German sentence structure, similar to all other languages, can be summarized or shall I say, simplified, with some rules.
Apart from simple sentences, there are also compound, complex and compound-complex sentences. A simple sentence is merely an independent clause with a single noun and verb. Now, you are probably like… what? What is an independent clause?
Clauses, Sentences and Phrases
Clauses can be subdivided into two, independent and dependent clauses. Independent clauses can stand by themselves whereas dependent clauses cannot. The reason being that, although both of them are groups of words which both contain a subject and verb, dependent clauses do not express a complete thought.
Next, we get phrases. These are groups of words without a verb or subject. They are most often used in sentences to add description.
Lastly, there are sentences and these can be divided into simple, complex and compound sentences. I explained simple sentences in the linked post and the others I will explain in the following sections. But, in plain terms, simple sentences consist of an independent clause with an added capital letter at the start and a punctuation mark at the end, in most cases. Compound sentences have at least two of those. Complex sentences are a combination of dependent and independent sentences, containing one of each. Then, there are sentences which are a combination of the two, compound-complex sentences. They have at least two independent clauses and at least one dependent one, yet, of both, there can be more.
Let’s start by forming two independent clauses that we can join to form a compound sentence:
Mein Freund hat einen Hund.My boyfriend has a dog.
Ich mag Hunde nicht.I do not like dogs.
I we were to combine these sentences with aber (but), it would look like this:
Mein Freund hat einen Hund aber ich mag Hunde nicht.My boyfriend has a dog, but I do not like dogs.
Aber and all other similar words used to glue sentences together are called conjunctions. In the case of compound sentences, the type of conjunction that we use is a coordinating conjunction. The most common of these are:
In German, only the first three of the five conjunctions need to be preceded by a comma, oder and und needn’t. You can, however, add a comma before those too for added clarity.
Earlier I mentioned that there are dependent and independent clauses, but now I have to tell you that dependent clauses can be divided between subordinate and relative clauses. Although both need an independent clause to be meaningful, each needs something different as well. Subordinate clauses need a subordinating conjunction and relative clauses need a relative pronoun.
Working With Subordinate Clauses
As mentioned above, a subordinate clause need a subordinating conjunction in combination with an independent clause to have meaning. The following table contains the most important subordinating conjunctions that you will need:
|wenn||if, when, whenever|
Two things that you have to note about subordinating conjunctions are:
- these conjunctions precede subordinate clauses.
- they change the order of the words in a sentence, i.e. the verb is moved to the last place.
Now, let us combine a dependent and an independent clause. Here is a dependent clause:
… dass er nicht krank ist.… that he isn’t sick…
And here is an independent clause:
Ich hoffe.I hope.
Before I combine them, I just want to show you that it is possible to make the dependent clause independent by changing the word order seeing that it is the added conjunction that
The combined sentence would look as follows:
Ich hoffe, dass er nicht krank ist.I hope that he is not sick.
Note that there will always be a comma between a dependent and an independent clause.
Working With Relative Clauses
These clauses modify nouns, pronouns and phrases. They also, as mentioned earlier, always start with a relative pronoun. Here is a table with the relative pronouns used in German broken up by case and gender.
Now, let’s hop over to the actual sentence building. Here is an independent clause:
Das ist die Frau.That is the woman.
And this is a relative clause:
… mit der ich vorgestern gesprochen habe.… with whom I spoke the day before yesterday.
If combined we would get the following:
Das ist die Frau, mit der ich vorgestern gesprochen habe.That is the woman with whom I spoke the day before yesterday.
The above used relative clause, however, can be transformed into an independent clause by removing the relative pronoun. I’m only showing you this now because I think that you need to be aware of it, but should refrain from using it:
Ich habe vorgestern mit ihr gesprochen.I spoke with him the day before yesterday.
If this clause were to be used instead of the relative clause, the same meaning could be achieved, but the natural flow of the language will be broken. Look at this:
Das ist die Frau. Ich habe vorgestern mit ihr gesprochen.That is the woman. I spoke to her the day before yesterday.
This doesn’t sound natural to me at all. So, moral of the story, rather use the relative clause.
Before wrapping up this section, I would like you to note that, as with subordinate conjunctions, the relative clause is separated from the independent clause with a comma.
These type of sentences are a hybrid of the previously described sentences. It consists of at least two independent clauses and one or more dependent clause. The grammar that you will use is thus the same as before. Take a look at these sentences:
Meine Freundin mag Suppe.My (girl) friend likes soup.
… mit den roten Haaren.
Ich mag Brot.I like bread.
Now, let’s combine them:
Meine Freundin, mit den roten Haaren, mag Suppe aber ich mag Brot.My friend with the red hair likes soup, but I like bread.
The most important part of building sentences is to do it a lot. This is why I challenge you to try and write a few sentences of each of the sentence types by yourselves.
Let me know how it goes with your sentence writing. Until next time!
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