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Why is the word order in this sentence is this way:

Wir bringen den Stuhl zur Schwester.

I was learning on duolingo and I came across this sentence which has a word order different than all the other similar sentence in the same lesson but I dont understand why. Why is it not

Wir bringen der Schwester den Stuhl.

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    Google translate says Schwester is "nurse" in this case. I'm thinking first because it's odd to say "the sister" in English; it would normally be "my sister" or "your sister" etc. Second, because "nurse" is Krankenschwester in German, which could be shortened to Schwester if context is clear. The takeaway here is don't automatically assume Duo's example sentences are idiomatic in German or English (as I learned when I was taking their course). – RDBury Dec 7 '20 at 17:06
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    This is not a different word order. These are different sentences. – RHa Dec 7 '20 at 18:58
  • Most importantly, these different sentences are both in neutral/natural order, as explained in the answer by David Vogt. The distinction is not that obvious if you look at it from an english perspective where dative objects and directions of motion are both indicated using "to". In German, the first sentence explains you where the chair is moved to, and the second sentence explains who receives the chair. Even if this might often mean the same thing in practice, it's a significant grammatical difference. – Michael Karcher Dec 8 '20 at 7:21
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The anwer guidot gave, already stated that “there is no single word order in German”, and that's why it is so important that the flexion endings clarify the relation.

The emphasis part seems not quite correct to me. As it is usually hard to understand emphasis from telling “the rules” alone, here two realistic Q&A examples to help you understand:

Q: Wohin bringen wir den Stuhl? A: Wir bringen den Stuhl zur Schwester.

Q: Was bringen wir der Schwester? A: Wir bringen der Schwester den Stuhl.

From my perspective, the emphasis in both answers lies on the end. Typically beginnings and endings of things we observe over time get the most attention. In the Q&A examples shown above, the emphasis is placed on that part of the sentence that answers the question.

There is also a difference in meaning between der (Wem?) and zu der (=zur, Wohin?), that I try to explain with two alternative answer sentences with the emphasis in the beginning of the answer:

Q: Wem bringen wir den Stuhl? A: Der Schwester bringen wir den Stuhl.

Q: Was bringen wir zur Schwester? A: Den Stuhl bringen wir zur Schwester.

In all four answer sentences the emphasis is given to that part that isn't already known from the question.

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I assume that the problem is that, while the sentences feel roughly synonymous, the word order is different. The interesting part of the sentences is the one I put in square brackets, the so-called Mittelfeld (Wikipedia).

Wir haben [ den Stuhl zur Schwester ] gebracht.

Wir haben [ der Schwester den Stuhl ] gebracht.

While it is true that German word order in the Mittelfeld is somewhat flexible, there is almost always a neutral word order. In the given instance, both sentences are in neutral order and the difference between the two has absolutely nothing to do with emphasis.

Rather, the difference is grammatical: der Schwester is a dative object, whereas zur Schwester is a prepositional phrase specifying a direction. The two rules that guide word order in these sentences are:

  • Prepositional phrases specifying a direction occur on the right edge of the Mittelfeld

  • Dative objects precede accusative objects (for nouns)

It we introduce some additional rules, we can have some new variations:

  • Accusative objects precede dative objects (for pronouns)

  • Pronouns before nouns, at the left edge of the Mittelfeld

Wir haben [ ihn ihr ] gebracht. (ihn=den Stuhl, ihr=der Schwester)
Wir haben [ ihn der Schwester ] gebracht.
Wir haben [ ihr den Stuhl ] gebracht.

Some further reading regarding the subject of word order is provided by Dartmouth College.

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    I'm also thinking that the zu in German, since it's not really needed grammatically, emphasizes direction. In contrast "to", since it has the grammatical purpose of telling you who is to receive the chair, puts less emphasis on direction. So Wir bringen den Stuhl zur Schwester could well be translated as "We bring the chair over to the sister." (See my other comment, "the sister" is just strange in English, unless you're talking about a nun.) – RDBury Dec 7 '20 at 18:50
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    PS. In my experience, Duo will generally only accept the neutral order (or natural order as I know it) as correct. As a learner I think it's best to learn the natural order and use it all the time, just know that if you see a sentence in a different order then it's for emphasis and not necessarily wrong. – RDBury Dec 7 '20 at 19:00
  • Interesting read, although I don't see a Mittelfeld in the two sentences in question. Is there a relation? Also, what is the "neutral word order" you are writing about? Can you give me a reading tip for this, ideally in German? – Wolf Dec 8 '20 at 9:17
  • @Wolf Das Mittelfeld ist durch die eckigen Klammern markiert. Was neutral oder normal in Bezug auf die Wortstellung bedeuten soll, wird oft nicht explizit gesagt; ich meine damit unmarkiert. Zum Fachbegriff der Markiertheit kurz oder etwas länger (davon insbesondere Abschnitt 5 und dort das Beispiel 23). – David Vogt Dec 8 '20 at 12:03
  • @DavidVogt sorry, ein Missverständnis: Das Mittelfeld in deinen Beispielen zu erkennen, ist nicht mein Problem, und das Thema ist ohne jeden Zweifel interessant. Ich habe nur eben Schwierigkeiten, den Bezug zur Ausgangsfrage herzustellen, da ich in den beiden aufgeführten Sätzen kein Mittelfeld finde (kenne mich damit aber auch überhaupt nicht aus). In jedem Fall: Danke für die Lesetipps! – Wolf Dec 8 '20 at 23:21
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There is no single order in German.

Both sentences are possible, depending on what was talked about earlier. (I would guess, that this is more likely to be Schwester, so the second example is then more appropriate, since it mentions Schwester early giving it more emphasis.)

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There is basically one "constant" in German. The second position of the sentence must be occupied by a verb (bringen, in this case).

Otherwise, the order of the sentence is flexible. Example:

  1. Wir bringen den Stuhl zur Schwester.
  2. Wir bringen zur Schwester den Stuhl.
  3. Den Stuhl bringen wir zur Schwester.
  4. Zur Schwester bringen wir den Stuhl.

The noun modifier endings do the rest of the word. "Den" is accusative and makes Stuhl the direct object. "Zur" is dative, and makes Schwester the indirect object. Wir is the subject. Because of these facts, the order of these items doesn't matter.

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