Constituents in German grammar

(German sentence constituents and parts thereof)

Table of contents – constituents

On this page you will find the following:

  1. Explanation of constituents
  2. Permutation test
  3. Further explanations and exercises

What are the constituents of a German sentence?

A constituent (in German: Satzglied or Satzteil) is a part of a sentence. This part consists of a single word, a group of words, or a subordinate clause and fulfills a specific syntactical function. Within a sentence, it can be moved as a complete part, including all its associated elements, or replaced by expressions of equal value.

Compare the possible constituents of German sentences:

  • Subject
  • Predicate (Note that the concept of the English predicate differs from the German one.)
  • Object (complement)
    • Genitive object (complement in the 2nd case)
    • Dative object (complement in the 3rd case)
    • Accusative object (complement in the 4th case)
    • Prepositional object (complement with a preposition)
  • Adverbial
  • Subordinate or dependent clause

Furthermore, some elements merely belong to a constituent of the same sentence instead of being independent. These are:

  • Attribute (grammatical modifier), which is typically named after its position in relation to its antecedent and subdivided into:
    • Premodifier (left) and postmodifier (right)
    • Attributive genitive (2nd case)

Examples of sentences showing the constituents

  • Example sentences:
    1. „Er gab seiner Frau gestern den Schlüssel.“ (Yesterday, he gave the key to his wife.)
    2. „Sie erzählt ihm niemals Lügen.“ (She never tells him lies.)
Subject (Who or what?) Predicate (Does what?) Dative object (Whom?) Temporal adverbial (When?) Accusative object (Who or what?)
Er gab seiner Frau gestern den Schlüssel.
Sie erzählt ihm niemals Lügen.

How can you use the permutation or constituency test?

By moving the individual word groups within the sentence (constituency or permutation test), you can find out which parts you cannot change without losing the sense of the original sentence.

A note on the comparison with English grammar: because of their grammatical case system, German sentences are much more flexible in terms of placing their constituents. Consequently, a constituent may appear in varying positions, for example, before the subject or at the end of the sentence. This flexibility contrasts with English, which strongly ties the constituents to specific places. The permutation test is, therefore, especially suitable for German.

Test by moving the constituents (permutation test)

Example sentence: „Morgen gebe ich dir Bescheid.“ (I will let you know tomorrow.)

Adverbial/​object/​subject Predicate Subject/​object Object/​adverbial Object/​adverbial
Morgen (adverbial) gebe ich (subject) dir (object) Bescheid. (object)
Dir (object) gebe ich (subject) morgen (adverbial) Bescheid. (object)
Bescheid (object) gebe ich (subject) dir (object) morgen. (adverbial)
Ich (subject) gebe dir (object) morgen (adverbial) Bescheid. (object)

Further explanations referring to the ‘Constituents of a sentence’

The following exercises are related to the topic ‘Parts or constituents of a sentence in German grammar’ and may help you check your knowledge: