Main Clauses – Declarative Sentences in German Grammar

Introduction

Main clauses, also called independent clauses or declarative sentences (Hauptsätze/Aussagesätze in German), are clauses that can stand alone as a complete sentence. At a minimum, they include a subject, a verb, and an object and express a complete thought.

Learn everything you need to know about word order in main clauses with Lingolia’s online lesson. In the exercises, you can practise what you have learnt.

Word Order in German Sentences

Simple declarative sentences in German grammar can follow the same pattern as declarative sentences in English grammar: subject – verb – object. However, because the four cases allow us to see if a noun or pronoun is being used as a subject or an object, we can change the word order of sentences in German to emphasise different things.

Example

The dog catches the ball. vs. The ball catches the dog.

In German, we can change the word order of a sentence without changing the meaning.

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

= The dog catches the ball.

In English, we can’t change the word order because it would change the meaning of the sentence:

The ball catches the dog.

= Der Ball fängt den Hund.

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Basic Rules

The basic rules for word order are:

  • The finite verb is always in the second position of a sentence.
  • Infinite verb forms such as infinitives or past participles 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 such as the object, the place, or the time can be at the beginning of the sentence. In this is the case, the subject comes after the finite verb.

The following format is the correct order for sentence construction in most cases:

1st positionfinite
verb
subjectindirect
object
timeplacedirect
object
infinite
verb
subject Der Lehrer hat dem
Schüler
gestern in der
Schule
den Test zurück-
gegeben.
ind. object Dem Schüler hat der
Lehrer
gestern in der
Schule
den Test zurück-
gegeben.
dir. object Den Test hat der
Lehrer
dem
Schüler
gestern in der
Schule
zurück-
gegeben.
time Gestern hat der
Lehrer
dem
Schüler
in der
Schule
den Test zurück-
gegeben.
place In der Schule hat der
Lehrer
dem
Schüler
gestern den Test zurück-
gegeben.

But don’t forget:

When 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

In texts and written German, it’s important to connect sentences to each other according to their content. Therefore, the part of the sentences that creates this relationship goes 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 is already known or 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. After all, pronouns replace nouns that have already been mentioned or are 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, it must always come after the time and place. Remember that we use the indefinite article (ein...) to mentioning something for the first time i.e. 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. To really emphasise one of these parts of the sentence, put 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:

When the indirect object is a pronoun, it 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.)

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

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