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Word Order in German. Upside down translations.

I have answered someone in the sentence section about a peculiar observation. Maybe, this could be of a more general interest.

Ich bin schon wieder hier. (not the actual sentence ;)

I am here again already.

The German sentence and the English translation often reverse the word order in the second half of the sentence. Why would the most faithful translation not work by placing everything in the same order? The answer is of course that both languages handle things differently. There are a lot of very complicated rules on German word order (time manner place, animate/inanimate and so on).


These rules have many exceptions and context can ask for something completely different, so it is probably better to speak of guide lines and general tendencies. If these rules may be of limited use, how could you get a feel for the appropriate word oder. I have tried to give an impression of an important difference between English and German: the placement of informational weight. There is also the freer grammar of constituent placement, but I think this is covered much more in other places.

There is a major difference in the placement of informational weight between English and German. Both agree to place old information before new information. The most important new information follows in English right after, while lesser important information is placed towards the end. German puts the most important information at the very end. This accounts for many differences in sentence structures. If 1 is the most important (new) information, 2 the second most important (kown) information and so on with less important new stuff, the word order will differ like this:

English: 2 1 3 or longer: 2 1 3 4 5 6

German: 2 3 1 or longer: 2 6 5 4 3 1

Also German is more flexible in word order. English always has to follow the pattern: subject verb object (with few exceptions) If you want to put something else at the beginning, it will become disconnected from the sentence and separated by a comma. Adverb, subject verb object. for example Slowly, he ate his banana. German simply moves the subject behind the verb: Adverb verb subject object. Langsam er eine Banane. German can move constituents (sentence elements) around quite freely provided the verb stays the 2nd constituent in a main sentence (not the second word, as constituents can comprise of a lot of words). However, since the verb contains all the action and tends to be important, there are many ways to move the verb information to the end.

The Germans have an inhuman way of cutting up their verbs. Now a verb has a hard time enough of it in this world when it's all together. It's downright inhuman to split it up. But that's just what those Germans do. They take part of a verb and put it down here, like a stake, and they take the other part of it and put it away over yonder like another stake, and between these two limits they just shovel in German. - Mark Twain's Speeches, "Disappearance of Literature"

Separable prefixes. An important part of the verb gets chopped off moved to the end and you will only know the true meaning once you reached this end. vorstellen - introduce; stellen - put.

Ich stelle euch heute einen neuen Mitschüler vor. I am introducing a new student to you today. (also: 3rd important: new student/neuer Mitschüler; least important: today/heute; euch is a pronoun and counts as established old information)

Compound tenses and passive modes move the informative part of the verb, the participle (gesehen), to the end.

Ich habe dich gestern in der Schule gesehen. I have seen you at school yesterday. (also: more important: school/Schule; least important: yesterday/gestern; pronouns like dich are usually part of old established or obvious information so they move towards the left.)

subordinate side sentences. The verb moves to the end.

Ich glaube, dass ich dich gestern in der Schule gesehen habe. I believe, that I saw you at school yesterday.

Whenever the literary German dives into a sentence, that is the last you are going to see of him till he emerges on the other side of his Atlantic with his verb in his mouth. - A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, Mark Twain

March 27, 2014



Wow, that's interesting! I'm a German native, and I'm really lucky to just be able to speak German, although I don't even know all of these complicated theoretical rules :-). I think I would become desperate. I've never been interested very much in grammar all along my school time. Now, about 25 years later, I'm trying to learn French with duolingo, and grammar is really getting exciting for me. Day after day I have new insights into language rules not only for French but also for English (I'm doing French for English speakers, as French for German isn't ready yet), and even for my own mother language German!


I think when you're young it's easier to learn languages conversationally and just work out grammar subconsciously, which is why it's taught that way, but when you're older you find it easier to learn from a framework of rules i.e. grammar. Certainly for me with a more mathematically orientated mind it find it easier to learn about the rules and then how my ever-growing vocab fits into these rules.


I actually started studying German at around 25 out of necessity. At first I just enjoyed the very different sound of it, but the more I learn the more I am surprised by the nature of the language. I had previously just assumed most languages are more or less the same, but with different words and some quirks, but German introduced me to the concept of grammar by turning my idea of it upside down. The rhythm of it is just so refreshingly different. I feel like the language is a time capsule of what English might have been similar to if it had not been so massively influenced by French. I mean I can take an English sentence, pass it through my internal German filter, and get something that sounds like Chaucer. It makes me wonder if there is any real reason why we must speak English exactly the way we do, when if we are really honest, we all just make up the rules ourselves anyway.


