What is a Sentence?
Subject / Objects
Word Order


What is a Sentence?

A sentence has a subject (an implied one, at least) and a verb and expresses a complete thought.



In German, the verb is the dictator of the German sentence. It provides the major structure of the sentence or the torso that determines what can be added. The verb says how many nouns are required in the sentence. For instance, let's think about the verb eat. For eat to occur in real life, there are certain roles that must be filled. There must be someone or something that eats, i.e. an eater. But that is not enough. We can have an eater, but eat won't happen until there is something or someone to be eaten. These are the minimum roles that must be filled whenever eat is the verb.

Now look at the verb, give. When giving takes place, there is someone giving someone or something to someone else. In other words, there are three roles required to be filled by the verb give: a giver, a given, and a givee.

Notice that all the different ways of saying give (donate, present, send, hand, throw, mail, pass, etc.) have the same basic pattern as giver, given, givee. These patterns converge with the concept of case structure in German. The giver and eater forms are in the nominative case. The eaten and given forms are in the accusative case. The givee is in the dative case.

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Subject / Objects

Case is very important and gives German flexibility in word order that English doesn't have. That is primarily because we recognize what role the noun is playing by the form (nominative, accusative, or dative) and so aren't tied to position. Take a look at the two English sentences: "The dog bites the man" and "The man bites the dog." Both sentences have exactly the same words. The only difference is the position of "dog" and "man." The position tells us who is doing the biting and who is bitten. Not so in the German sentence: "Der Hund bei§t den Mann" and "Den Mann bei§t der Hund." In both of these sentences the dog (der Hund) is doing the biting. To change who is doing the biting, we have to change the case of the noun. "Den Mann" would have to become "der Mann" and "der Hund" would have to become "den Hund" for the man to be biting the dog.

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Word Order

German uses word order differently than English. Because English has lost most of the different case forms for nouns, we are more limited in the positions we can use. But German has some set positions:


  • When the conjugated verb (the form with the endings that agree with the subject) is in first position in the sentence, then the sentence is either a command or a yes/no question.
  • In second place, the verb indicates that the sentence is a statement or an information question.
  • In last place, the verb indicates that the sentence is a clause and is dependent on a second sentence for its meaning. A subordinating conjunction usually signals this (wenn, als, ob, obwohl, etc.).


  • Genitives usually follow the noun they are connecting.
  • When the dative and accusative objects are both nouns: dative first, then accusative.
  • When the dative and accusative objects are both prounouns: accusative first, then dative.
  • When one object is a noun and one a pronoun: pronoun goes first.

Other elements:

  • After the conjugated verb and objects, other elements are placed in order of time (first), manner (second), and place (third).
  • The first position in the German sentence can be occupied by just about any element: subject (normal word order) or direct object, indirect object, prepositional phrase, adverb, and even a whole clause (these take inverted word order which means the subject goes in third place after the conjugated verb).

    Exercise 14: Word Order


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Copyright 2001 Margaret Eskew and Angela Carr
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of the Department of Germanic and Slavic Studies