German Grammar

Some say German grammar is very complex and hard to learn. However, if you study it carefully and practice regularly, you will master it without any problems. This article will give you an overview of the key notions in German grammar to give you an idea of what you should focus on learning.

Nouns

German nouns have a few peculiarities compared to the use of nouns in the English language. For instance, all nouns are capitalized in German, not only proper nouns: die Katze, das Fenster and so on.

The three main grammatical categories of German nouns are gender, number and case.

Gender

German nouns can be one of the three genders: masculine, feminine or neuter. When a noun denotes a person, the gender of the noun usually corresponds to their gender: die Frau (woman) is feminine and der Mann (man) is masculine.

Otherwise, this is a purely grammatical category. It has no connection with any physical characteristics of the inanimate object: das Wasser (water) is neuter, der Tisch (table) is masculine, die Tasse (cup) is feminine. The gender of such nouns cannot be predicted and has to be memorized, also because other parts of speech that are used together with nouns, such as articles and adjectives, inflect according to the noun’s gender. As a result, all nouns in our language learning material (see bottom of the page) come with the right article so you can learn the gender together with the noun in one setting.

Numbers

German nouns can be singular or plural. The plural can be formed in several ways, for instance: die Frau – die Frauen, das Auto (car) – die Autos, der Bus (bus) – die Busse. A lot of feminine nouns are regular, but many masculine and neuter are not, and their plural forms have to be memorized. Again, similar to the gender, we also have put the plural form of nouns into our language learning material to allow you to learn everything at once.

Cases

There are four cases in the German language: nominative, genitive, dative and accusative.

A noun in the nominative case is the subject of the sentence, the person or object that performs the action:

Der Junge liest. – The boy reads.

The genitive case denotes possession:

Das Auto des Jungen – the boy’s car

A noun in the dative case presents an indirect object:

Ich gebe der Frau mein Hand. – I give my hand to the woman.

A noun in the accusative case is the direct object:

Ich liebe den Mann. – I love the man.

The use of the genitive case is quite rare in modern everyday speech and it is often replaced by structures using the dative case instead: das Buch von Thomas – Thomas’s book.

Articles

Similar to English, German has definite articles (der, die, das) and indefinite articles (ein, eine, eines). The rules of use are similar in many situations, for instance, the indefinite article is used to mean “one of”, “any”:

Gib mir einen Stift. – Give me a pen.

The definite article denotes a unique object (die Sonne – the sun) or something related to what is mentioned above:

Dies ist der Film, den ich gestern gesehen habe. – This is the movie I saw yesterday.

However, unlike English, the articles in German inflect according to the corresponding noun’s gender, case and number. For example, der is masculine and die is feminine, der is nominative case and dem is dative. The plural form of the article is the same for all three genders.

Adjectives

As in English, German adjectives come before the noun they modify: ein schönes Mädchen (a beautiful girl). Just as German articles, adjectives agree with nouns in gender, case and number. Adjectives also use the same form for all the genders in the plural.

Here is an example of how adjectives inflect according to the noun’s gender:

Ein guter Tisch (masculine) – a good table

Eine gute Tasse (feminine) – a good cup

Ein gutes Buch (neuter) – a good book

Nouns in the predicative position – used after the verb “to be” and not directly before a noun – are not inflected:

Das Mädchen ist schön. – The girl is beautiful.

Adverbs

Forming adverbs in German is simpler than in a lot of other languages. An adverb is simply the uninflected (unchanged) form of an adjective, for example, schnell is both quick and quickly.

Pronouns

The German language has the same types of pronouns as English: personal (du, ich), possessive (dein, mein), demonstrative (diese), reflexive (sich), relative (die, das), and interrogative (wer, was).

Pronouns in German have the category of case similar to nouns, with the same four cases: nominative, genitive, dative, and accusative.

Verbs

German verbs can be classified as weak and strong. Weak verbs do not change their root vowels in any tense (arbeiten – arbeitete – gearbeitet). Strong verbs change their form in one or more tenses (geben – gab – gegeben). All verbs in our language learning materials come with those three tenses, allowing you to immediately learn everything at once without the need to look anything up.

Tenses

There are six tenses in the German language. Two of them are simple; while the others are compound ones, build from the simple constructions. The tenses are as follows:

Present (Präsens) – Ich lese ein Buch. – I read a book.

Preterite (Imperfekt, Präteritum) – Ich aß einen Apfel. – I ate an apple.

Perfect (Perfekt) – Ich habe das Auto gekauft. – I (have) bought the car.

Pluperfect / past perfect (Plusquamperfekt) – Ich hatte den Tee getrunken. – I had drunk the tea.

Future (Futur I) – Ich werde kommen. – I will come.

Future perfect (Futur II) – Ich werde das gesagt haben. – I will have said that.

Word order

The verb occupies the second position in the sentence, which does not change even if the other parts of the sentence are moved around.

Ich kann das nicht sagen. – I can’t say that.

Das kann ich nicht sagen. – That I can’t say.

Separable prefixes

One of the distinctive features of German grammar are verbs with separable prefixes. When attached to the verb, these prefixes are always stressed. In the sentence, they come at the end of the sentence or clause, while the root of the verb remains on the second position.

Anfangen – to begin

Ich fange mit der Arbeit an. – I begin the work.

Conjugation

German verbs are modified according to person (first, second and third); number (singular and plural); mood (indicative, conditional, imperative and subjunctive); and tense (see above).

Prepositions

Prepositions in German can be hard to master as their use differs very much from the English language and some prepositional phrases can be quite unexpected.

It is important to remember that the object of some German prepositions has a fixed case. For instance, the preposition “bei” requires the use of the dative case after it, and the preposition “gegen” requires accusative case.

Final words

This is a very brief overview of German grammar. To truly master it, you will need to study each of the parts of speech in much more detail. However, this overview will hopefully give you a general idea of the German grammatical system and of the main points you should consider when learning.


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