Like all languages, German has a structure that’s all its own. Given the short amount of space we have here, I can’t talk about everything you need to know about German grammar.
In this article, we want to concentrate on the elements of German grammar that will help you grasp the language.
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Word-Order: German Vs. English
First, it’s important to note that, unlike English, German is not a word-order language. Here’s what this means. In English, you have to say sentences in a pretty specific order. Otherwise, they don’t make sense.
For example, in English, you must say:
The dog bites the man.
If you said it this way:
The man bites the dog.
then, the sentence takes on an entirely different meaning.
Genders, Cases and Word Order
However, German is different for a couple of reasons. The German language has both genders, like Spanish and French, and cases. English has cases, but not to the extent that German does. English does not have genders.
Let’s talk about both of these elements separately first. Then, we’ll talk about why this matters in German sentence structure and word order.
All nouns in German have genders. They are either masculine, feminine or neuter (neutral). For example, the word for “man” in German (der Mann) is masculine. It’s “der Mann” in the nominative case. Nominative is the subject case of the sentence, like “the man” in “The man is a native English speaker.
However, once you move over to the accusative case, this becomes “den Mann.” It’s the same German noun: Mann. However, the determinant, the word for “the” changes to “den.” This change tells you that “Mann” is no longer the subject of the sentence. It’s now the direct object.
There are two more cases in German, the dative and genitive cases, and each will change the “the” word. In the dative case, using the same example, this becomes “dem Mann.” In the genitive, it becomes “des Mannes.”
Dative is the indirect object. Genitive is possessive: It literally means “of the man,” like “Hier ist die Frau des Mannes.” (Here is the wife of the man.) “Of the” is implied in the word “des.”
Here’s a list to help you:
- Nominative (subject of the sentence): der Mann
- Accusative (direct object of the sentence): den Mann
- Dative (indirect object of the sentence): dem Mann
- Genitive (possessive): des Mannes
Bringing It Together
Now, here’s why learning genders and cases matters. Many beginning students believe this isn’t important. However, to truly understand German grammar correctly, it’s critically important.
Let’s go back to the example above, about the man and the dog. The German word for “man” is “Mann.” The German word for “dog” is “Hund.” Both of these words are masculine.
Here is “The dog bites the man” in German:
Der Hund beißt den Mann.
However, you can also write the sentence this way:
Den Mann beißt der Hund.
You are probably confused right now. That’s because you’re thinking as a native English speaker, as a person who must speak sentences in an exact order for them to make sense. In other words, the second sentence in the German appears to read “The man bites the dog.”
However, because German has cases and genders, the second sentence means exactly the same thing as the first sentence does. The dog is always the subject of the sentence, regardless of the word order.
Every native German speaker on some level understands that the word “den” in front of “Mann” means that the man is the receiver of the action. In this case, the dog is biting him.
When it comes to masculine nouns in German, the only time they will use “der” as their “the” word is when they are the subject of the sentence. Any other time a masculine noun is in the sentence, it will have another determinant (“the” word) in front of it, depending on the role that word is playing in the sentence. It is the gender and the case that tells German speakers what role a noun plays in the sentence, not the word order.
So, why would you put “den Mann” at the beginning of the sentence when clearly, the dog is the subject? Germans will do this when they want to emphasize something. In this case, they might be telling you that this specific dog is the one that is biting the man and not another dog.
All nouns in German have genders, and to an extent, you’ll see the determinant change before each noun, regardless of whether it’s masculine, feminine or neuter. However, it’s the determinant for the masculine noun in the sentence that changes the most from case to case.
When you are first starting to learn the language, look for the masculine noun in the sentence. Not every sentence will have one, but if it does, you’ll have a better idea of which word is the subject or not, due to how the determinant changes for the masculine nouns in German.
As I mentioned, the word for “the” does eventually change in front of feminine and neutral nouns, too, though not as frequently.
Until you get better at the language, it’s also okay to say and write subject>verb>object. Most native English speakers do. In this case, you’ll likely say and write the dog sentence as “Der Hund beißt den Mann.” Even after all these years of speaking the language, it’s still difficult for me to not put the subject at the first of the sentence, particularly when I am speaking.
I don’t have trouble understanding a native German speaker when he or she moves the nouns in the sentence around, but reproducing this structure is still challenging.
All Nouns Are Capitalized
In German, all nouns are capitalized, whether they are proper nouns or not. That’s why I capitalized the words “Mann” and “Hund,” even though they are not talking about a specific man or a specific dog.
In English, this is different. Only proper nouns, like your name or your city, are capitalized. It’s incorrect in German to write a noun without a capital letter at the beginning.
A conjugated verb is a verb that is in another form besides the one you see in the dictionary. It “responds” to the sentence’s subject.
Let’s revisit the man and the dog again. In English, the verb in its dictionary form is: to bite. However, in our sentence, the subject, the dog, affects the verb, making it “bites.” (The dog bites the man.)
In German, the conjugated verb, the one affected by the sentence’s subject, is always in second position in the sentence.
Der Hund beißt den Mann.
