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Today I asked the following question on the office chat:

Kann jemand mir helfen?

And someone corrected me, telling me I should write it like this:

Kann mir jemand helfen?

I was pretty sure that the order for an interrogative question was:

Verb + Subject + All the rest

but the way I was corrected does not seem to follow this formula.

Have I been wrong all this time? Or is there maybe special cases in which the common order is altered?

  • Kann mir jemand helfen feels more natural and correct, but I cannot exactly tell you why (or the exact grammatical reasons for it). – urbanhusky Aug 9 '16 at 8:12
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    Which is my answer for almost every question posted here :-) – Mawg says reinstate Monica Aug 9 '16 at 13:02
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    I would say "Kann jemand mir helfen" if there are people around who should help instead of standing around and I start getting annoyed with them. Like something heavy needs moving at work, and really people should volunteer to help without being asked, but they don't. It's like "Kann mir jemand helfen" = "I need some help". "Kann jemand mir helfen" = "Somebody should get up and help me". – gnasher729 Aug 9 '16 at 14:41
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The secret is: Pronoun before noun

Kann Peter Klaus helfen?

Normal word order. Peter is subject, Klaus is object, so Peter helps Klaus.

Kannst du Klaus helfen?

Still normal word order. Technically pronoun before noun applies, but it doesn't matter anyway. Du is subject, Klaus is object, so you help Klaus.

Kannst du ihm helfen?

And again normal word order. As both subject and object are pronouns, everything's fine. Du is subject, ihm is object, so you help him.

Kann Peter ihm helfen?
Kann ihm Peter helfen?

The more natural word order is the latter one. Peter is subject, but the object usually precedes the subject in that case as the pronoun goes before the noun.

And consequently:

Kann mir jemand helfen?

is better than

Kann jemand mir helfen?

which isn't that wrong, though. But be aware that in some cases it feels quite awkward, and in other cases people wouldn't even notice. You may need to develop a certain language feel, I guess.

Important note: This is a tendency, not a strict rule.


As you probably know, jemand is an indefinit pronoun, but the rule / tendency mentioned above refers to personal pronoun. So,

Kann Peter jemandem helfen?

is correct, but

Kann jemandem Peter helfen?

is not.

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  • I see. I was confused at the Kannst du ihm helfen? but in that case, both are pronouns, so I guess in that case, normal rule applies. Thanks! – Enrique Moreno Tent Aug 9 '16 at 8:18
  • Exactly, I've updated my answer to reflect that in the post. – Em1 Aug 9 '16 at 8:31
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    "Kann Peter ihm helfen?" and "Kann ihm Peter helfen?" are both perfectly fine but also show the difference in word order. In the first one Peter may help someone. In the second one a third person may ask this question to find out if Peter is capable of helping somebody. – Aron_dc Aug 9 '16 at 9:55
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    I would say this is also a matter of emphasis: "Kann mir jemand helfen?" = emphasis on "jemand" = "Is there any person around who is able to help me?". "Kann jemand mir helfen?" = emphasis on "mir" = "Is it actually possible for me to get help with this task or is it something I must do alone?" But I agree it is a very weak difference and I could see either phrasing be used in either situation. – Philipp Aug 9 '16 at 12:33
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    @SeldomNeedy This tendency applies always. – Em1 Aug 10 '16 at 6:10
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Both are correct, but they carry a slightly different emphasis:

Kann mir jemand helfen?

This is the common ordering, and means: "Can anyone help me?"

Kann jemand mir helfen?

By reversing the ordering, an emphasis is put on "mir". This would mean: "Can anyone help me?" with clear emphasis on "me".

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2

Being a native speaker, I can't acknowledge this rule "pronoun before noun", at least not in the context here.

Kann deinem Vater jemand helfen?

Kann jemand deinem Vater helfen?

... is both equally fine. The point is rather that very short and inconsiderable words are preferred to be in the first place; these are typically pronouns, but certainly not personal pronouns only, cf.

Kann dem jemand helfen?

(dem = that one, demonstrative pronoun)

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  • Well, there's more than just "pronoun before noun" (which is kind of a variation of "short before long"). There's "old before new", "definite before indefinite" and "animate before inanimate" (does not apply in this context). Furthermore, as mentioned in comments, there's yet another important factor: emphasis. There are a lot of reasons why you can move either one into the second position. As mentioned in my answer, this is not a rule but a tendency. And when you don't put any emphasis on either word or have any other specific reason, you will implictly apply "pronoun before noun". – Em1 Aug 9 '16 at 12:51

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