I remember having to learn Shakespeare by heart in an American school, which was quite hard because of the unfamiliar vocabulary. My friendly class mates tried to help and explain things to me that they found strange themselves about Elizabethan English. These very things were usually the easiest and most obvious details from my German perspective:

Inflection and the distinction of thou and you. I have, thou hast, he/she/it hath, we/you/they have

Where does not mean the same as wherefore. (wo, wofür) Translating this back to German makes is clear that it doesn't exactly mean why (warum), either. So, "Wherefore art thou Romeo?" is actually closer to "Whatfore are you Romeo?" (for what purpose not for what reason)

Here is something on word order in Shakespeare's writing:


Some more peculiarities are not so far from German. Here, is one that seems perfectly natural. Using she instead of her:

Yes, you may have seen Cassio and she together. (Well, it's accusative, not dative.)



Some useful videos on sentence sctructure; it's a series of videos on syntax (she's got loads of other videos too!)







Up to part 6 now on the syntax section and I think there is more to come.


She is amazing! Fun to watch, and she knows her stuff. I watched those linked videos and found them very helpful, albeit somewhat jargon-filled. Learned some new lingo, so that's something. xD I plan to watch more of them.



Looking at the video I notice that I forgot to mention a common way to move the important information of the verb to the very end: modal verbs + infinitives. The modal verb expresses the relation of the subject to the action: können, sollen, dürfen, mögen, müssen, wollen and similarly wissen. (can, should, may, like, must, want and similarly know). The modal verb takes the 2nd position in a main clause and is conjugated (finite verb). The action is expressed by the second infinitive verb which takes the last position (the spot for the most important information a German sentence has to offer.)

Er kann viele traditionelle koreanische Gerichte kochen. modal finite verb kann infinitive kochen. He can cook many traditional Korean dishes.

Sie soll jeden Tag Deutsch üben. She should pratice German daily.

Er darf heute nicht mehr fernsehen. He is not allowed to watch any more TV today.

A peculiar thing about modal verbs is, that they do not have the -t ending in 3rd person singular. In English the normal 3rd person singular -s ending is also missing.

Er fährt. Er kann- fahren. He drives. He can- drive.

The reason for this is that modal verbs are related to the past tense of similar verbs, but that is another story. können/kennen

Whenever there are two verbs in the same clause one will take the end position. Oftentimes you have to use a "zu", when you are not dealing with modal verbs or verbs of perception.

Ich warte nur noch darauf allein zu sterben. I am only waiting to die alone.

verbs of perception:

Ich sehe ihn oft im Garten schlafen. I see him sleep in the garden often. (This structure has a special name: Accusative and infinitive)


Thanks for that.
And it reminds me to ask: was there a dedicated lesson in the tree for word order? I have studied the rules, but I could use some thorough drill work.
Did I miss something.


I don't recall a lesson in the tree for word order. I'd sure like to see it if there were!


The way I understand duolingo - it is learning by doing - no unnecessary grammar ;)

You didn't learn you mother tongue with lots of grammar, did you? Alas - sometimes it would be nice to understand - or even know of - the rules ... The new art of learning languages (Rosetta Stone, livemocha, duolingo etc.) is immersion or as close as ... copying the first language learning process of your live ...

The more linguistic approach is rather "old (Latin) school" - invented for those smart students in European schools - much like the monks and priests learned it in the middle ages and even before that ...


Thanks for this. Bookmarked.


Thanks! This was a very interesting read and quite enjoyable as well :)


Take a Lingot, my good man. :D


You learn all sorts about your own language when learning another, because most of the time you just don't think about it.

For instance, something that dropped my jaw a few weeks ago, is the order of adjectives in English:

Opinion Size Age Shape Colour Origin Material Purpose


So: Ugly big old circular red french plastic decorative plate

Is right

But: Ugly big circular old red french plastic decorative plate

Just sounds really wrong.


Somehow "decorative plastic plate" sounds as good or a bit better than "plastic decorative plate" but that's probably because "plastic plate" is so common a phrase, much more common than "decorative plate" to the point that plastic plate is almost a noun like ice cream is. And "big old" just has to go together - as you note. There's a rule about commas being used to separate adjectives but that's another issue - it keeps one from thinking one adjective might modify another adjective rather than the noun. "red, china plate" versus "Red China plate"; but some style books press for commas to separate all adjectives in a list of adjectives. Though hyphens come into play for that sort of disambiguation as well. It can be hard to express oneself clearly in English. How did Shakespeare do it and get rhymes and iambic pentameter?


oh yeah, that gets a lingot


„Mitnichten hat die Nase meiner Wirtin, deren Name Eulalia, Eulalia, wie Sie die Güte, sich zu erinnern hatten, lautet, geblutet, aber mich hatte morgens die Polizei, da ein Fahrrad, das ein Mann, der eine graue Jacke, die vielfach geflickt war, trug, fuhr, mit einem Auto, das auf der Straße, die über die Geleise, die vom Bahnhof, der unmittelbar bei meiner Wohnung liegt, kommen, führt, entlangkam, zusammenstieß, gebeten, meine Beobachtungen als Zeuge zu Protokoll zu geben.“ - Die Abenteuer des Werner Holt, Dieter Noll

I cannot see any inhumane in this. That's how we roll! Like that car. Colliding with people. They see us rolling. They hatin. Okay, I'll stop already.

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