The Wonderful World of the Verb Second Rule, Part I: German

So, we all love German grammar, right?

Infinitives, auxiliaries and participles, putting verbs at the end of the sentence, inversion of the subject and the verb – these are the concepts you have to get to grips with if you want to learn the language. To most outsiders, German grammar seems very new and strange. For example, the English sentence ‘today I will not go’ would be translated as

– heute werde ich nicht gehen

Word for word, this means

– today will I not go

Translating the sentence with the original English word order would not result in a good, grammatical sentence in German.

Moreover, if we take a longer, more complex English sentence, with two clauses, such as ‘I did not really believe that he had once known her’, we see even more differences between the two languages.

ich habe nicht wirklich geglaubt, dass er sie einmal gekannt hatte
(word for word: ‘I have not really believed, that he her once known had’)

Within the two clauses that make up this complex sentence, we see two different word orders. In the main clause (the independent one),

ich habe nicht wirklich geglaubt

the two verbs, habe and geglaubt, must be positioned at a distance from each other, with geglaubt placed at the end, as if book-ending the clause. However, in the subordinate clause, which begins with dass and is dependent on the main clause,

– … dass er sie einmal gekannt hatte

gekannt and hatte stay close, but need to be put right at the end of the clause, and are the opposite way around to English had known. All in all, German grammar insists on two possible word orders, one for main clauses, another for subordinated ones, neither of which is allowed in English grammar.

The goal of this article is to analyse these tricky aspects of German word order, and, with the help of linguistics, to reduce these complexities down to two learnable rules.



The first rule is part of a very large topic in grammar – too big to discuss thoroughly in this article, but suffice to say that German word order is different to English at a fundamental level.

While English is a ‘VO’ language, while German is an ‘OV’ language. OV is short for ‘Object Verb’. In its traditional usage, this term means that the object of a verb in German precedes the verb in a clause. However, being an OV language is much bigger than this brief description; it has implications for the whole grammar of a language, and all the verbs in a clause are usually affected.

If German is OV and English is VO, we should therefore expect to see that English and German word orders are mirror opposites of each other – and that’s exactly what we find in German subordinate clauses!

To make things equal, let’s take an English subordinate clause.

if I will have found the book

The word order of this clause is:

if > Subject > Auxiliary Verb 1 > Auxiliary Verb 2 > Main Verb > Object

I might add that the three verbs are really three separated parts of a single verb, with the first two being required for grammatical purposes. Regardless, since English is an VO language, all three verbs will precede the object.

German, however, is an OV language; therefore, to get the German word order, we should reverse the English order of verbs and objects. The translation therefore is:

wenn ich das Buch gefunden haben werde

Put in theoretical terms, the opposition to the English order becomes clearer:

wenn > Subject > Object > Main Verb > Auxiliary Verb 2 > Auxiliary Verb 1

After the subject, the object comes next, followed by the main verb.

So, we have identified one helpful rule: when it comes to verbs and objects, German subordinate clauses are the inverse of their English counterparts.

We should try this with the first example given above.

– … dass er sie einmal gekannt hatte

This again has the following structure:

– dass > Sub. > Obj. > einmal > Main Verb > Aux. Verb

This is the mirror image of the English clause:

– … that he had once known her

This has the structure:

that > Subj. > Aux. Verb > once > Main Verb > Obj.

However, this does not explain main clauses, which have a different structure; we cannot apply this rule to both clauses in the first example. If we do, we end up with

– *ich nicht wirklich geglaubt habe, dass er sie einmal gekannt hatte

which is not a good German sentence. To complete the picture, we need therefore to bring in a second rule.


Verb Second

Now we come to the meat of the article: the fascinating grammatical phenomenon known as ‘Verb Second’ or simply ‘V2’.

This is a universal rule that affects all main clauses in German. Seeing as most clauses spoken or written by us are, statistically, main clauses, this is a very handy thing to know. We can define Verb Second as follows:

In a V2 grammar, the finite verb must sit in the second position of the clause.

A simple enough sentence, but there’s a few things to unpack here.

Firstly, a “finite verb” is a verb that has been conjugated; it has a tense (present, past, etc.) and a person feature (first person, second person, etc.).

For example, in German, bin (‘am’) is a finite verb; it has a tense (present) and a person (first person singular, the ‘I‘ form). Meanwhile, the infinitive sein (‘to be’) is not a finite verb, as it has neither of these features.

Secondly, by “clause“, I refer to main clauses – clauses that are not dependent on another part of the sentence, but can be and are often stand-alone utterances. Moreover, the rule does not apply to clauses with imperatives verbs – that is, commands, like lauf! or laufen Sie! (‘run!’) In many ways, imperatives have their own grammar.

Lastly, “second position” does not mean the second word in a sentence – rather, the finite verb is like the second unit, or constituent, of the clause. Only one constituent can precede it; this is most often the subject of the verb, but it could also be an adverb, such as jetzt ‘now’ or heute ‘today’.

Naturally, a clause’s subject could be many words long, but it is still, instinctively, one single unit. Indeed, we can demonstrate the constituency of a lengthy subject by swapping it with a pronoun, a single word.

– der Präsident des Landes spricht heute
‘the president of the country is speaking today’

– er spricht heute
‘he is speaking today’

In the two sentences above, the finite verb is spricht (present tense, third person singular) and is the second constituent of the clause, following the subject.

Now, what happens if, for emphasis, we want to put ‘today’ at the start of the sentence? We cannot simply put it before the subject, because the sentences

– *heute er spricht

– *heute der Präsident des Landes spricht

would go against the V2 rule, and would be ungrammatical in German. Therefore, if heute comes first, the subject must come later, while spricht still remains in second position.

– heute spricht er

– heute spricht der Präsident des Landes

This is what is traditionally taught as ‘inversion’ in German lessons, since the verb and subject seem to invert their order in the two sentences above.

The first constituent could even be a separate, subordinate clause, which German grammar treats as a single unit, and which will not have a V2 order itself.

– wenn es nicht regnet, werden wir uns treffen
‘if it doesn’t rain, we will meet each other’

If we take a main clause with a more complicated verb, one with multiple parts, it is still the conjugated part of the verb that adheres to V2.

– der Präsident des Landes wird heute sprechen
‘the president of the country will speak today’

– heute wird der Präsident des Landes sprechen
‘today the president of the country will speak’

– gestern hat der Präsident des Landes gesprochen
‘yesterday the president of country spoke’

In these sentences, it is the conjugated verbs wird and hat that fulfil the requirements of V2. These auxiliary verbs (‘helping’ verbs) are positioned at a distance from the main verb, sprechen, which appears at the end of the clause. Tellingly, this is reminiscent of the grammar of subordinate clauses. What can we see if we make the verb even more complicated, with two auxiliary verbs?

– der Präsident des Landes wird heute gesprochen haben
‘the president of the country will have spoken today’

– die Frau wird das Buch schnell gelesen haben
‘the woman will have quickly read the book’

Look at the two verbs at the end, the main verb and an auxiliary; they appear in the same order and position as they would in a subordinate clause; they obey the OV order discussed previously.

This is why I said earlier that German is ‘fundamentally’ an OV language; it would have an OV word order in all cases, were it not for the Verb Second rule, which supervenes and leaves its mark on German main clauses. It is as if German first builds its clauses as befits a good OV language, before V2 then swoops in and carries the finite verb off, moving it from the last to the second position.


Putting it together

OV order and the V2 rule – two linguistic theories that explain a huge chunk of German grammar, and two things, therefore, that I certainly recommend learning!

We should now try it with some complex sentences, including the example sentence first given.

– ich habe nicht wirklich geglaubt, dass er sie einmal gekannt hatte
‘I did not really believe, that he had once known her’

– gestern hat die Frau nicht gewusst, ob ihr Sohn den Film genießen würde
‘yesterday the woman did not know whether her son would enjoy the film’

wenn Sie die Versammlung verlassen wollen, sollten Sie sofort gehen
‘if you want to leave the meeting, you should go immediately’

The underlined words are the subordinate clauses, introduced by dass, ob or wenn. In these clauses, the word order is Subject > Object > Main Verb > Aux. Verb, in accordance with an OV structure.

The remainders of the three sentences are the main clauses. In these, the finite verbs (habe, hat, sollten) come second, following the first constituent, which is a subject (ich), an adverb (gestern) or a whole subordinate clause (wenn Sie…).


V2 beyond German

Understanding the Verb Second rule is not only useful for German, since German is by no means not the only language that has it.

Indeed, all modern Germanic languages have this, including Dutch, Norwegian, Swedish, Icelandic, Danish, Yiddish – though not English and Scots. Outside the Germanic family, Estonian, Kashmiri and Sorbian (the Slavic language spoken in eastern Germany) are said to be languages with V2 grammar.

It must be said that V2 is not identical across these languages. We have seen that the rule only applies in German to main clauses. However, it is possible for a language to obey V2 in both its main and subordinate clauses; this is the case in Icelandic and Yiddish, which are consequently known as languages with ‘symmetric V2’.

If we go back in time, we can find traces of V2 grammar in older forms of well-known languages. For instance, Modern French and Spanish are not V2 languages, but it looks like Old French and Old Spanish were at one point. Then there is the question of Old English – the source of a huge amount of debate. Simply, if Old English was a V2 language, it wasn’t a very good one. A variety of word orders are found in our Old English sources, which mean that it does not look like a ‘strictly’ V2 language.

On the other hand, we need to argue that Old English was at least a ‘relaxed’ V2 language, if we are to explain the handful of V2-ish word order rules still found in English today. For example, with some adverbs of location and time, we find the verb in second position, followed by the subject. It’s grammatical, though it often sounds quite archaic.

– here comes the sun

– then went John and Mary

– under the tree sat a man

Moreover, there are some things in Modern English (namely negative elements and the adverb only) that demand a V2 order, if they are put at the beginning of the clause.

– nor is she going here
(not: *nor she is going here)

– not only should she go
(not: *not only she should go)

– only when I complained was the problem solved
(not: *only when I complained the problem was solved)

Verb Second is hiding under our very noses!



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