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I am facing these two sentences:

Dann geht er ins Wohnzimmer.

The word order is: Verb, subject, … Clearly, the sentence is not a question.

The other sentence is:

Er macht den Fernseher an.

The word order is: Subject, verb, …

I want to know:

  • What is the difference between these 2 structures?
  • Which one is more popular?
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  • Sorry, but dann is not a verb. Whence the "most popular", and only valid, in indicative, would be verb at the second position. – c.p. May 3 '15 at 15:16
  • so please provide more information over the role of dann here. It seems we cannot omit this word without damaging the meanning of sentence? – Jimmy May 3 '15 at 15:21
  • Related: german.stackexchange.com/questions/612/… – Carsten S May 3 '15 at 17:10
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Though it is true that certain types of word order may be more frequent than others in any language, to include German, it is important to keep in mind that choices in word order can be made for several different reasons. Focusing on which word order is more popular may not convey what is truly intended. For example, sometimes conventions in grammatical structures require a certain word order; at other times, word order is changed for the purpose of emphasis.

However, the 'standard' word order (what you'll learn in school first) is: S-P-O (Subject-Predicate-Object)

Er geht ins Wohnzimmer.
Er macht den Fernseher an.

If you use main clauses only and don't wish to add any emphasis on any particular element of the sentence, you would use this word order only.

Er geht ins Wohnzimmer. Er macht den Fernseher an. Er setzt sich hin. Er schaltet um. Er schläft ein.

This is, obviously, not very thrilling. You can use conjunctions like dann (an adverbial conjunction, btw) to create a kind of connection between the actions. In this case, German grammar requires you to swap word order to P-S-O.

Erst geht er ins Wohnzimmer. Dann macht er den Fernseher an. Anschließend setzt er sich hin. Nach einiger Zeit schalter er um. Letztlich schläft er ein.

Still, this wouldn't be very sophisticated German, but it's a first step toward it.

Anyway, this is the reason why you're seeing a different word order in your sentence. There's no 'more popular' word order. You wouldn't use an adverbial conjunction in each and every sentence even if you could still maintain the S-P-O word order by moving that conjunction into the middle of the sentence.

Er geht erst ins Wohnzimmer. Er macht dann den Fernseher an.

The important things you have to remember:

  1. In a main clause, the verb goes into position 2.
  2. In a subordinate clause, the verb goes to the end.
  3. In a question, the verb is in the first position (or second, if preceded by a question word).
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  • But as always, there are exceptions: If the main clause is introduced by a conjunction, then the subject still remains before the verb. Und ich gehe ins Bad, denn ich will mir die Zähne putzen. – Jan May 3 '15 at 20:30
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    @Jan Yeah, the legendary position 0 for co-ordinating conjunctions. Good for me that I wasn't writing a full essay on this topic :) – Em1 May 3 '15 at 20:39
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    I quote: "If you use main clauses only and wouldn't add any emphasis, you would use this word-order only."... this myth just won't go away. "Gestern wurde dort ein Bild gestohlen.". This is the normal order, other orders would create a strong emphasis. Subject is way behind the verb. Another example: "gestern war ein schöner Tag." Subject is after the verb and switching it around with "gestern" would create lots of emphasis. Having the subject after the verb does NOT automatically indicate special emphasis. It may well be the least emphasized version. – Emanuel May 3 '15 at 23:15
  • Also, PSO is a myth that leads to plenty of follow up questions by the learner. I can give you examples if you want. I understand you're trying to have your answer be understandable for beginners but I think it's much more beneficial to just have them forget about schemes like SVO or TeKaMoLo or PSO right away. – Emanuel May 3 '15 at 23:17
  • Oh and also... you cannot move a conjunction to the midfield. That's what makes a conjunction to begin with. What you move (here: "dann") is an adverb. – Emanuel May 3 '15 at 23:18
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To expand on Em1’s answer because I was bored, I did a word order count of one random long post of an Austrian on this site known for his long and detailed answers. I only counted main clauses.

The ‘standard’ subject-verb sentence, where subject is first, verb is second and I didn’t care what followed then, (SV_) occurred 23 times (including two sub-headers).

Pulling an adverbial, an apposition, or something else into first position, with verb following second (AdvVS_) occurred 8 times.

An object was pulled before the verb (OVS) 3 times.

A relative or otherwise subordinate clause occupied the first position two times, forcing ScVSO.

On one occasion, I noticed VSO outside of a question, although that is probably debatable and what I saw was truly a conditional subordinate clause. (Wird […], kann […] or something like that.)

Finally, having a conjunction in zero-position (ConjSV_) happened a mere 4 times.

So excluding the VSO special case, in 58 % of all cases the word order is subject — verb — object, which is what is taught at school and the expected word order most of the time. One could add the 10 % of cases where SVO is preceded by a conjunction.

In 32 % of cases, the word order is something — verb — subject, i.e. something was pulled into first position to emphasize it, which requires moving the subject to a position after the verb. (Some sentences didn’t include a subject in this construction. However, I didn’t include that into my considerations because I didn’t count the expletive sometimes present in SVO sentences either.)

But it’s much better to say that 90 % of all main clauses had the verb in second position, no matter what preceded it. The 10 % were the aforementioned zero-position conjunctions (Aber es gibt Ausnahmen).


68 % of the sentences in the sample had SVO, but 90 % followed V2 (meaning it didn't matter what preceded the verb, as long as there was something).

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First of all, in German the position of the subject matters less than the position of the verb, because the latter is usually fixed while the former can move almost freely (however, e.g., not in questions). In both of your sentences, the verb is in the second position:

[Dann] geht [er] [ins Wohnzimmer].

[Er] macht [den Fernseher] an.

In a usual statement without special emphasis on a specific aspect, the subject would be in first position.

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The most important difference between main and subordinate clauses in German is the position of the verbs. In a main clause (an independent sentence that can stand on its own feet), the conjugated verb is second and the main verb, if there is one, is at the end. By contrast, in a subordinate clause (a dependent sentence that provides additional information), the verbs are at the end with the conjugated verb being last. Of course, there are several different subordinate clauses in German, which make the whole thing more complicated. I therefore explain German word order in greater detail on my blog.

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