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While learning German, I came across something that really boggles the mind—my mind. While practising German on the Duolingo app, I noticed that German sentence structure is similar to that of English, i.e. VO structure. Like this sentence, for example:

Mein Bruder spielt manchmal Klavier.


And what's with the position of the adverb? Do adverbs always come after the verbs?


But when I searched German's sentence structure on internet, the Wikipedia showed that the sentence structure is actually OV.

The main difference that sets apart German sentence structure from that of English is that German is an OV (Object-Verb) language, whereas English is a VO (verb-object) language.

Who should I believe in this case? If there is something very obvious about this question, and because of that this questions seems stupid, then I am sorry. As I said, I am still new.

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    Typologists will say SVO because they see it as the unmarked main clause order and generative grammarians will say SOV because they see it as the base or underlying order.
    – David Vogt
    Jun 21 at 7:17
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    I don’t want to sound mean, but if you also read the second sentence on the Wikipedia page, it already relativises the statement.
    – Carsten S
    Jun 21 at 10:38
  • The sentence itself doesn't really make sense. In what sense is German an OV language when it's primarily a V2 language (where anything can precede the verb, as long as something does.)
    – chepner
    Jun 21 at 18:57
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    The finite verb in second position is an extra rule of the German main clause. All other predicate verbs in the main clause, and all predicate verbs in non-main clauses stick to the end. Even the separable prefixes stick to the end, and nicht and other adverbs explaining the predicate may end up lonely at the end in a main clause. Because the finite verb was moved from its default position at the end to second position.
    – Janka
    Jun 22 at 21:45
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English is a SVO language.
SVO means: Subject, Verb, Object(s) in exactly this order.

But English is the only Germanic language with this word order. German and all other Germanic languages (Dutch, Afrikaans, Yiddish, Swedish, Danish, Norwegian and many others) are V2 languages.
V2 means: Verb at position 2.

SVO is a more strict subtype of V2.

In German the subject can be almost everywhere in the sentence, and at position 1 can be really everything (except the verb).

So, all these sentences are correct German sentences and they are used by German native speakers:

  1. Mein Bruder spielt manchmal Klavier.
  2. Manchmal spielt mein Bruder Klavier.
  3. Klavier spielt mein Bruder manchmal.
  4. Klavier spielt manchmal mein Bruder.

Example #2 also answers your question: Since everything can be at position 1, also an adverb can be there, which means, it can come before the verb.

Note also, that only the inflected verb stands at position 2. German sentences always contain a main verb and very often also an auxiliary verb (haben, sein, werden) and sometimes also a modal verb (dürfen, können, mögen, müssen, sollen, wollen). Only one of them will be inflected, and this inflected verb stands at position 2. All other verbs stand at the end of the sentence.

Morgen wird Barbara sicher nicht mit ihrem Bruder in seinem hässlichen und rostigen Auto schon um 8 Uhr morgens in die Hauptstadt fahren wollen.
Tomorrow Barbara will certainly not want to drive to the capital city with her brother in his ugly and rusty car already at 8 o'clock in the morning.

There are 3 verbs in this sentence (marked bold). But only one of them (»wird«, a form of the auxiliary verb »werden«) is inflected to match with the subject in number (singular) and person (3rd person). And only this inflected verb stands at position 2. All other verbs stand at the end.

Also note, that German has separable verbs. These are verbs that consists of two parts: The prefix and the main part. There are thousands of these verbs. What makes them special is, that this prefix can be split off from the main part and then stands at the very end of the sentence.

Here is an example: einschlafen = to fall asleep

Futur I: Jürgen wird einschlafen.
Jürgen will fall asleep.
Präsens: Jürgen schläft ein.
Jürgen falls asleep.

With some more parts in the sentence:

Jürgen schläft, soweit mir das bekannt ist, denn ich weiß das auch nur aus Erzählungen, an Freitagen und Samstagen niemals vor 22 Uhr ein.
Jürgen never falls asleep before 10 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, as far as I know, because I also only know this from stories.

In this sentence the two "words" »schläft« and »ein« in fact are two parts of one word (a verb). So, also in this sentence only the inflected part of the verb stands at position 2, anything else that is a verb or belongs to a verb is at the end.


Also note, like mentioned in some comments, this word order is only valid for statements.

In closed questions (requesting a yes/no-answer) the inflected verb stands at position 1.

Spielt dein Bruder manchmal Klavier?

Also in commands

Spielen Sie Klavier!

And in subordinate clauses all verbs (including the inflected verb) stand at the end of the sentence.

Ich habe gehört, dass dein Bruder manchmal Klavier spielt.

