Example:

Der Mann ist groß. 

Vielleicht ist der Mann groß.

Ist der Mann groß?

Warum ist der Mann groß?

As you can see “der Mann” and “ist” are always together but can appear in different order.

The Second Rule

Rule 2
In declarative sentences (sentences that aren’t questions) the verb is always the second element.

Example:

Der Mann ist nett. 

Vielleicht ist der Mann nett.

Heute ist der Mann nett.

Nett ist der Mann.

Note that element doesn’t equal word, the first element is “Der Mann”. Although it is two words it is seen as one single element. 

Now let’s see how the second rule applies to sentences: 

Simple sentences can have a normal word order or an inverted word order. Let’s see the first one in detail:

Normal Word Order 

In sentences with normal word order, the subject comes first (E1) and the verb takes the second place (E2). Any additional information such as time or place comes after that (E3).

Example:

Peter (E1) arbeitet (E2) in Berlin (E3).   

Sabine (E1) kommt (E2) morgen (E3).

Inverted Word Order 

Now comes the interesting part. 

German word order is much more flexible than English. You can put many other elements into the first position apart from the subject. It is very common to have descriptions of time or place in first position. 

Let’s see our two example sentences again with normal word order.

Example:

Peter (E1) arbeitet (E2) in Berlin (E3).   

Sabine (E1) kommt (E2) morgen (E3).

Now, we could also express them as follows:

In Berlin (E1) arbeitet (E2) Peter (E3). 

Morgen (E1) kommt (E2) Sabine (E3). 

As you can see whenever we want to put something that is not the subject in first position we still have to obey the second rule: “the verb must be the second element”.

Logically there’s no place left for the subject to be but in third position.

In Berlin 

E1

arbeitet

E2

Peter.

E3

If you said “In Berlin Peter arbeitet”, you would be following the first rule (subject and verb always go together) but not the second rule. So this wouldn’t be correct.

Use Of Inverted Word Order 

This inverted structure is very common and it’s used to emphasize a particular element by placing it at the beginning of the sentence.

Let’s see some more examples of inverted word order: 

Place or timeverbsubjectobject or other elements
In Deutschlandist
es
kalt.
Im August 
fahrenwirnach Spanien.
MorgengehtPeter
in den Park.

Remember, the second rule does not apply to questions.

Inverted Word Order with more Elements

What happens if we have more elements in the sentence?

Additional elements aren’t affected by word order.

Back to our sample sentences. Let’s add some elements to the sentences.

Normal Word Order:

Peter (E1) arbeitet (E2) seit Februar (E3) in Berlin (E4).   

Sabine (E1) kommt (E2) morgen (E3) mit Peter (E4).

If we wanted to emphasize “in Berlin” in the first sentence, we would follow the same steps as before and leave “seit Februar” where it is.

In Berlin (E1) arbeitet (E2) Peter (E3) seit Februar (E4). 

And if we wanted to give emphasis to “mit Peter” in the second sentence, we would also follow the same steps as before and leave “morgen” where it is.

Mit Peter (E1) kommt (E2) Sabine (E3) morgen (E4). 

Time – Manner – Place

We have just learned that there can be several additional elements in the sentence to give extra information such as time expressions, locations, with whom or by which means, etc.

In German, the order of these elements isn’t arbitrary. 

Generally, we follow a Time > Manner > Place pattern.

So an element of Time (nächste Woche, gestern, später) will precede any Manner elements (mit dem Auto, mit Claudia) and the location or Place (nach Amerika) will be the last element.

Ich fahre am Freitag (T) mit Claudia (M) ins Kino (P).

Sometimes we might also have two time elements. One more general and one more specific. In that case, the general time will precede the specific time.

Claudia kommt am Mittwoch (G) um 10 Uhr (SP).