In Wilhelm Müller's Winterreise, we have the line:

Eine Krähe war mit mir aus der Stadt gezogen.

(This is not the full sentence of the original, but if I'm not mistaken, it is capable of standing alone in this way.)

Now, I mostly understand the word order of this sentence, but I'm not sure about the placement of mit mir before aus der Stadt. This is because in English, I would write the same sentence as

A crow had left the city with me.

Granted, I could also write A crow had, with me, left the city. but this sounds a bit awkward unless I introduce the commas.

Do I also get some flexibility in German? In other words, can I write

Eine Krähe war aus der Stadt mit mir gezogen.

I suspect I can, but I would like some confirmation. If I'm right about then, then are there any cases I should be aware of in which there isn't any flexibility (in terms of the exact placement of the various phrases in the predicate, outside of the verb)? Does the presence of two prepositions here (in particular, aus) change anything?


3 Answers 3


Word order in German sentences is almost entirely free. The main constraint is the verb being in second position (although some conjunctions occupy the zero-position, forcing the verb to an effective third, counting the conjunction) and the Verbklammer to be picked up at the end. Some orders, while possible, are less likely, others add emphasis from minute to humungous amounts, but none is truly wrong (if anything, uncommon).

So it’s possible to say:

Eine Krähe war mit mir aus der Stadt gezogen.
Eine Krähe war aus der Stadt mit mir gezogen.
Mit mir war eine Krähe aus der Stadt gezogen.
Mit mir war aus der Stadt eine Krähe gezogen.
Aus der Stadt war eine Krähe mit mir gezogen.
Aus der Stadt war mit mir eine Krähe gezogen.

But war always needs to be second, and gezogen needs to be last. (Thanks for only having three elements, that reduced the number of permutations.)

The presence of the prepositions does not change anything (but you need to remember to take the prepositions along with the elements they’re prepositioning … like signs in maths). They’re basically just there to tell you what to do with the element when attempting to understand. Further ones can be added and the order still be free.

Am Montag ist eine Krähe mit mir aus der Stadt in den Landkreis aus Langeweile krächzend gezogen.

(Please don’t make me add all the permutations possible in that one!)

Usually (but not always) any element before the finite verb in second position will get a large amount of emphasis. But not necessarily: It often seems ‘more natural’ for an temporal element to be before the verb as in the last example above.

So yes, the word order basically follows Rule 6:

Rule 6: There is no Rule 6!


Well, there is this rule... of course there is a rule for that :)

The ones studying German calls it TE-KA-MO-LO, that describes how the sentence should be built. That first should go temporal part, then causal, then modal (your ex: mit mir) and lastly comes the location describing part (your ex: aus der Stadt). Have a look: http://www.deutschegrammatik20.de/wortposition/wortposition-temporal-kausal-modal-lokal/

I am not German, so can't comment on how to use this in daily language, however for exams you rather use the rule, it is definitely important. However, if you write Poetry.. I guess there is much more flexibility.

But, your flexible sentence is terribly wrong, as the second part of the verb [partizip gezogen] MUST literally go at the end.

  • 1
    German here: The alternate word order is uncommon enough that a reader would notice, and probably assume that the poet used a contrived word order to satisfy meter or rhyme constraints. Commented May 18, 2015 at 14:56
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    +1 for the ordering rule. (NB: It implies that time and location are given in exactly the opposite order compared to English.) The rule is not 100% strict; but some possibilities are definitely ungrammatical, and it is hard to explain what is just more or less unusual (or may be there to stress one of the parts) and what is plain wrong. As an aside, the rule for the verb position isn't 100% strict either, and the previous version of the sentence was acceptable to me, too.
    – chirlu
    Commented May 18, 2015 at 15:39
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    TeKaMoLo is a myth. It is NOT the principle by which German sentences are built. Just to give one of millions of examples. "Ich habe dort mit einem Mann gesprochen." Switch it and the sentence sounds odd. If you want more examples and a closer look at WHY TeKaMoLo sucks check out my blog. yourdailygerman.wordpress.com/2015/01/07/german-word-order
    – Emanuel
    Commented May 18, 2015 at 17:24
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    Yes, the accusative after dative stuff is also a myth. It's not that it's never true but it is merely the outcome of other, deeper mechanics. The sentence with "dort" is not wrong. Very few sentences are wrong because of structure. It is just not the natural order and a student would likely get corrected unless in a specific context. The problem I have with TeKaMoLo is that it is sold to students as if every sentence abides by it safe for a few exceptions here and there. The only part worth something in my opinion is Te before Lo.
    – Emanuel
    Commented May 19, 2015 at 10:35
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    But In my opinion, instead of feeding people a rule that has little to do with the language is not the best approach. Of course you don't have to give a beginner the whole picture all at once but there are other, better simplified rules that help a great deal with ordering stuff PLUS they hold up later on when TeKaMoLo falls apart.
    – Emanuel
    Commented May 19, 2015 at 10:37

As a German mother tongue speaker, the following permutations sound natural to me:

  1. Eine Krähe war mit mir aus der Stadt gezogen.
  2. Mit mir war eine Krähe aus der Stadt gezogen.
  3. Aus der Stadt war eine Krähe mit mir gezogen.
  4. Aus der Stadt war mit mir eine Krähe gezogen.
  5. Aus der Stadt gezogen war mit mir eine Krähe.

The difference seems to be one of topic, i.e. the relationship between the sentence and its context.

(1) is the natural sentence order, the focus being on the crow, and you would expect the next sentences to elaborate on the crow.

(2) stresses the relationship between the crow and the speaker, and you would expect the context to be about the crow and him.

(3) would stress that both crow and speaker left the city, and you would expect the context to be about some common experience with respect to the city, probably with the crow as subject.

(4) is similar to (3), but with more emphasis on the relationship between crow and speaker. You'd expect the context to be about something they have in common, now they left the city.

(5) looks weirdest, but still would be valid German. It stresses the process of leaving the city, and would probably be used connecting a paragraph which speaks about leaving the city as such with a paragraph which speaks about the crow.

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