What is the place of a verb in a German sentence? How should it be constructed correctly? Can the word order be changed? Let’s find it out!
The German language has already been the source of a lot of students’ pens, pencils, keyboards, iPhones and laptops getting broken. For some it is incredibly complicated, for others it is quite simple. One thing is absolutely clear; there are things in German that are completely mind-blowing.
And, woe betide us, there are things which all sorts of examiners and test compilers like to throw in the rudder. Well, you should know your enemy by sight, so let us start the analysis of German difficulties, with such a seemingly easy topic, as the place of the verb in a German sentence.
Take a simple sentence:
|Ich||kaufe||ein||I do my shopping|
|1. position||2. position||End of sentence|
Here we have the subject in the 1. position, the verb in 2. position, and its separable prefix at the end of the sentence. If another verb appears in the second position, then the prefix ‘ein’ is ‘attached’ to its primary verb:
|Ich gehe einkaufen||I go shopping|
It is the same if the other verb is a modal verb or a future conjunctive verb werden:
|I||want/||can/||would like/||should/||will/||do the shopping.|
Note, however, that verbs other than modal verbs usually require the particle ‘zu’ before the second, in our case the verb ‘einkaufen’:
|I||am trying||to shop||today.|
Apart from versuchen, these verbs are, for example, brauchen, bevorzugen, beabsichtigen. If we use the construction ‘einkaufen gehen’, then zu will ‘stick’ to the second of these verbs:
- Ich versuche heute einkaufen zu gehen.
Of course, the first position doesn’t have to be the subject, you can start the sentence with anything – but the verb will still be in the second position and in the last position!
- Heute versuche ich einkaufen zu gehen.
With the past and future tenses it is easy – the second position will have the verb conjunction haben/werden, and the main verb at the end.
- Ich habe heute Morgen schon eingekauft. → I have already done my shopping this morning.
- Ich werde später für uns beide einkaufen. → I will do the shopping for both of us later.
There can be as many other descriptions, clarifications, and anything else between the verb in the 2nd position and the verb at the end of the sentence as you like. The main verb is still at the end!
- Ich habe heute Morgen wegen des geplanten Abendessens bei den Eltern meiner Frau auf dem Weg nach Hause bei Lidl für 50 Euro eingekauft. → This morning, on my way home, I shopped for 50 euros at Lidl for a planned dinner with my wife’s parents.
But note that in the case of the verb versuchen and others similar to him+ zu, it will not be it, but “einzukaufen” at the end of the sentence!
- Ich habe heute Morgen schon versucht einzukaufen. → I have already tried to do my shopping this morning.
We recommend you read our article about 180 German verbs you should know!
Finally, special subtleties arise when modal verbs are used in the past tense. You can, of course, just say:
- Ich sollte einkaufen. → I had to do my shopping.
But if we want to add a slight tinge of sadness to this sentence for something not done, then instead of the simple infinitive ‘einkaufen’, we should use the perfective!
- Ich sollte mein Essen eingekauft haben. → I should have bought some food.
In this way, we have the subjunctive mood (“if only, but if only…”). It can also be expressed in a slightly different way, using the verb hätten and the modal verb at the end. Don’t forget that the modal verb will not change, so it is like you have two infinitives at the end:
- Ich hätte heute einkaufen sollen. → I should have done my shopping.
Another example, the same sentence construction principle, but this time without any subjunctive mood – just the past tense with a modal verb:
- Ich habe meine Frau einkaufen lassen. → I let my wife do the shopping.
And, of course, don’t forget a little thing like comparison. The person with whom you are comparing is even behind the verb at the very end of the sentence:
- Ich kann besser einkaufen als sie. → I shop better than she does.
So far, all of this has only applied to the simple sentence. But what about verbs when you can’t fit a thought into a tight space and need a complex sentence? Just look at the conjunctions!
1. If the conjunctive conjunction is aber, denn, und, sondern, oder, you have just two simple sentences, and the word order is the same as above. The conjunction itself is has no effect on anything.
- Ich kann besser einkaufen, aber sie kann viel besser kochen. → I shop better, but she can cook much better.
2. The second case is the compound conjunctions deshalb, deswegen, darum, daher, dafür, dazu (“therefore”). They are at the beginning of a dependend cause and occupy the 1st position.
- Ich gehe einkaufen, deshalb brauche ich Geld. → I am going shopping, so I need money.
3. Finally, all the other conjunctions are almost all compound conjunctions. There are a great many of them. Here are the most common: weil, obwohl, da, dass, warum, ob, wenn, während, seitdem, als, solange, sobald, bevor, danach, nachdem and many others. They all change the direct word order of a dependend cause into the so-called “reverse” word order, with all verbs at the end, the last one being the one that performs the grammatical function.
- Ich gehe einkaufen, obwohl der Kühlschrank noch voll ist. → I go shopping, even though the fridge is still full.
- Meine Freundin hat Fußball geguckt, während ich einkaufen war. → My girlfriend was watching football while I went shopping.
It’s not complicated, but there are a few tricks. If you have a modal verb in the perfective case, your word order will be as follows:
- Ich bin heute gar nicht rausgegangen, obwohl ich noch vormittags hätte einkaufen sollen. → I have not left the house once today, even though I should have gone to the shop earlier in the day.
So even though the verb hätten has a grammatical function, it comes first, not last!
By the way, what happens if you swap the sentences in the example above? No big deal, it’s just that the entire adjective sentence will take the 1st position and the main sentence will start with the verb:
- Obwohl ich noch vormittags hätte einkaufen sollen, bin ich heute gar nicht rausgegangen.
And lastly, a paired conjunction that needs to be dealt with separately. Je… desto… (than…, that…). Here, you just have to remember: in the first case, the verb is at the end and in the second, the verb is in its usual second place. See:
- Je mehr man isst, desto öfter kauft man ein. → The more you eat, the more you shop.