The position of verbs in German, like many other aspects of learning German, can be confusing...
The good news for you is that German sentence structure follows clear rules. And the position of verbs is one of the simplest concepts in German grammar.
I've always said that one of the great benefits of learning German is its logic (which it also shares in large part with English).
In this post, you'll see the logic of the German language in action when it comes to where the verb is located in German.
You'll learn exactly where to put German verbs in a number of situations, including the "dreaded" verb at the end. Don't worry, it's not that frightening.
1. Normal word order: the verb comes second
With few exceptions, the verb comes second in German main sentences.
Let's look at a few examples where the verb comes second. I've highlighted the verbs so you can distinguish them from the other parts of the sentence.
Ich laufe heute mit dem Hund um den Park.
Montags gehen wir immer in den Supermarkt.
Klaus kauft ein Brötchen in der Bäckerei.
2. How to ask questions in German
For beginner students, German sentences seem to have an almost identical structure to English sentences.
However, a few additional rules come into play when we start changing certain elements.
For example, when asking a question, the verb comes first.
Laufe ich heute mit dem Hund um den Park?
Gehen wir ins Kino?
Kauft Klaus ein Brötchen in der Bäckerei?
3. Dealing with two verbs
Two verbs in one sentence
When you have two verbs in a German sentence, put the conjugated verb in the second position and the unconjugated verb at the end of the sentence.
Wichtig - A conjugated verb is a verb that changes to indicate gender, tense, number, person, or other aspects of the sentence. For example, in English, "learned" is a conjugated form of the verb "to learn," indicating time that has passed.
Let's look at the following examples:
Ich möchte mit dem Hund um den Park laufen.
Montags können wir immer in den Supermarkt gehen.
Klaus hat ein Brötchen in der Bäckerei gekauft.
4. Simplification of separable prefixes
Some verbs in German have a prefix in themselves. In this case, it is usually a preposition.
A prefix is a short word that is added to the start of a word. In English, for example, "un" is a prefix that is added to certain words to change their meaning: glücklich => unglücklich" "happy" => "unhappy".
When a verb has a separable prefix, the prefix is placed at the end of the sentence. This is what happens with the verbs einkaufen and anfangen, both of which are examples of verbs with separable prefixes.
Ich kaufe morgen Kuchen und Getränke ein. Ich habe gestern Kuchen und Getränke eingekauft.
Klaus muss sein Auto verkaufen. Klaus hat sein Auto verkauft.
Conjunctions are these little words that you use to connect two parts of a sentence. "Und," "denn," and "sondern" are all examples of conjunctions in English.
There are certain German conjunctions that require a change in word order. Let's start with the simplest case: German conjunctions that do not change word order.
#1: German conjunctions that do not change word order: Coordinating conjunctions
und - and
denn - because
aber - but
oder - or
sondern - but (in a contradiction)
These types of conjunctions are "coordinating conjunctions". After this type of conjunction, sentences have the same word order of subject, verb, and object.
Klaus muss sein Auto verkaufen, denn er benötigt dringend Geld.
Klaus muss sein Auto verkaufen, aber er findet keinen Käufer.
#2: German conjunctions that change the word order: Subordinating conjunctions
After subordinating conjunctions, the first verb is moved to the end of the sentence.
Some of the most commonly used subordinating conjunctions are:
als – when (with past tenses)
als ob – as if
bevor – before
bis – until
da – as, because
damit – so that, in order that
dass – that
nachdem – after, afterwards
ob – whether, if
obwohl – although
seitdem – since
so dass – so that
während – while
weil – because
wenn – when (with present tense), if
Here are some examples in context so that you can see what these conjunctions do to verbs:
Klaus muss sein Auto verkaufen, wenn er nicht bald eine neue Arbeit findet.
Klaus weiß noch nicht, dass er in den Tagen ein Jobangebot bekommen wird.
6. And finally, the verb comes last.
Although the basic rule is that the verb comes second in German, there are many cases where the verb comes last. For example, you've already seen how subordinating conjunctions can put verbs at the end of a very long sentence.
But there are a few other cases where the verb comes last.
Let's look at 2 examples: how modal verbs and relative clauses affect the order of verbs.
Modal verbs are auxiliary verbs, meaning they can only be used to modify another verb, not as a verb in their own right.
Müssen (have to)
When using a modal verb in a sentence, the second verb is converted to the infinitive form and placed at the end of the sentence.
Converting the verb to infinitive form and moving it to the end of the sentence may feel strange at first. But with some practice and exposure to the German language, it becomes much easier.
Let's look at the following examples:
Paul möchte heute nicht in die Schule gehen.
Caroline will heute ein Eis essen.
Heute Mittag kann ich dich anrufen, aber ich muss jetzt arbeiten.
As you can see, the modal verb is always conjugated, while the second verb takes the infinitive form.
When you ask questions, the modal verb comes first.
Möchtest du auch einen Kaffee trinken?
Darf man hier rauchen?
Relative clauses, or subordinate clauses, also send the verbs to the end of the sentence.
Relative clauses are parts of a sentence that can be omitted without changing the meaning of the sentence. In English, they begin with "who", "what", or "that". For example, in the sentence "The man I saw on the street was very tall," the relative clause is "whom I saw on the street."
When there are multiple verbs in a sentence, the first verb is placed at the end of the sentence.
Let's look at a few examples.
Henry, der in Dublin wohnt, ist unser neuer Deutschlehrer.
Das ist das Buch, das ich momentan lese. In diesem Buch geht es um einen Mann, der im Wald lebt.
7. Time, manner, place
German verbs come either second or last in the sentence. You have seen how you can emphasize different elements of a sentence by changing word order.
You also learned when to put verbs at the end of a sentence to make some room for prepositional phrases and temporal adverbs.
But there's another important aspect to remember about German sentences.
When faced with various adverbs that need to be placed within a sentence, we always follow the time, manner, place rule.
Time adverbs come first (gestern, morgen, ...)
Adverbs describing the way something happens come second (schnell, wütend, ...)
and finally the place (am Bahnhof, zu Hause, ...)
Take a look at these examples:
Der Mann ging gestern wütend von der Arbeit nach Hause.
Gerstern ging der Mann wütend von der Arbeit nach Hause.
Verb position in German: Simplified
In most cases, German sentences follow the structure subject, verb, object. Just like in English. Here is a brief summary of verb positions and why they change.
The German language allows for flexibility, so you can change your sentence structure to emphasize certain words. Just remember that the verb must remain in the second or last position. And adverbs must follow the format of time, manner, and place.
If you follow this logic, you'll be creating German-sounding sentences with all the verbs in the right place in no time. With the right strategy, you can learn tricky grammar points and improve your fluency.
Quick tip! When you read or listen to German, pay attention to the placement of the verbs and relate them to what you learned in this post. The more input you get, the more natural and intuitive these rules will feel to you.
By the way, if you're looking for an easy way to get the input you need to clarify German grammar, such as the position of verbs, have a look here!