Basic German Sentence Structure Rules

Instructor: Samantha Green

Sam is from the UK but lives in the USA, she has taught college German and has both a bachelor's and master's degree in German Studies

Knowing a few key phrases in German might be enough to see you through a long weekend in Berlin, but if you want to really be able to communicate, you'll need to learn how to structure your sentences correctly.

Becoming More Proficient

You've been in Germany a few weeks now and you've learned some key phrases. Now you can order your coffee, ask directions, and greet the people around. All of these are great, but you really want to start getting to know some of the locals so you realize you need to improve your skills.

Before you can get in depth and discuss world issues you need to start by having a conversation and to do that you're going to need to know how to structure a basic sentence. That's where this lesson comes in!

How to Structure a Sentence

In English a simple sentence is structured with the subject of the sentence coming first and is then followed immediately by the verb phrase. For example:

  • We are going to the movies tonight.

'We' is the subject, followed immediately by 'are going', which is the verb phrase. We can have this same structure in German. Let's use the same sentence from our English example:

  • Wir gehen heute Abend ins Kino. (We are going to the movies tonight).

Wir is your subject, followed by gehen, your verb phrase.

Translation: We are going to the movies tonight.
ins Kino gehen

If we wanted to put the emphasis on when we were going to the movies in English we would simply move the time phrase, which in this case is 'tonight,' to the front of the sentence and everything else would stay the same. For example:

  • Tonight we are going to the movies.

So now 'tonight' comes first, followed by the subject 'we' followed, by the verb phrase 'are going.' In German we can move the time phrase to the front too, but after that the structure has to change. Here's the same sentence in German, starting with the time phrase 'tonight.'

  • Heute Abend gehen wir ins Kino. (Tonight we are going to the movies).

This time the sentence starts with the time phrase 'tonight' as it did in English. This time however, following it is now the verb 'gehen' and then comes the subject 'wir'.

The Rules

The reason for this is that in a basic German sentence the main verb must always be the second element of the sentence. If the subject does not precede the verb it must follow it immediately.

Here's a few examples to help highlight this. First the sentence will be written with the subject as the first element in the sentence, then we will give you the same sentence this time with the time phrase (when something is occurring) being the first element. In each sentence take note of where the verb and subject are placed.

  • Ich gehe morgen zur Schule . (I'm going to school tomorrow).
  • Morgen gehe ich zur Schule. (Tomorrow I'm going to school).

  • Wir laufen zusammen später. (We're running together later).
  • Später laufen wir zusammen. (Later we're running together).

  • Er sieht seine Oma heute. (He's seeing his grandma today).
  • Heute sieht er seine Oma. (Today he is seeing his grandma).

Translation: He is seeing his grandma today.
Junge und Oma

A Key Thing to Remember

A time phrase and a subject can often be more than one word, so the verb won't necessarily be the second word in a sentence. Think about your sentences more in the sense of 'grammatical ideas.' Which combination of words is indicating time, which is the verb, and which is the subject? Here's a few more examples just to make sure you've got it (the verbs are in bold):

  • Mein Bruder kommt heute Abend. (My brother is coming over tonight).

In this sentence mein Bruder (my brother) is the subject and it is made up of two words so the verb kommen is the third word in the sentence, but is still classed as the second element.

  • In zwei Wochen fliege ich nach Deutschland. (In two weeks I'm flying to Germany).

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