You’re a first-time tourist to Germany, with travel book and dictionary in hand, eager to converse with the locals. You might be a new student of the language. Where do you start?
Or what if you need to learn the German language in the quickest way possible? You could be applying for an important job that requires a German translation exam, and are brushing up nervously on your language skills. What should you focus on in your review?
Whatever your situation, the first and most important thing to remember is how the basic German sentence pattern works. A common mistake native English speakers make when attempting to construct or translate a German sentence is to assume it is structured in the same way as in English (it’s not), and to proceed with a word-for-word literal translation.
To add to the confusion, German’s word order is a little less rigid than that of English. The positioning of nouns in a German sentence does not have any bearing on whether it is a subject or an object.
To avoid mistakes, it is critical that you understand German language’s natural sentence word order.
In general, the basic formula to a German sentence is:
(Subject or “Highlight”) + (Verb Inflection) + Predicate (with Verb “Remainder”)
Here’s how the formula works.
1. Subject or Topic
In German, the first part of the sentence is precisely what the sentence intends to highlight as a topic.
In basic sentences, this is usually the subject. For example:
Der alte Mann gab mir das Buch.
(The old man gave me the book.)
However, in more complex German sentences, this may not be the case. The first part of this formula can actually be occupied by either the subject, or any other part of the sentence. In fact, most German sentences do not have the subject appear in the beginning of the sentence. For example:
Den Hund hat the Katze angefaucht.
Literal Translation: The dog has the cat hissed.
Actual Meaning: It was the dog the cat hissed at.
Here, the subject is the cat, which hissed at the object, the dog. (Note that the word “Hund” is preceded by the appropriate article “den”.)
What’s important to remember is that, if something else other than the subject occupies the start of a German sentence, the subject will ALWAYS follow it immediately, right before the inflected verb (Verb + Inflection).
Apart from the subject, the following may also occupy the start of a German sentence:
A prepositional phrase
2. Verb Inflection
The subject or topic is always followed by the main verb or auxiliary verb.
This verb is inflected or modified according to what the subject of the sentence is. A simple example of this would be:
Die Katze schnurrt.
(The cat purrs / is purring.)
However, in sentences that involve modifying the verb, the verb inflection comes first before the rest of the verb:
Die Katze hat geschnurrt.
(The cat has purred.)
3. Predicate (with Verb “Remainder”)
As mentioned, simple German sentences require simple verb conjugations. Thus, the Verb “Remainder” can be thought of as an optional slot in the formula.
But for more complex sentences, the predicate part of the formula is where the rest of the sentence goes, and where any remaining verb conjugation is placed. For example:
Den Hund hat the Katze heute angefaucht.
Literal Translation: The dog has the cat today purred.
Actual Meaning: It was the dog the cat purred at today.
Der alte Mann hat mir heute das Buch gegeben.
Literal Translation: The old man has me today the book given.
Actual Meaning: The old man has given me the book today.
Sometimes you may encounter what seem to be “tricky” sentences. These conform to the formula, but the resulting sentence can mean two different things. When that happens, use context clues or common sense to decipher which is correct.
Der alte Mann jagte die Maus unters Sofa!
(The old man chased the mouse under the sofa!)
But technically, the sentence could also mean:
Der alte Mann jagte die Maus unters Sofa!
(The mouse chased the old man under the sofa!)
But unless we’re talking comedy, this is highly unlikely.
If you take the time to understand the logic behind the German sentence structure, and polish up your knowledge of verb conjugation, gender, and cases, you’ll ace the German language in no time!