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10.14 Adverbs and word order

Adverbs are words which describe the action of a verb. They show how, when and where things happen - e.g. "quickly", "often", "outside". You can usually recognise an adverb in English becuase it ends in "-ly" - e.g. "happily", "regularly", "completely".

This is not the case in German, where most adjectives can be used as adverbs without adding a suffix. In fact, when such adjectives are used as adverbs they have no endings at all:

  • Anna ist eine gesunde Frau.
    (Anna is a healthy woman (= adjective).)
  • Wir essen sehr gesund.
    (We eat very healthily (= adverb).)
  • "Metropolis" ist ein guter Film.
    ("Metropolis" is a good film (= adjective).)
  • Es geht mir gut.
    (I am very well (= adverb).)

Word order with adverbs
The positioning of adverbs in a German sentence can be tricky as German word order is quite specific on this point. For the moment it will suffice to note that if you put an adverb or adverbial phrase at the start of the sentence, then the verb must come next followed immediately by the subject of the clause. This is known as inverted word order.

Note too that German adverbial phrases are not separated from the rest of the clause by a comma when they occur at the start of the sentence.

  • Hoffentlich kommt das schöne Wetter noch.
    (Hopefully the good weather will still come.)
  • Manchmal fahren wir in die Berge.
    (Sometimes we go into the mountains.)
  • Im Moment ist es mild.
    (At the moment the weather is mild.)
  • Zweimal in der Woche gehe ich zu einer Aerobicstunde.
    (Twice a week I go to an aerobics class.)

General word order
It is not only adverbs however which can be placed at the start of a German clause. You may have noticed that - unlike in English - it is also possible to emphasise an accusative or dative object by putting it at the start of a sentence. This is because in German, it is the the case endings, not the word order, which tell us who is doing what to whom, i.e. what is the subject and what are the objects.

Thus the following pairs of sentences have the same basic meaning, even though the subject of the clause is in first position only in the first sentence in each pair. Note how the case endings change depending on who is doing what to whom!

Die Katze sieht den Hund.
Den Hund sieht die Katze.

(The cat sees the dog.)
Der Hund sieht die Katze.
Die Katze sieht der Hund.
(The dog sees the cat.)
Ich sehe dich.
Dich sehe ich.

(I see you.)
Du siehst mich.
Mich siehst du.

(You see me.)
Der Mann hilft dem Kind.
Dem Kind hilft der Mann.

(The man helps the child.)
Das Kind hilft dem Mann.
Dem Mann hilft das Kind.

(The child helps the man.)

Point 1In each of these pairs there is a slight difference in that the first element in each sentence is always being stressed. Whereas the first sentence in each pair stresses therefore who is performing the action i.e. seeing or helping, the second sentence stresses more who is being seen or being helped.

Point 2Certain nouns, pronouns, definite and indefinite articles have identical endings in the nominative and accusative cases. In most instances, common sense will tell you who is performing the action. For example, in the clause "Bier darf Thomas nicht trinken", it should hopefully be clear that it is Thomas who not allowed to drink beer and not vice versa.

Yet the phrase "sie sieht sie" could have six different meanings:
1) "she sees her"; 2) "she sees them"; 3) "she sees it (= feminine noun)"; 4) "it sees her"; 5) "it sees them"; 6) "it sees it"!

Weiter! Chapter 10.15: Adverbs of time

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