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I wanted to translate this:

He motioned impatiently for silence.

and said:

Er gab ein Zeichen ungeduldig, um um Ruhe zu bitten.

But I was corrected with:

Er gab ungeduldig ein Zeichen, um um Ruhe zu bitten.

DWDS show other examples only with this word order: https://bit.ly/3HutsJa

But I would have thought that the object of the verb, "ein Zeichen" could be the first element immediately after the verb, with adverbs to follow. Why is this incorrect here?

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    Do you have examples in which the adverb comes after the object?
    – Carsten S
    Commented Feb 2, 2023 at 0:42
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    @CarstenS er gab dem Kind großzügig zwei Bonbons. Also vor dem Akkusativ-Objekt? Commented Feb 2, 2023 at 4:20

2 Answers 2

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It's complicated.

The word order depends on what kind of object it is (accusative object, dative object, genitive object, prepositional object), whether this object is a personal pronoun or a nominal group, and whether the adverbial attribute is an adjective or an adverb.


The object is a personal pronoun

If the object is not a prepositional object, then it can be realized as a personal pronoun. If this is the case, then the personal pronoun comes before the object.

Accusative object = personal pronoun

  • adverbial attribute = adjective

    Maria sah ein Glas Wasser. Sie trank es rasch.
    Ludwig gab ein Zeichen. Er gab es ungeduldig.

  • adverbial attribute = adverb

    Maria sah ein Glas Wasser. Sie trank es gestern.
    Ludwig gab ein Zeichen. Er gab es gern.

Dative object = personal pronoun

  • adverbial attribute = adjective

    Maria sieht ihrer Mutter ähnlich. Maria ähnelt ihr auffallend.
    Bernhard hat den Wettbewerb gewonnen. Der Präsident gratulierte ihm überschwänglich.

  • adverbial attribute = adverb

    Maria sieht ihrer Mutter ähnlich. Maria ähnelt ihr etwas.
    Bernhard hat den Wettbewerb gewonnen. Der Präsident gratulierte ihm gestern.

Genitive object = personal pronoun

  • adverbial attribute = adjective

    Die Toten wurden in der Feuerhalle aufgebahrt. Die Gemeinde gedachte ihrer schweigend.
    Hilfe eilte herbei. Der Verletzte bedurfte ihr dringend.

  • adverbial attribute = adverb

    Die Toten wurden in der Feuerhalle aufgebahrt. Die Gemeinde gedachte ihrer gestern.
    Hilfe eilte herbei. Der Verletzte bedurfte ihr gestern.

A prepositional object cannot be a personal pronoun

A prepositional object consists of a preposition and an inner object. This inner object can be in accusative or dative case (depending on the preposition), and it can be either a nominal group or a personal pronoun. but the preposition always remains. So a prepositional object as a whole thing never can be a personal pronoun.


The object is a nominal group but it's not a dative object

If the object is a nominal group and if it's not in dative case, the adverbial attribute always comes first

Accusative object = nominal group

  • adverbial attribute = adjective

    Maria trank rasch ein Glas Wasser.
    Ludwig gab ungeduldig ein Zeichen.

  • adverbial attribute = adverb

    Maria trank gestern ein Glas Wasser.
    Ludwig gab gern ein Zeichen.

Genitive object = nominal group

  • adverbial attribute = adjective

    Die Gemeinde gedachte schweigend der Toten.
    Der Verletzte bedurfte dringend der Hilfe.

  • adverbial attribute = adverb

    Die Gemeinde gedachte gestern der Toten.
    Der Verletzte bedurfte gestern der Hilfe.

Prepositional object = preposition + nominal group

  • adverbial attribute = adjective

    Der Mann bittet höflich um den Stift.
    Der Lehrer beginnt pünktlich mit dem Unterricht.

  • adverbial attribute = adverb

    Der Mann bittet nochmals um den Stift.
    Der Lehrer beginnt sofort mit dem Unterricht.


