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I've been learning German for 3 years now, and I have a huge struggle with two things: cases, and word order/sentence structure.

I've been told and can clearly see that I just think of a sentence in English, and drop the German equivalent of the word into it and use that. Except for basic stuff, like a second verb at the end, yada yada.

I know it's wrong, but I don't know anything else, so I'm stuck.

Should I just do my best and I'll get it eventually, or should I randomly rearrange the words in a semi-logical sense and hope for the best? What do you think? Tips? Tricks?

Thanks in advance.

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    Read, read, read, read! German newspapers, journals, comics, books, what ever you like. Or listen to good German radio stations such as Deutschlandfunk or Deutsche Welle. You need to dive into the language. Then you will get used to the structure of sentences. – Christian Geiselmann Feb 20 at 16:17
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    Watch movies in German language and with German subtitles. This will force you to THINK in German. As long as you don't think in German you never will succeed. I know, my English is not the best. But it would be way worse if I was thinking German and then translate to English before I say or write something in English. If you really want to speak and write in German language, you have to THINK in German. And watching movies or TV shows in German language helps a lot. But don't use English subtitles! Use German subtitles. – Hubert Schölnast Feb 20 at 20:59
  • But don't just read, because then you get the correctly structured sentences before your eyes. You must talk, talk, talk (and write), so you are forced to structure the sentences yourself. IMO, that teaches you much faster and better than the passive "read, read, read". It's like swimming: even if you have seen others do it hundreds of times, you will only learn if you start doing it yourself. Note that I had to learn the language too, even if it was pretty easy for me. – Rudy Velthuis Feb 21 at 12:30
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That's one of the most common mistakes English speakers make, so don't worry, you are not alone. :-)

Unlike English, which has a fixed word order (SVO), German doesn't need a fixed order. Only the position of the verb(s) is fixed. But there's something like a neutral word order, and if you deviate from that word order, parts of the sentence get emphasized (usually the first and/or the last part that is different from neutral word order).

So if you confuse the position of the verb(s), the sentence will look wrong. If you confuse the position of the other parts, it will just sound a bit unnatural if the emphasis doesn't make sense.

Rules for the position of the verb:

  1. In a main clause, the conjugated verb is in second position.
  2. In a subclause, the conjugated verb is in last position. You recognize a subclause by the first word, which is be a subclause conjunction ("weil", "obwohl", ...) or relative pronoun (e.g., "der", "welcher").
  3. Infinitives and participles are stacked at the end of the sentence in reverse order (before the conjugated verb in a subclause).
  4. "Proper" main clause conjunctions ("und", "aber", "denn", ...) can be thought of as being between the sentences or in "zeroth" position and don't count un rule (1). Adverbs used similarly to conjunctions ("deswegen", ...) do count.
  5. A subclause can occupy the first position in a main clause.

I can add examples on request if you need them.

The rules for neutral word order are quite complicated. Here are the three most important ones, which will cover the majority of cases:

  1. Nominative (subject) before dative before accusative.
  2. Time before manner before place. In English, the order is "place before time", so pay attention.
  3. A reflexive pronoun is placed as early as possible, but after the subject.

More rules can be found e.g. here

  • Could you give an example sentence for position of the verb rule 2? I think it's saying that if you were to have a sentence like "..., wiel es ist." The verb is at the end, conjugated. Is that correct? – Alex D Sep 13 '14 at 15:18
  • Example: "Ich gehe in den Park, weil das Wetter schön ist." Or: "Ich gehe dahin, wo ich das schöne Wetter genießen kann." So yes, correct :) – Sir Jane Sep 15 '14 at 12:45
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I think I have two tips.

One:

What helped me most learning English and Dutch was to read literature. Anything German should be of some help to a learner, as long as you keep switching contexts to get as broad an overview as possible. Magazines, newspapers, prose, forums, advertisements... You'll eventually get a feeling for when which word order is made use of, because semantically they are often as good as identical, and as you said, theory can only help you up to a point.

Two:

If you talk to people as a German learner, they often tend to just extract the meaning from your sentence and brush aside any insecurities they hear in your tone of voice (e.g., hesitation or trying out two different word combinations). That's just because many people never actively think about how they use language, I think. However, if you finish your sentence and add a quick question which version would be better in their opinion, you'll most likely get an answer. And don't hesitate to ask several people about the same thing.

  • I agree with the first one: Read and listen to as much German as possible. – Carsten S Sep 17 '14 at 21:14
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    Completely agree. Read as much as you can (if possible, without a dictionary, even if you don't get the fine details at first). What's important is to get used to the flow. – tofro Feb 20 at 14:52
  • I give -1 here, since this is not really an answer to the question. The question is much more specifically asking about word order in german and you are providing hints which are very very general hints on learning practically any language. – jonathan.scholbach Feb 20 at 14:59
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    @jonathan.scholbach Are you trying to claim that German needs entirely different learning strategies than any other language? – tofro Feb 20 at 16:13
  • @tofro I am just claiming that the is answer is not specific to the question. In my humble opinion the answer is just a very generic advice on how to learn any language and this does not provice real help for people looking for an answer to the question. Where to locate this answer on the scale of relevance from totally relevant to totally irrelevant might be a subjective matter, and I do not argue for objectivity of my position. But I always leave an explanation when I give -1 and so I did here. – jonathan.scholbach Feb 21 at 0:15
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You should study the grammar chapter word order in German. But I admit that German word order is quite a hurdle for learners.

  • That won't teach a new speaker a lot. That is theory, and nothing but. That is like learning how to drive a car from reading its specs. Even if you know that chapter by heart, it doesn't mean you will get confident applying it anytime soon (if at all). – Rudy Velthuis Feb 21 at 12:41

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