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Learn German: What are the Differences Between English and German Grammatical Rules?

By Sonia, published on 05/10/2017 Blog > Languages > German > Differences Between Learning German & English Grammar

Very often, when learning a foreign language we are struck first by the differences, not the similarities. But that is precisely what makes it so interesting. You may have been warned against the German language – or encouraged to learn German by a germanophile (or is it teutonophile?).

Either way, here are a few of the differences you can expect to come across over the course of your German grammar lessons.

The German Language Has Both Gender and Cases

How many genders does German have?

It is a recurring theme in all German online courses, but that’s because it is the single greatest stumbling block to anyone studying German: German nouns have genders. Anyone approaching German from another language has to learn this, of course, but most Romance (Latin-based) languages have gender, too. English only uses gender in pronouns, not in the articles, and adjectives aren’t expected to agree with anything and can be left alone to do their thing.

Of course, most Romance languages only have two – masculine and feminine – while German is very open-minded as to the sexuality of inanimate objects and offers a third gender: neuter.

Now, English speakers may come to terms with this, but most are baffled by the fact that the genders are spread liberally throughout German vocabulary. Not only are not all female creatures female (”das Mädchen”, the girl, is actually neuter because it has the diminuitive suffix “-chen”), but inanimate objects – referred in English universally as “it” – can be gendered too. “Milk”, for example, is feminine, “head” is masculine.

Babies and children are neuter.

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Are German words declined?

Of course, German being such a well-ordered sort of language, it is very important that nouns and adjectives know their proper grammatical place in the sentence. To do that, they are declined.

The good news is that, apart from adding an “-s” to the masculine and neuter singular in the genitive and an “-en” to plurals in the genitive and dative, the nouns themselves are pretty much left alone (unlike, say, Ancient Greek, which declined everything it could get its hands on.) This leaves the articles (determinate and indeterminate), demonstrative adjectives, pronouns and adjectives to change according to their grammatical identity.

Generally, the nominative is used for the subject, the accusative for the direct object, the dative for the indirect object and the genitive for possession (as in ownership, not demons.) Certain prepositions also take specific cases.

In German, the genitive is the possessive case. The gentitive case in German indicates possession – not this kind, but ownership.
Photo credit: Bibliothèque – Les Champs Libres – Rennes via Visualhunt.com / CC BY

How Is German Word Order Different from English?

German sentence structure is both more rigid and more fluid than in English, depending on the sentence type.

German word order is different German word order is different from English, as the different parts of speech have different places in the sentence.
Photo credit: bobulate via Visualhunt / CC BY-NC-ND

Verb placement in German sentences

German verbs have a fixed place in the sentence. In a main clause, it always comes in second place, even if what comes in first place is a secondary clause.

  • Ich arbeite zu Hause. (I work at home.)
  • Donnerstags arbeite ich zu Hause. (On Thurdsays, I work at home.)
  • Weil ich auf meine Kinder aufpassen muß, arbeite ich zu Hause. (Because I have to watch my children, I work at home.)

In a subordinate clause, the verb comes at the end:

  • Ich kann meine Arbeitszeiten bestimmen, weil ich zu Hause arbeite. (I can choose my own work hours because I work at home.)

In tenses with auxiliary verbs, the auxiliary takes the “verb slot”: the infinitive or participle comes at the end of the sentence, and the auxiliary either in second place (main clause) or at the very end (subordinate clause):

Letztes Jahr habe ich Donnerstags zu Hause gearbeitet. (Last year I worked at home on Thursdays.)

Wusstest du eigentlich, dass ich letztes Jahr zu Hause gearbeitet habe? (Did you know that last year I worked at home?)

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Where Do Direct and Indirect Objects Go in German Sentences?

Direct object come after the verb and indirect object. The direct of accusative object in the German language come after the indirect or dative object.

English has a fairly fixed order for direct and indirect objects:

  • I gave the gentleman a handkerchief. (Without “to”: Subject + Verb + Indirect Object + Direct Object)
  • I gave a handkerchief to the gentleman. (with “to”: Subject + Verb + Direct Object + Indirect Object)

Theoretically, the main order in German is as follows:

Subject + Verb + Indirect Object + Direct Object
Ich gab dem Herren ein Taschentuch.