The italics indicate that “bite” (written here in German) is the conjugated verb. It’s a verb that’s in the present tense, meaning that the dog is currently biting the man. It follows the subject of the sentence, the dog.
However, if you write this sentence in the past tense, making it “The dog bit the man,” it becomes:
Der Hund hat den Mann gebissen.
Now, “hat,” which means “has” in English, becomes the conjugated verb. (There are other simpler ways to say the sentence, with a slightly different verb form, but for illustration purposes, we’re using this form.)
As you can see, the conjugated verb is in the middle of the sentence. It usually, though not always, follows whatever noun is in first position in the sentence. Sometimes, it follows a whole phrase.
Here’s an example:
Nach dem Abendessen, hat der Hund den Mann gebissen. (After dinner, the dog bit the man.)
The verb “hat” is still in second position in the sentence, though it’s not the second word. Second position in this case means a group of words: Nach dem Abendessen (after dinner) is the first position as a phrase: “Hat” is in second position after the phrase. When you have an incomplete sentence phrase at the beginning of the sentence, the conjugated verb will follow the phrase once the phrase has concluded.
You can also see that “man” and “dog” have changed positions in the sentence as well. If German were a word-order language, the sentence wouldn’t make much sense.
While German and English do share a basic alphabet, German has a few more letters than English does. It’s likely that the first one you noticed is the Eszett in the word “beißt.” (It looks like a capital “B”.)
Also called the “sharp s,” this letter replaces the double “s” in some cases. It’s a letter you’ll have to memorize because the rules for using it have changed over the years.
German also employs the umlaut, the double dots, over some vowels: a, o and u. However, not all German words with a, o and u have the umlaut. Often, the umlaut is added when a word is made plural, like when you make “der Vater” (the father) plural.
Then it becomes “die Väter.” The sound of the word changes slightly when an umlaut is added to the above consonants.
You’ll also see some words, like “Väter” written as “Vaeter.” People use this spelling when they’re using a computer keyboard that doesn’t make the umlaut. Some older spellings, like Goethe’s name, still retain this spelling construction as well.
Learn more: German Alphabet and Pronunciation
Adjectives, when they follow a noun, have endings. Like the “the” word in the sentence, they indicate what role the noun they are modifying plays in the sentence. As you are learning German, it’s likely that you will encounter a table like these tables on the University of Michigan website:
Like the genders of the nouns, you’ll want to learn these because they play a critical role in understanding the grammatical structure of the sentence. Also like the nouns, the adjective ending will change, depending on whether the noun they modify is the subject, direct object, indirect object or a possession of the noun. I will cover this briefly here. However, to really learn this concept requires you to learn the tables that I linked to.
Now, back to the dog and the man, only this time, you’ll see some adjectives in the mix.
Der kleine Hund beißt den traurigen Mann.
In the example above, the adjectives “klein” (small) and “traurig” (sad) have been given adjective endings to indicate that they follow masculine nouns in the nominative and accusative cases, respectively.
As you can see, the word “klein” has an “e” added to it, which indicates that the adjective follows a masculine noun that is the subject of the sentence. The word “traurig” has an “en” attached to it, which tells you that it is an adjective that is modifying a masculine noun in the accusative or direct object case.
However, if we switch the order of klein and traurig, their endings will change as well. Here goes.
Der traurige Hund beißt den kleinen Mann.
Now, instead of having a small dog biting the sad man, you have the sad dog biting the small man. As you may have noticed, it isn’t just the meaning of the sentence that changed: The endings of the adjectives changed. This is because these adjectives now play a different role in the sentence than they did before.
Once again, it’s important to say that all nouns, regardless of their genders, are affected by this in German. It’s likely that you’ll not enjoy learning and relearning the adjective endings tables. Many students of German don’t, mostly, I find, because they don’t understand the role those words play in the sentence.
Learn more: German Verb Endings and Stems
I won’t write too much about this here, except to say that the way the plurals are created in German is different than it is in English, with a few exceptions. In English, to make a plural, you either add “s” or “es” to a word to make the plural. (Words like “sheep” are the exception.)
However, with the exception of words like “das Auto,” (the car) which becomes “die Autos” in the plural, German words follow a different methodology for creating plural.
In some cases, only the word for “the” will change. Here’s an example: “das Mädchen” (the girl) becomes “die Mädchen” (the girls). Otherwise, the plural will change the ending of a word in some way. Usually, it requires you to add an “e,” an “en” or an “n” (for words that already end in an “e”) or an “er” to the end of the word.
For example, “der Hund” becomes “die Hunde” in the subject case. “Der Mann” becomes “die Männer” in the subject case. (This will change somewhat with the case, something you’ll learn more about as you advance in your studies.)
The mistake that I see most native English speakers make is that they will add an “s” or an “es” to a word to make a German word plural.
What to Read Next
Finally, if you’ve never had any contact with the German language, then much of this will seem more confusing than it actually is. However, once you start learning words, the genders and the meanings, what I wrote above will start to make a lot more sense.
Learning the vocabulary, along with the genders of the nouns, the plurals of verbs and other “Germanisms,” will give you the context you need in order to make sense of these tips.