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I heard an interesting thing today: we were doing an exercise with Dative verbs and had the sentence:

Ich schenke meiner Schwester einen Hut.

So the word order is: Subject, Verb, Dative Obj, Acc. Obj. The exercise was using pronouns for the Acc Obj though. When a pronoun was involved, the sentence was:

Ich schenke ihn meiner Schwester.

So, by adding a pronoun, we changed the order to Subject, Verb, Acc, Dative. My teacher also noted that if there were two pronouns, it will be the same order, so:

Ich schenke ihn ihr.

I thought about it and I think it's actually the same in English: The same order applies for Accusative and Dative.

I'm giving my sister the hat.

I'm giving it to my sister.

I'm giving it to her.

Can someone explain this word order rule (why it is switching because of pronouns) and maybe some more examples of this?

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The details of German word order are somewhat complex. First, note that the word order is not fixed; there's is something like natural word order, and if you deviate from that order, parts of the sentence get emphasized (usually the first and/or last part that deviates).

There are several rules that apply to your examples:

  • Basic rule: dative before accusative:

Ich schenke meiner Schwester einen Hut.

  • Pronouns before known information (definite article, demonstrative article) before unknown information (indefinite or no article):

Ich schenke den/diesen Hut meiner Schwester.
Ich schenke ihn meiner Schwester.
Ich schenke ihn dieser Frau.
Ich schenke dieser Frau einen Hut.
Ich schenke ihr einen Hut. Ich schenke ihr diesen Hut.

  • If both objects represent known information or both represent unknown information, the basic rule applies.

Ich schenke der Frau den Hut. Ich schenke dieser Frau diesen Hut.

  • Special case: If both the dative and the accusative objects are pronouns, then accusative before dative:

Ich schenke ihn ihr.

You can make up any number of examples from these rules. It's not so surprising that English uses similar rules as German; after all, English and German developed from a common ancestor (even if English lost most case endings).

I don't know the reason for the reversal when both objects are pronouns; I'd be interested in any explanation, too.

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    The reason why "ihn ihr" is more idiomatic than "ihr ihn" is that the information about "who gets it" is usually more relevant and more "new" in these kind of sentences. The direct object generally has a very close connection to the verb. That's why it comes after the Dative if in "full" form. As an non-emphasized pronoun like "er" or "es" however, it is basically not new information to us since the verb kind of "contains" it. If, for some reason, the focus is on the thing we would say "ihr IHN". Similarly you'd switch the order again, if you were to use... – Emanuel Nov 24 '14 at 22:16
  • ... a demonstrative pronoun. "Ich gebe ihr diesen." The reason is that the "diesen" gives the direct object more significance. A direct object in normal pronoun form has very little significance. A Dative object in pronoun form has a little more. A direct object in demonstrative form a bit more again, almost as much as a "full" object ("Ich gebe diesen meinem Bruder/meinem Bruder diesen" - both work). Whatever is more significant comes later – Emanuel Nov 24 '14 at 22:18
  • @Emanuel: That leaves the question open why the normal order is dative before accusative without pronouns, because the relevance of the information doesn't change (as long as both objects are of same "strength", e.g. both pronouns, both objects with definite article, etc.). – dirkt Nov 25 '14 at 9:45
  • that is because the direct object is more relevant to the verb than is the indirect one. At least in German. YOu can skip the indirect object more easily and still hve a natural sounding sentence "Ich stehle (dir) einen Stift", "Ich sage (dir) etwas"... the direct object is closely connected to the action, so if it is news (a newly introduced noun), then it is the most relevant part of the sentence. If it is not news however, but just a pronoun, then it's not very interesting BECAUSE it is so connected. We know it's gonna come and we know what it is and we don't emphasize it.... – Emanuel Nov 25 '14 at 11:37
  • Try with "Ich koche meiner Freundin eine Suppe". By default Suppe is certainly more relevant to "kochen" then the person I do it for. "Ich koche sie meiner Freundin". Now Suppe is already established (Thema) and Freundin is news (Rhema). "Ich koche sie ihr". Both are un-emphazised pronouns but "ihr" is more relevant simply because "sie" is so taken for granted here. "Ich koche ihr eine". Now we've used a more distinguished pronoun and bam, it's more relevant again. I'm probably not making much sense but it's clear in my mind :) – Emanuel Nov 25 '14 at 11:41

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