German Grammar Basics — What you need to know to understand German
I’ve been teaching German for almost ten years, and the one thing that I understand is that many learners have such a tough time because of grammatical terminology. In English speaking school systems, grammar is generally avoided, whereas German seems to worship grammar. One could say that the formal teaching of English grammar has been superseded by communicative teaching approaches. Yet, while the communicative approach is great for young learners it is not as ideal for mature learners wishing to gain a grasp of a foreign language quickly. Furthermore, understanding grammar is a way to answer the often posed “why’s it like that?” question one may have when learning a language. Of course there are expressions, especially prepositional phrases, that at times seem to not follow any grammatical rule, but rather seem to have developed and never gone away, cementing themselves in a language. Having now given my little rant on grammar and its importance, it all seems futile if you don’t understand grammar terminology.
Using a helpful book entitled “English Grammar for Learners of German” I’ve tried to sum up the most important grammar that you need to understand in order effectively learn German. You need to crawl before you can walk, and understanding this terminology before you can talk.
When learning a foreign language, you must look at each word in four ways: meaning, part of speech, function, and form.
What does the word denote? An example Baum in German has the same meaning as tree in English.
Some words like Garten and garden look and sound similar in German and English and have the same meaning. These are called cognates.
*Be careful of false-friends. Kollege ? college.
Part of Speech:
This is a hard one for people to grasp. Just think in English the word running can act as the present participle (I am running) or as a noun (Running is fun). There are eight general parts of speech:
a word that can be the name of a person, animal, place, thing, event, or idea.
In German proper nouns (Christian, Zürich, Pricewaterhouse Coopers…) and common nouns (friend, animal, city, book…) are always spelled with a capital letter.
All German nouns have a grammatical gender (der = masculine, die = feminine, das = neuter). The gender of the noun should be learned together with the noun.
Unlike in English there are seven ways of forming the plural of German nouns. It is therefore also a good idea to learn the plural of the noun together with the singular form and the gender.
Many people when they look at a sentence think that nouns are subjects (see subjects below), but not all nouns are subjects and not all subjects are nouns.
An article is a word placed before a noun to show whether the noun refers to a specific person, place or thing or whether the noun refers to an unspecified person, place or thing.
In English the definite article is the. In German there is der (masculine), die (feminine), das (neuter), die (plural). These change based on the case they are in.
In English the indefinite articles are a and an. In German they are ein (masculine, neuter) and eine (feminine).
*Note there is no plural for the indefinite article.
A pronoun is a word used in place of one or more nouns. It may stand, therefore, for a person, place, thing, or idea.
The basic pronouns you will encounter in German are:
|ihr||You (plural) like “you guys”|
|Sie||You (polite form)|
When using a pronoun to replace a noun the pronoun chosen must reflect the gender and number of the noun it is replacing.
- Der Hund heißt Max. Er ist groß.
- Melanie und David sind Geschwister. Sie wohnen in Kanada.
It is also beneficial to learn verb conjugations in the above order.
A verb is a word that indicates the action of the sentence. The word action is used in the broadest sense; it is not necessarily a physical action. There are three kinds of verbs:
- A physical activity — to run (laufen), to talk (sprechen), to go (gehen), to eat (essen)
- A mental activity — to hope (hoffen), to believe (glauben), to dream (träumen), to think (denken)
- A condition — to be (sein), to have (haben), to seem (wirken)
Verbs are conjugated to be in agreement with the subject. Their tense can also change (present, past).
German has fewer tenses than English. The simple and continuous tenses are expressed with the same verb conjugation.
|Present simple||I read.||Ich lese.|
|Present continuous||I am reading|
|Present perfect simple||I have read.||Ich habe gelesen.|
|Present perfect continuous||I have been reading.|
Verbs can be regular or irregular, which will determine their conjugation, spelling and pronunciation.
An adjective is a word that describes a noun or a pronoun. There are different types of adjectives; they are classified according to the way they describe a noun or pronoun. Adjectives have endings that are dependent on the gender, number and case of the noun or pronoun they are describing.
A descriptive adjective indicates a quality; it tells what kind of a noun it is.
- He lives in a big house. Er wohnt in einem großen Haus.
- Hans bought the red shoes. Hans hat die roten Schuhe gekauft.
A possessive adjective shows possession; it tells whose noun it is.
- His book is lost. Sein Buch ist verloren.
