TeKaMoLo: The Rule For German Sentence Structure


TeKaMoLo — The Theory

TeKaMoLo governs in which order the adverbial phrases fall in your sentences. By which I mean it governs in which order we answer the following questions:

Wann ist es passiert?         (When did it happen?)      TEMPORAL- TE- When

Warum ist es passiert?      (Why did it happen?)        KAUSAL- KA- Why

Wie ist es passiert?             (How did it happen?)        MODAL- MO- How

Wo ist es passiert?              (Where did it happen?)     LOKAL-LO- Where

The importance of getting this word structure right can’t be understated. For one thing it ensures you’re going to be understood.

For another it allows you to develop your sentences in length and complexity, instead of relying on being super basic all the time. And knowing what you’re doing with word structure means knowing what you’re emphasizing, bringing a bit of rhythm to the way you speak. This will really help develop your confidence.

Here are examples.

TeKaMoLo — In Action

“Josh spoke loudly at the kitchen table yesterday out of consideration for his grandmother.”

This is a packed sentence. It contains each of the component parts of TeKaMoLo, but in the wrong order. Or, rather, in the right order for English, but the wrong order for German.     So, let’s readjust things:

  1. Temporal (when) — yesterday
  2. Kausal (why) — out of consideration for his grandmother
  3. Modal (how) — very loudly
  4. Lokal (where) — at the kitchen table

And now we’ve got it in order let’s translate it.

Josh hat gestern aus Rücksicht auf seine Oma sehr laut am Küchentisch gesprochen.

When, why, how, where.

1, 2, 3, 4.  Te-Ka-Mo-Lo.

Reformulating the order of a sentence before translating it takes time, especially when it feels as though the order would be illogical in English.

“Josh spoke yesterday out of consideration for his grandmother very loudly at the kitchen table” is ugly in English.

But as an intermediate German speaker, developing your conversational skills requires a change in thinking. Instead of creating the sentence in your head in English first, take a crack at it in German directly. This way you don’t have to worry about two different orders, just the one. It takes time, but it pays off.

TeKaMoLo — The Exceptions

The point to be made about TeKaMoLo is that its use is mostly for sentences where no special emphasis is made.

If we go back to our example above, with Josh and his nearly deaf grandmother, it’s difficult to detect a specific point being emphasized. Which is fine until we want to point out that it was out of consideration for his grandmother that Josh was speaking loudly at the kitchen table yesterday.

And so in order to emphasize this point we cut and paste it to the beginning of the sentence. So now we have: Ka – TeMoLo. The Temporal still comes before the Modal and the Modal still comes before the Lokal, just as in its original form.

And don’t forget the verb in a primary clause will always be in position 2. Let’s take a look.

Aus Rücksicht auf seine Oma hat Josh gestern sehr laut am Küchentisch gesprochen.

Here are a few other examples.

  1. “We can drive the car to Berlin tomorrow.”

Wir können morgen mit dem Auto nach Berlin fahren.

Morgen können wir mit dem Auto nach Berlin fahren.

Mit dem Auto können wir morgen nach Berlin fahren.

Temporal, Modal and Lokal in action there, all the same words but each version expressing a slightly different emphasis than the one before. The importance of it depends on the context. For example if you’re being asked when you’re going to get somewhere, it would make sense to address that question immediately.

  1. “You can pick us up on Thursday on the way to the beer garden.”

Ihr könnt uns Donnerstag auf dem Weg zum Biergarten abholen.

Auf dem Weg zum Biergarten könnt ihr uns Donnerstag abholen.

Be careful—there’s only two of the four here, Temporal and Modal. Zum Biergarten isn’t Lokal, it’s part of the Modal phrase auf dem Weg.

The way you can tell the difference is that the two won’t split up. Auf dem weg könnt ihr zum Biergarten doesn’t make any sense just as “you can pick us up on the way on Thursday to the beer garden” doesn’t either. It’s one piece of information and it’s describing how the action is being performed.

  1. “A rude waiter brought us the bill in the pizzeria yesterday, before we had finished our meal.”

Ein dreister Kellner hat uns gestern in der Pizzeria die Rechnung gebracht, bevor wir mit dem Essen fertig waren.

Here it looks as though there are two temporal adverbs: Gestern and bevor wir mit dem Essen fertig waren.

So why is the second one positioned last in the sentence?

Because it’s a subordinate clause indicated by the comma and the conjunction bevor. The same goes for certain prepositions.

  1. “Josh spoke very loudly at the kitchen table yesterday because his grandma is nearly deaf.”

The word Weil (because) is pretty inextricably linked with the Kausal, but as it’s also the beginning of a subordinate clause, it has no place in the TeKaMoLo configuration.

Josh hat gestern sehr laut am Küchentisch gesprochen, weil seine Oma fast taub ist.


Josh hat gestern, weil seine Oma fast taub ist, sehr laut am Küchentisch gesprochen..

So there we are, TeKaMoLo, the least painful technique to getting German word order to work for you.

Viel Erfolg!

One thought on “TeKaMoLo: The Rule For German Sentence Structure

  • December 17, 2016 at 6:18 am

    It’s a pleasure to find such raiotnality in an answer. Welcome to the debate.


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