The 8 Most Important Sentence Structures in German in 8 Minutes

The 8 Most
Important Sentence Structures in German in 8 Minutes

Is the German verb in the right position? Are you kidding me? Putting the German Verb in the right position is a challenge for many German language learners. Sometimes in second place, sometimes at the end of a sentence, sometimes at the beginning – the position of the German verb depends on whether you are using a basic sentence structure or a complex one. Also, things change when you move into the past.  Spend 8 minutes to really understand how the German verb works in a sentence.

Three basic sentence structures when you learn German

German verbs like to jump around. Even though the verb always comes in second place in a basic sentence, there are some situations in which the verb, or part of the verb, moves to the end of a sentence. Two very common situations include separable verbs (Trennbare Verben), and modal verbs (Modalverben). In total, there are three basic sentence structures for you to understand.

First, a basic German sentence (Hauptsatz) is very predictable. The verb is in the second position:

Ich wohnein Vienna und ich liebe es.

live in Vienna and I love it.

As you might have figured out already, whenever you deal with verbs, there is no way around conjugating them. Every verb has a verb stem and a verb ending. For example in wohnen, the stem is wohn, and the verb ending is -en, which leaves you with Ich wohnein Wien  (stem wohn + -e for first person singular). In a regular verb, the verb stem always stays the same; only the ending changes. That means you need to recognize the verb stem and add the right verb ending, depending on whether you are using ich, du, er/sie/es, wir, ihr, or sie. A wonderful free online tool for conjugating is Reverso. By the way, there are also irregular verbs, whose stem changes, but that’s another story.

This article focuses on verb position, and so far we have seen that, unless you have a good reason not to, you always put the verb in second place. This also holds true for the many sentences that start with an adverb (Leider, Glücklicherweise, Hoffentlich, Morgen, Vielleicht, …), such as:

Hoffentlich scheint morgen die Sonne!
Hopefully, the sun shines tomorrow!

The second basic sentence structure you will encounter when you learn German features the separable verb. Here, things start to move around. You will find that separable verbs have the nasty habit of frequently splitting. In the case of anziehen, ausschalten or einsteigen, this leaves you with  constructions like “ziehe…an” (anziehen, take off), “schalte…aus” (ausschalten, switch off) or “steige…ein” (einsteigen, get on):

Ich steige in die U-bahn ein. get on the underground.

Er ruftseine Freundin an. He calls his girlfriend.

There you go. I split the prefix from the infinitive, conjugated the word stem and popped the prefix right to the very end – you can do it too! Try to create two sentences with aufstehen and einkaufen!

Third, and to complete our basic sentence trilogy,  the modal verb appears: müssen, dürfen, können, sollen, wollen, möchten. The modal verb usually comes in the second position in an affirmative sentence and requires another verb in an infinitive at the very end. It’s always the same, no surprises. Modal verb second position, infinitive at the end.

Jetzt kannst du die Basis der Deutschen Grammatik verstehen! Gut gemacht!

Now you can understand the basis of German grammar! Well done!

Learn German and realize: Sentences are complex but not complicated

So far you have learned about the verb position in basic sentence structures, including basic sentences with normal verbs, separable verbs, and modal verbs. In all three cases, the verb comes in second place. In the case of the separable verbs, the prefix (e.g. ab-, an-, auf-, aus-, ein-, los-, mit-, vor-, weg-, zurück-, zusammen) moves to the end. In the case of the modal verb, you usually also need another verb (always in the infinitive) at the end, whilst the modal stays in second. Ready for more?

In total, there are three complex sentence structures for you to understand. If you have encountered words such as aber (but), denn (because), damit (in order to), obwohl (although), während (while), schließlich (finally) or trotzdem (nevertheless), you know that their job is to link ideas. If you have been struggling with where to put the verb in such sentences and earn the satisfied smile of your handsome German teacher, then this is your section.

Understand that there are three categories of linking words: The Konjunktionen (We call them Hauptsatz starters), the Subjunktionen (We call them Nebensatz starters), and, thirdly, the so-called Konjunktionaladverbien (We call them linking adverbs because their official name is slightly frightening).