- Our parents are away. Unsere Eltern sind weg.
An interrogative adjective asks a question about a noun.
- What book is lost? Welches Buch ist verloren?
- What sort of book did you read? Was für ein Buch hast du gelesen?
A demonstrative adjective points out a noun.
- This teacher is excellent. Dieser Lehrer ist ausgezeichnet.
An adverb is a word that describes a verb, an adjective, or another adverb. It indicates manner, degree, time, place.
Unlike adjectives the form of adverbs never changes.
A preposition is a word that shows the relationship of one word (usually a noun or pronoun) to another word (usually another noun or pronoun) in the sentence. The noun or pronoun following the preposition is called the object of the preposition. The preposition plus its object is called a prepositional phrase.
Prepositions are tricky to learn in terms of their direct translation as prepositional phrases are often also idiomatic.
A conjunction is a word that links two or more words or groups of words.
As in English, German has coordinating and subordinating conjunctions. Like adverbs and prepositions, conjunctions never change their form.
The role a word plays in a sentence is called its function. Depending on the sentence the same word can have a variety of functions: subject, direct object, indirect object, object of a preposition.
In order to choose the correct German word the function of the word must be determined.
- I don’t know her. –> direct object, therefore sie. Ich kenne sie nicht.
- I told her your story. –> indirect object, therefore ihr. Ich habe ihr deine Geschichte erzählt.
The form refers to the spelling and pronunciation of a word. In German, unlike in English many words can change the spelling of others. Case, gender, and number are the main things that will change the spelling of a word.
Subjects & Objects:
In a sentence the person or thing that performs the action of the verb is called the subject.
The subject of a German sentence is always in the nominative case.
The subject will dictate the conjugation of the verb.
- Das Kind spielt allein.
- Wir gehen ins Kino.
- Heute kommt der Zirkus nach Zürich.
An object is a noun or pronoun that is connected to the action of the verb or to a preposition.
A direct object is a noun or pronoun that receives the action of the verb directly. It answers the question wen? (whom?) or was? (what?) asked after the verb.
Direct objects are expressed by the accusative case.
- Niko liest das Buch.
- Wir haben einen Ball.
*There are a few verbs that take the dative such as danken (to thank) and helfen (to help). (Read about Dative verbs here)
An indirect object is a noun or pronoun that receives the action of the verb indirectly. It answers the question wem? (to or for whom?) or was? (to or for what?) asked after the verb.
Indirect objects are expressed by the dative case in German.
- Niko schreibt seinem Bruder.
- Der Lehrer gibt dem Studenten das Buch.
A sentence is a group of words that act together as a complete unit. Typically a sentence consists of at least a subject and a verb.
- The boy reads. Der Junge liest.
A simple sentence is a sentence consisting of only one clause, namely, a group of words including a subject and a conjugated verb.
In a simple sentence the conjugated verb always stands in the second position.
- Wir gehen in ein Konzert.
- Heute gehen wir in ein Konzert.
This does not mean that the verb is always the second word in a sentence, because some groups of words, such as prepositional phrases, together count as one position.
- Nach der Party gehen wir in ein Konzert.
A compound sentence consists of two equal clauses, each with a subject and a conjugated verb, joined by a coordinating conjunction.
The word order of the clauses remains the same as in the simple sentences.
The coordinating conjunction does not count as a position in the sentence.
- Der Himmel ist grau, aber es regnet nicht.
- Jeden Abend spielt David Klavier und seine Schwester singt.
A complex sentence is a sentence consisting of a main clause and one or more dependent clauses.
The main clause, also called the independent clause, is a clause that could stand alone as a complete sentence.
The dependent clause, also called the subordinate clause, cannot stand alone as a complete sentence because it depends on the main clause for its full meaning.
- Before I eat. I always wash my hands.
- Before I eat = dependent clause
- I always wash my hands = main clause.
In German the verb placement of the main clause depends on the position of the main clause.
- Ich wasche mir immer die Hände, bevor ich esse.
- Ich wasche mir immer die Hände = main clause
- bevor ich esse = dependent clause.
- Bevor ich esse, wasche ich mir immer die Hände.
The dependent clause is therefore the first position.
The conjugated verb is always at the end of the dependent clause.
- Ich wasche mir die Hände, weil sie schmutzig sind.
I hope that this post helps you out with understanding fundamental grammar terminology so that you can learn faster.