Word order in German can be characterized as being “SVO-” or “Subject-Verb-Object-based.” This means that, in regular word order, the three main components of a sentence follow this pattern.
Example: Der Hund frisst das Futter. / The dog eats the food.
In this example, the dog (der Hund) is the subject, which performs the verb (eats / frisst) on the direct object (the food / das Futter). An object is a direct object when it receives the action of the verb. In other words, the direct object is being “verbed”: the food is being eaten. To help identify the direct object in a sentence, you can ask the question, “What is being verbed?” (e.g. eaten, played, etc.; “Was wird gegegessen/gespielt?”). The answer to the question is your direct object.
Example: Das Mädchen spielt die Gitarre. / The girl plays the guitar.
In the above sentence, the answer to “What is being played?” is the guitar. Note that the object follows the verb, and does not come first, and this is referred to as normal or natural word order. It is awkward in American English to say, “The guitar plays the girl.” This could lead to misinterpretation of the meaning of the sentence, and is not accepted word order in English. However, in German, this is acceptable. This inverted word order is also applicable when forming questions, emphatic/conditional clauses without “wenn” (if), sentences starting with an adverb of time, manner, or place, and sentences beginning with restrictive and other words like “never,” “seldom,” “hardly ever,” and “not,” or “here” and “there.”
After subjects and verbs, there are other elements in a sentence that have a particular order. Typically, these are adverbs of time, manner, and place. All of these adverbs can occur before or after verb, though when they are brought to first position in the sentence, it gives emphasis to that particular element.
Example: Heute gehe ich zum Supermarkt. / Today, I am going to the grocery store.
In the above example, the adverb of time (Heute) is in the first or “front” position in the sentence, which lends it some emphasis. Note that the comma after “Today” disappears in the German, as commas are not used to set off the first element of the sentence. In normal word order, the same sentence would be:
Ich gehe heute zum Supermarkt. / I am going to the grocery store today.
Unlike in English, the time, manner, and place elements precede the object (direct or indirect) in a sentence, which is why the order in the German example differs from the English one above. Here is a sentence with all three elements in the predicate.
Example: Ich esse jeden Tag schnell zu Hause Pizza. / I eat pizza every day quickly at home.
If any of the elements after the object (pizza) is moved to first position, everything will stay in the same position. Here are the possible variations:
Jeden Tag esse ich schnell zu Hause Pizza. / Every day I eat pizza quickly at home.
Schnell esse ich jeden Tag zu Hause Pizza. / Quickly I eat pizza every day at home.
Zu Hause esse ich jeden Tag schnell Pizza. / At home I eat pizza every day quickly.
The important thing to remember is that the verb is in second position, with either the subject or the adverb in first position and the other (subject, adverb, etc.) in third position. Elements of time, manner, and place are added after in that sequence, unless an element is moved to the front position of the sentence, as illustrated by the examples above.