Complex German Sentence Structure

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

When we first start learning a language, we often feel as though we sound like small children. After all, we only know how to make simple single-clause sentences. In this lesson, we'll learn how to use more complex German sentence structure.

The Basic German Sentence

As you may already know, when creating a basic present tense sentence in German, the verb must always be the second element. The only time this is different is when it is a 'yes' or 'no' question, in which case, the verb comes first.

Let's look at a basic present tense sentence to refresh your memory:

  • Ich gehe später ins Kino. (I'm going to the movies later.)

The verb in this sentence is gehen and it comes immediately after the pronoun ich, taking the second position in the sentence.

If it were a 'yes' or 'no' question, it would look like this:

  • Gehst du später ins Kino? (Are you going to the movies later?)

The verb is still gehen, only this time, it takes first position.

Complex Sentences

We understand simple sentences, so let's move on to what we're really interested in learning about: complex German sentence structure. So how do we produce argument-ending, show-stoppingly complex sentences?

The key element to complex sentence structure in German is the conjunction. Conjunctions are the words we use to connect clauses to give us longer, more complex sentences. There are two types of clauses--coordinating and subordinating--and we will explore them both.

Coordinating Conjunctions

Coordinating conjunctions are used to join independent clauses. By 'independent' we mean clauses that could stand alone and still have meaning. For example, Mein Name ist Sam (My name is Sam) and Ich bin 18 Jahre alt (I'm 18 years old) are both independent clauses. Both of these sentences can be read and understood independently from one another.

If, however, we wanted to join them to make one, longer sentence, we would use a coordinating conjunction such as und (pronounced uhnd), which means 'and'. This would give us:

  • Mein Name ist Sam und ich bin 18 Jahre alt. (My name is Sam and I'm 18 years old.)

As you can see, the use of coordinating conjunctions does not affect the structure of clauses they are joining; coordinating conjunctions simply stick the clauses together. Here's a list of your most common coordinating conjunctions followed by some example sentences so you can see them in action:

Coordinating conjunction Pronunciation Translation
aber ahbehr but
denn dehn because, for (causal)
oder ohdehr or
sondern SOHN-dehrn but rather, instead
und uhnd and
  • Ich will einen Hund, aber er will nicht. (I want a dog but he doesn't.)
  • Ich gehe ins Bett, denn ich bin müde. (I'm going to bed because I'm tired.)
  • Wollen wir ins Kino gehen oder sollen wir Karten spielen? (Shall we go to the movies or should we play cards?)

Tip

  • In German, we do not use commas before und and oder.

Translation: We are going to the movies because we want to see a film.
gehen ins Kino

Subordinating Conjunctions

Our second type of conjunctions are called subordinating conjunctions. These are the words we use to join an independent clause to a dependent one, meaning the clauses must have a relationship to one another. The independent clause is a sentence that can stand alone and still make sense, but a dependent one needs the independent clause in order to be understood.

Let's look at an independent clause: Mein Name ist Sam. (My name is Sam.) And here's a dependent clause: Er ist kurz für Samantha. (It's short for Samantha.) We need to join them together so the dependent clause makes sense. To do this, we will use the subordinating conjunction obwohl (pronounced OHB-wohl), which means 'although.' This would give us:

  • Mein Name ist Sam, obwohl er kurz für Samantha ist. (My name is Sam, although it's short for Samantha.)

As you can see, this time the conjunction DOES affect word order; in the dependent clause following the conjunction, the conjugated verb must be placed at the end of clause. In both the independent and dependent clause in this sentence, the verb we're using is sein (conjugated as ist). In the independent clause ist is in its usual second-position placement. We then have the subordinating conjunction (obwohl) with the dependent clause following to complete the sentence. In this clause, ist is placed at the end of the sentence.

The structure does not always have to be independent clause followed by subordinating conjunction then dependent clause. The subordinating conjunction can also be used to start the sentence, for example:

  • Obwohl es kurz für Samantha ist, ist mein Name Sam.

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