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    I'd add that V2 works for main clauses in declarative sentences, but questions and commands use V1 (verb first), and subordinate clauses use VL (verb last). Since studying German I've become very skeptical of linguistic terminology; it seems to work for English, and other languages if you don't examine it too closely, but it's not much help in terms of learning the actual grammar of an actual language like German. My thinking is, first forget everything you know about subject-predicate, SVO, etc., then you can start learning German grammar.
    – RDBury
    Jun 21 at 11:56
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    Nice self-reference in the sentence „at position 1 can be really everything“. That‘s what a V2 language feels like — though it doesn‘t feel right in English because — English is a SVO language :-)
    – wra
    Jun 21 at 20:44
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    Maybe a note is in order that the 4 example while all valid have different emphasis or require different context to be used by a native speaker. The 4th for example sounds really weird on its own but it could be a legit answer to "Wer spielt diese Instrumente" (Who is playing these instruments?) Jun 22 at 6:41
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    @RDBury "sceptical of linguistic terminology" - Speakers with a native-English background typically use a simplified terminology that fits the somewhat simpler structure of the English language, but may not fit others. (see direct/indirect object, or the thing at hand here). Don't forget everything about grammar, but admit your toolset is maybe too limited for the language you learn and must be extended.
    – tofro
    Jun 22 at 6:56
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    @tofro What you wrote sounds very condescending. The assumption that English has a "simpler" structure than German has no basis in fact (linguists don't rank languages by complexity, and people that think that English is "simple" usually just don't know a lot about it). Terminology becomes simplified for the sake of convenience and because people are lazy; this holds for all languages equally. For instance, Hubert did not bother to look up what V2 means in linguistics, which leads him to make a wrong assertion in the third paragraph.
    – David Vogt
    Jun 22 at 8:41
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In main clauses, German uses V2 (the verb is on second position), and that means VO most of the time.

German (V2 -> VO): Julia ruft den Hund.
English (VO): Julia calls the dog.
Latin (OV): Iulia canem vocat.

However, thanks to the declined articles and cases that German has, it is more flexible, and you can use a different word order to emphasize parts of the sentence, as long as you stick to V2:

Den Hund ruft Julia.
Dem Hund gibt Julia einen Knochen. (Julia gives a bone to the dog.)
Einen Knochen gibt Julia dem Hund.

In subordinate clauses though, the finite verb goes to the last place and you get OV:

Ich hoffe, dass Julia den Hund füttert. (I hope that Julia feeds the dog.)

Therefore I don't agree to the quote from Wikipedia that German is an OV language. It uses V2 in main clauses and OV in subordinate clauses.

Adverbs can go to different positions, too, depending on whether you want to stress them. In standard order, as you noticed, they come after the verb in main clauses, so it's different from the English order.

Julia ruft laut den Hund.
Laut ruft Julia den Hund. (Note that the V2 rule also counts the adverb here.)
Julia ruft den Hund laut.
Ich höre, dass Julia laut den Hund ruft.

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    In main clauses […], and that means VO most of the time. […] Therefore I don't agree to the quote from Wikipedia that German is an OV language: It might seem paradox, but in research it is widely accepted that main clauses are basically a big exception from an otherwise quite strict OV system in German. Even if main clauses made up 99,999 % of output in German, that wouldn't say much about its systematics. We have OV not only in subclauses, but in most constructions (zu-infinitives, participle constructions and not least the right verbal bracket), albeit they're less frequent than main cl. Jun 22 at 11:58
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As the others have already pointed out, German is often analyzed as being a V2 language. However, there are reasons why some grammarians analyze it as an OV language. The main reason is that in infinite clauses, German has OV order:

  1. ein Bild sehen
  2. einen Baum pflanzen
  3. ein Lied singen

A VO language like English has the exact opposite order:

  1. to see a picture
  2. to plant a tree
  3. to sing a song

In some flavours of grammatical theory, the OV order as seen in infinite clauses is the underlying order for all German sentences, and the V2 order is just a surface form derived from it.

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  • There is empirical evidence for this assertion as well: Some studies looked at the first language acquisition and found that the OV structure (imagine a fragment uttered by young children like Apfel essen for Ich möchte einen Apfel essen) is learned first. Therefore OV is partly considered more basic than VO/V2 for German (compare: would an English child say apple eat for I want to eat an apple? That's the difference we are talking about.) Jun 23 at 18:39
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I agree with Hubert Schölnast and HalvarF but I'd like to add something that hasn't been mentioned yet:

As long as the V2 rule is followed, you can put the pieces of a sentence in almost any order you like. There are, however a few exceptions:

• The accusative object and the predicative go after the subject if they can't be told apart otherwise.
• The first piece of the sentence is usually something you want to put emphasis on.
• Some ordering options sound strange and should be avoided.

For instance:
• „Den Hund ruft laut Julia.“ sounds wrong
• „Den Hund ruft Julia laut.“ means something like “Julia is calling the dog loudly but she lowers her voice when she calls other pets”.

There are also sentence ordering options that would only be used regionally. For instance „Bereits liegt in der Schweiz Schnee.“ would be normal in Switzerland but not in Germany.

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    Don't agree with "should be avoided" - There's reasons why you can use uncommon word order, and there's contexts where uncommon word order makes perfect sense. Some of your examples do indeed sound wring without, but may be perfectly OK in a proper context.
    – tofro
    Jun 22 at 6:51

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