What general rules can describe the word order in German sentences? I know the basic ones, but I feel confused every time I’ve got to build anything more complex than
Ich tue etwas
It would be great to create something like a cheat sheet here.
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There aren’t many. It is important to keep the finite verb in second position of a main clause (and in last position of a subordinate clause). If the verb is in any way composite, i.e. one of the following:
Then the second part of the verb needs to be last; the two form the Verbklammer.
In front of the Verbklammer you usually place the part of the sentence that has most emphasis — if you’re trying to build a sentence with little emphasis, it’s often but not always the subject you want to put here.
Inside the Verbklammer you put everything else except for a few exceptions (that can be found on canoo.net). The order is basically free, although some orders are more natural than others.
The orders that are more natural follow rules such as:
None of these rules are in any way strict, and no sentence you can build with the correct verb positions is essentially wrong. Some will just sound more natural and less emphasised than others. Which ones depends on the parts of the sentence itself, so unfortunately you’re on your own. Good luck.