The first category, the Hauptsatz starters, include und, aber, oder, and denn. These Hauptsatz starters, as their name aptly describes, initiate a Hauptsatz. They themselves take position 0, followed y the subject and the verb in the second position.

Ich bin glücklich, denn ich wohne in Wien. I am happy, because I live in Vienna.

The second category, the Nebensatz starters, encompass a large category of linkers, including als, bevor, bis, da, damit, dass, ob, ehe, falls, indem, nachdem, obwohl, seit, wahrend, weil, and wenn. The trick here is that, whenever you use these, pop the conjugated verb at the end of the sentence. Yes, that’s right! All the way to the end!

Ich wohne in Wien, weil Wien die schönste Stadt der Welt ist.

I live in Wien, because Wien is the most beautiful city in the world.

See? There are no exceptions! That’s what the Nebensatz starters do. They want you to move the verb to the end. Now it’s up to you! Remember them and practice their usage as much as possible, to really make it a habit to put your verb in the last position.

So far we have discussed Hauptsatz and Nebensatz starters. Do you remember how those two are different in terms of verb position? We hope so. If not, take a cold shower before you continue to read. Finally, the last category are the linking adverbs. They account for the largest category of the three types of linkers:

erstens, zweitens, drittens, allerdings, also, andererseits, anschließend, außerdem, dadurch, dafür, dagegen, damit, danach, dann, darauf, darum, davor, dazu, deshalb, deswegen, einerseits, folglich, inzwischen, jedoch, schließlich, seit(dem), später, trotzdem, vorher,..

Here you are returning to the basics. The verb is in the second position. Life can be so simple sometimes.

Darum ist Deutsch gar nicht so schwer, wie manche glauben. This is why German is not as hard, as some believe.

Things change in the past when you learn German

Right. If you have stayed with us until now, we might as well finish together. Don’t tell us that you are excited because we know you are!  Being able to handle German verbs well will bring you total satisfaction. So gather up your last bit of concentration and let’s move into the past!

The past tense in German is not so difficult as long as you keep flexible! Once you have the basic verb morphology figured out, nothing can stop you. Morphology means the formation of a word, or in our case, the formation of a verb. As you have already read in the section on basic sentence structures, every verb has a verb stem. This stem then forms the basis for the two past tenses that exist in the German language: Perfekt and Präteritum.

The main form used in Austrian German to speak about the past is the Perfekt. In order for the Perfekt to come out perfectly, people that learn German basically need to study (=memorize, learn by heart) the Partizip II. What is this Partizip II, anyways? Nothing too surprising: It’s just another verb form that comes in incredibly handy for expressing not only the past but also for forming the Passiv or the Konjunktiv II.

The formation of the Partizip II is a little tricky, but, the good news is that all this brings you back to where you started. It depends on whether you are dealing with a regular, irregular, separable, or modal verb. Congratulations! You’ve come full circle!

Jetzt hast du die wichtigsten Elemente der Deutschen Verbsyntax gelernt. Now you have learnt the most important Elements of German verb syntax.

It takes a while to really be able to use the Perfekt, but it is important to keep building your repertoire from A1 level onwards and keep expanding until C1 level. Always keep in mind that the Perfekt consists of two parts: the auxiliary verb sein or haben and the Partizip II. While the auxiliary comes in second place, like all other basic German verbs, the Partizip II moves to the end.

Er hat den ganzen Tag gearbeitet. He worked all day.

Dann ist er glücklich nach Hause gefahren. Then he drove home happily.

By the way, while you are memorizing Partizip II, you might as well go all the way and include the Präteritum in your study practice from the beginning. The Präteritum, which in Austria is mostly used in written German, blends in nicely into your verb trilogy:

Präsens. Präteritum. Perfekt.

Er geht – Er ging – Er ist gegangen

Sie kommt. Sie kam. Sie ist gekommen

Sie liebt – sie liebte – sie hat geliebt.


Astrid Ollinger

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