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This website presents a very good explanation of the verbal idea and it's effect on word order in German:

However, there are not so many contrastive examples; the best is the difference between

Ich fahre gerne Auto, and
Ich fahre dieses Auto gern.

It would be a great aid to the intuition if you could suggest more such contrastive examples. I think the biggest hurdle for non-native speakers is when the verb complement is not a verb (particularly 1c, 1d, and 1f in the website above).

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For the most part this is indeed a nice source but you should not take that too strictly In their example "Er liest ein Buch mit seinen Kindern." they claim that "mit seinen Kindern" has the same level of "connectedness" than does Schach in "Ich spiele Schach". This is just wrong. I would actually switch positions of heute and the children and call that the default. – Emanuel Feb 22 '13 at 9:45
The reference is confusing mainly because of so many errors they have. In the example of reading a book the verbal concept in fact is "ein Buch lesen", and not "mit seinen Kindern lesen" because if it was the latter we would say "Er liest mit seinen Kindern ein Buch". Also "Der Mann hat den Hund gebissen" does not translate to "The dog bit the man". There are many more... – Takkat Feb 22 '13 at 12:16
On that Dartmouth page, they say "word order is a complex aspect of language, never wholly mastered by non-native speakers". Very true. But as Takkat says, unfortunately the page could have used a proofreader. I find this UTexas page more helpful. +1 for the question, it's a big and important topic! – Eugene Seidel Feb 23 '13 at 11:47
Should I make a more specific request to stimulate answers? Like 'give examples that don't fit into such and such a form'? – Brian Feb 28 '13 at 1:19

The point with your example is "Auto" means two totally different things in each of your examples:

In the first example it means 'you like to drive a car' in more general context like 'I like to drive in cars in general (even on the back seat)'

The second example means 'You like to drive this car.'

Another example would be:

Ich esse gerne Nudeln.

Translates: I like pasta - "gerne" is then related to "essen".

Ich esse diese Nudeln gerne.

Translates: I love this pasta (in front of me) - "gerne" now differentiates all pasta on the planet into two sets, the first set are pasta I do not like and the second set are pasta I really enjoy eating. We here are talking about the second set and that the pasta in front of me belong to that set.

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