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Generally, it's said that in German word order is inverted (subject is not at the 1st position) for emphasis. I saw once, that the inversion can also be used for cohesion. I still struggle to understand the typical motivation for the inversion.

Belarusian (Russian, and other Slav languages) also has cases which enables word order inversion. If these were Belarusian sentences I would interpret inversion in the following sentences thusly:

Heute fahren wir nach Köln.

We communicate the plan for today. As if we answer the question "Where are we going to do today?"

In der Stadt kaufen wir ein.

We clarify the reason for being in the city. As if we answer the question "Why did we come to the city?"

Does the same logic work in German?

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    Frankly, people who say that German verb order is "inverted" don't have a clue. It's not inverted, it's verb-second (in statements). The term "inversion" only creates confusion. Please, Please, PLEASE avoid it. Thank you.
    – RHa
    Mar 2, 2021 at 21:22
  • @RHa -- You're right but I've seen this terminology used in grammars so I don't think it's going away soon. Specifically, subject first is called "normal" and anything else first is called "inverted".
    – RDBury
    Mar 3, 2021 at 1:25

1 Answer 1

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Inversion is the wrong term.

English is a SVO language (subject - verb - object(s)), but German is not. German is a V2 language (verb at position 2). So, there is nothing to invert. Anything (but the verb) is allowed at position 1 in German statements, so having something else than the subject at position 1 is not an inversion. It is just one of many possibilities.

But still the subject is the most commonly used part of speech at position 1, but anything else is allowed too. All the sentences shown here are correct, and none of them is more special than the others:

Wir fahren heute nach Köln.
Heute fahren wir nach Köln.
Nach Köln fahren wir heute.

Wir kaufen in der Stadt ein.
In der Stadt kaufen wir ein.

Jürgen pflanzte gestern trotz der großen Hitze einen Baum in Irenes Garten.
Gestern pflanzte Jürgen trotz der großen Hitze einen Baum in Irenes Garten.
Trotz der großen Hitze pflanzte Jürgen gestern einen Baum in Irenes Garten.
Einen Baum pflanzte Jürgen gestern trotz der großen Hitze in Irenes Garten.
In Irenes Garten pflanzte Jürgen gestern trotz der großen Hitze einen Baum.

Note, that in the second sentence the word »ein« is the prefix of the separable word »einkaufen«, and in sentences where separable verbs must be splited, this prefix always is the last word in the sentence.

But you are right: Putting a specific part of speech onto position 1 sets a highlight on it. It is a method to direct the listeners attention to this part of speech.

But again: It is not an inversion. It is normal German grammar, so nothing irregular is going on here. And the effect of emphasizing a word by puting it on position 1 is much weaker than you might expect.


The rule "verb at position 2" holds only for statements. It is invalid for closed questions, commands, jokes and subjunctive clauses.

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  • Thanks for answering! Sorry for an inappropriate terminology. I am aware, that in German having something else but the subject at the 1st position is fine. I still struggle to figure out, why a speaker would want to place one phrase at the beginning, but not another. So when I read "Nach Köln fahren wir heute." I conclude that trip to Cologne has been already an known plan, and the new information here is "heute" - when we go there. So we start from the known and introduce the new closer to the end. Is it how it typically works in a German sentence?
    – Alexey
    Mar 2, 2021 at 22:13
  • I've heard that the first position is used as a "topic marker" in German. So if the first word is Heute then the topic of the sentence is today's activities. The subject, being the protagonist, is often the topic as well, explaining why it's in the first position so often.
    – RDBury
    Mar 3, 2021 at 1:37
  • @Alexey -- In Nach Köln fahren wir heute, heute is forced to be last once you've chosen Nach Köln to go first. I think putting Nach Köln first means that most of the emphasis is on it, as if the true meaning is "It's to Cologne, in case you wanted to know where we're going today." The subject wir pretty much always goes next to the verb, so if not before then immediately after. That leaves only the last spot for heute. In general though, if you can do so without violating one of the other rules and customs then you'd put new information near the end of the sentence.
    – RDBury
    Mar 3, 2021 at 1:50

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