Main Clauses

Introduction

Main clauses are clauses that can stand alone as a complete sentence. Usually they include at minimum a subject, a verb, and an object.

Thanks to the cases, we can generally tell if a noun or pronoun is being used as a subject or an object in a sentence. That’s why we can put the object at the beginning of a sentence in German as well. This gives us more options when we’re creating a text. In fact, it sounds unpleasant and boring if every sentence in a German text begins with the subject.

Example

The dog catches the ball.

In German, there are several possibilities for the word order of this sentence:

Der Hund fängt den Ball.
Den Ball fängt der Hund.

We can’t change the word order in English, however, because then we would be saying:

The ball catches the dog.

Der Ball fängt den Hund.

Basic Rules

The basic rules we should remember are:

  • The finite verb is always in the second position in a sentence.
  • Infinite verb forms (infinitive, past participle) are placed at the end of the sentence.
  • In many cases, the subject is at the beginning of the sentence. However, in German, other parts of the sentence (e. g. the object, the place, or the time) can be at the beginning of the sentence. If this is the case, the subject comes after the finite verb.

In most cases, the following format is correct for sentence construction:

1st positionfinite
verb
subjectindirect
object
timeplacedirect
object
infinite
verb
subjectDer Lehrerhat dem
Schüler
gesternin der
Schule
den Testzurück-
gegeben.
ind. objectDem Schülerhatder
Lehrer
gesternin der
Schule
den Testzurück-
gegeben.
dir. objectDen Testhatder
Lehrer
dem
Schüler
gesternin der
Schule
zurück-
gegeben.
timeGesternhatder
Lehrer
dem
Schüler
in der
Schule
den Testzurück-
gegeben.
placeIn der Schulehatder
Lehrer
dem
Schüler
gestern den Testzurück-
gegeben.

But don’t forget:

If the direct object is a pronoun, it comes before the indirect object.

Example:
den Test = ihn
Der Lehrer hat ihn dem Schüler gestern in der Schule zurückgegeben.The teacher gave it back to the pupil yesterday at school.

For Advanced Learners

Besides the basic rules, there are many more possibilities for how to arrange the parts of a sentence in German.

Relationship Between Sentences

When we write a text, we try to relate the sentences to each other according to their content. Therefore, we often put the section of the sentence that creates this relationship in the first position.

Example:
Wir waren gestern im Museum. Dort war es sehr voll.Yesterday we were at the museum. There, it was very full.

Old Before New

Something that we already know, or that is assumed to be known, is placed closer to the beginning of a sentence. Unknown or new information is put further towards the end of the sentence.

For this reason, when the direct object is a pronoun, it comes before the indirect object (for example). After all, pronouns replace a noun that has already been mentioned or is assumed to be known.

Example:
Der Lehrer hat ihn (den Test) ihm (dem Schüler) gestern in der Schule zurückgegeben.The teacher gave it (the test) back to him (the pupil) yesterday at school.

If the direct object is being used with an indefinite article, however, it must always come after the time and place. After all, we use the indefinite article (ein...) when we’re mentioning something for the first time (something new).

Example:
Der Lehrer hat dem Schüler gestern in der Schule einen Test zurückgegeben.The teacher gave the pupil back a test yesterday at school.

Emphasis at the End of the Sentence

The indirect object, time, and place are interchangeable. If we want to particularly emphasise one of these parts of the sentence, we can place it after the direct object.

Example:
In der Schule hat der Lehrer gestern den Test einem Schüler zurückgegeben.At school yesterday, the teacher gave the test back to a pupil.
Der Lehrer hat dem Schüler den Test gestern in der Schule zurückgegeben.The teacher gave the test back to a pupil yesterday at school.

But don’t forget:

As a pronoun, the indirect object can’t change positions.

Example:
Der Lehrer hat ihm (dem Schüler) gestern in der Schule den Test zurückgegeben.
(not: Der Lehrer hat gestern in der Schule den Test ihm zurückgegeben.)

Only in certain cases – for particular emphasis, and ideally only in spoken language – can time come after place. In written language it usually looks wrong, because German almost always puts time before place.

Example:
Der Lehrer hat dem Schüler in der Schule den Test gestern zurückgegeben.

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