The object is a nominal group in dative case

Dative object = nominal group

If the object is a nominal group in dative case, it depends on the kind of the adverbial attribute wether it comes first or last.

  • adverbial attribute = adjective
    The nominal group comes before the adverbial attribute. This is different than for other types of objects.

    Maria ähnelt ihrer Mutter auffallend.
    Der Präsident gratulierte Bernhard überschwänglich.

  • adverbial attribute = adverb

    Maria ähnelt etwas ihrer Mutter.
    Der Präsident gratulierte gestern Bernhard.

But for some verbs the other word order is allowed. (This is general the case if you want to highlight the object. But for some verbs this is more usual than for others):

Maria ähnelt auffallend ihrer Mutter.

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    Finally, someone has effectively summarized all the rules! Thank you for going to the trouble that it took.
    – user44591
    Commented Feb 2, 2023 at 17:03
  • But in some of these cases, the other order works equally well, without much difference: gratulierte Bernhard gestern, ähnelte auffallend ihrer Mutter, gedachte der Toten schweigend. So it's not so clear cut; information structure plays a big role as well. Commented Feb 3, 2023 at 8:03
  • @phipsgabler: It took me many hours to collect example sentences and decide which word order seemed correct. When you do that for many hours, your ability to distinguish a correct sequence from an incorrect one diminishes. But I still think I've come up with a good set of rules. But yes, you're right: there are many more exceptions than just the one example I gave. But I was too tired to find additional rules for these exceptions, and I also think that at some point it becomes pointless to write down any more rules. If you follow these rules, you will not produce any ... Commented Feb 3, 2023 at 10:02
  • ... errors. All existing exceptions are just alternative word sequences that are additionally allowed. The only thing that can happen is that you may not know for sure if a sentence you hear from a native speaker is grammatically incorrect, or if it is just a rare exception that is allowed. But even many native speakers often can't tell the difference. Commented Feb 3, 2023 at 10:02
  • Sure, I'm not critizising you, this is a very well-done collection. I just wanted to add the footnote that these criteria are not as exhaustive or precise as your rules could appear to suggest. Commented Feb 3, 2023 at 11:42
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In a normal German sentence where the subject takes the first position ("Vorfeld"), the basic rule is that known objects and concepts come before new objects. Pronouns are always known and therefore come first. Adverbs, like ungeduldig are also known concepts. Since "ein Zeichen" only enters the stage in this sentence, it is counted as not known. The natural order would thus be

Er gab ungeduldig ein Zeichen.

If we replace "ungeduldig" with "mit großer Ungeduld", we introduce the new object "große Ungeduld". This can be naturally placed behind "ein Zeichen".

Er gab ein Zeichen mit großer Ungeduld.

The same holds if we use "das Zeichen":

Er gab das Zeichen ungeduldig.

Now, the parts can be further ordered. Generally, placing a part further back puts the focus on it.

Er gab das Zeichen ungeduldig.

emphases that he did it ungeduldig, while

Er gab ungeduldig das Zeichen

emphases that he gave the sign. Combining above rules: If you say

Er gab ein Zeichen ungeduldig.

you basically dismiss "er gab ein Zeichen" as known (and irrelevant) and state that only "ungeduldig" is important. That would normally only be used if you are currently analysing his behaviour, as in

Er gab ein Zeichen ungeduldig, aber danach versuchte er, ruhig zu wirken.

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  • This is the first time that I have seen the concept referred to of "known" vs "unknown" parts of speech. All other sources I have referenced regarding the problem of word order of adverbs refer to "emphasis", which is always vaguely defined. But I would need more information to be able to distinguish "known" from "unknown" generally. What method is used?
    – user44591
    Commented Feb 2, 2023 at 14:30
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    Another way to call it would be "given" vs "new", see for example the wikipedia article on Information structure. For example, checking if it is "textually or situationally derivable". The other concepts in the article should in there should also prove useful.
    – Dodezv
    Commented Feb 2, 2023 at 21:32

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