However, the fact that German has cases makes it possible to mix the order around. Theoretically, you can mix and match however you want and still understand the sentence, however in practice, one of the elements replaces the subject at the beginning, bumping the subject to the place right after the verb:

Dem Herren gab ich ein Taschentuch.
Indirect Object + Verb+ Subject + Direct Object.

Where does German puts its adverbs?

English tends to put its adverbs just before the verb. In the German language, they come after the verb – either right after the verb, or after the indirect (dative) object if there is one and after all objects if they are pronouns.

German Doesn’t Have Continuous Tenses

German has several perfect tenses (past, present and future perfect) but no continuous tense. In English, the present continuous (”to be” + present participle ending in -ing) is used to show an action taking place at the moment of speaking or an action that takes place repeatedly – among other uses. German has no such tense. To say:
I am showering.

German simply says:
Ich dusche.
I shower.

They use the simple present. German doesn’t have a past or future continuous, either. This is why German native speakers who are speaking English have trouble with the continuous tenses, often using them when they ought to use the simple present, and vice-versa.

To express the meaning of the continuous tenses, you can use adverbs:

Ich dusche gerade.
I am showering right now.

I am learning German.
Ich lerne derzeit Deutsch.

I will be driving to school now.
Ich werde nun jeden Tag zur Schule fahren.

German Uses Long Words

English may have some odd constructions, but German can build almost any noun to mean precisely what they want it to mean. In English you have to encumber yourself with adjectives, verbs and all those little words that link them all together. In German, you can simply say:

Farhzeugversicherungsscheinsmappe
to mean “a folder for the car insurance policy”.

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German Doesn’t Have as Many Exceptions to Grammatical rules

Students of English are used to having any grammatical rules followed by the words “except when…” In German, though, there are very few exceptions.

Weak Masculines

However, their exceptions sometimes have their own exceptions. Weak masculines are a type of noun that take an “-en” ending in all cases except the nominative. Some of them, though, take an “-n” instead of “-en”, others take an “-s” in the genitive, and “Herr” takes an “-n” in the singular and “-en” in the plural. There is even a single neuter noun that is declined like a weak masculine (”das Herz”, the heart).

The Participle of Verbs ending in “-ieren”

German verbs ending in “-ieren” do not take the prefix “ge-” when forming the participle; on the plus side, all of them end in “-t”:

  • “Kochen” becomes “gekocht”
  • “Machen” becomes “gemacht”
  • “Lesen” becomes “gelesen” BUT
  • “Deklinieren” becomes “dekliniert”
  • “Dekorieren” becomes “dekoriert”.

“Zu Hause” and “nach Hause”

“Zu” is a prepositions that can mean “to” a location, “nach” usually means “after”. Yet when your are at home (as opposed to at someone’s house), you say you are “zu Hause”. If you are going home, you are going “nach Hause”.

If you are going to somebody else’s house, you are going “zum Haus von Gaby” and once you are there, you are “im Haus von Gaby”. Or, of course, “bei Gaby zu Hause” – at Gaby’s home, as opposed to her house.

In English, however, you are at home, or at Gaby’s house. However, you go home even though you go TO Gaby’s house.

In German, You Are Not On the Bus or the Plane, You are In Them

In English you say you are “on the bus”, or “on the plane”. Say in German that you are “auf dem Bus” and Germans get a distinctly odd expression on their faces – they are, in fact, imagining you on top of the bus, rather than inside it. German being the painfully logical language that it is, you say that you are “in the bus” or “in the plane”:

I sitzte im Bus.
I’m sitting on the bus.

I bin im Flieger.
I am on the plane.

In German, "on a bus" is "im Bus" Tell a German native speaker that you are “auf dem Bus” (on a bus), and this is what her will imagine.
Photo credit: Gene Hunt via Visual Hunt / CC BY

Other differences include the capitalisation of nouns, the declension of adjectives and variations in punctuation (such as where to put commas and what to do after a colon). But these are for other posts…

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Jennifer Kneif
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Hi Sonia,

I haven’t been able to read your whole article yet, but I noticed that you wrote “Ich gab dem Herren einen Taschentuch.” and “Dem Herren gab ich einen Taschentuch.” Both are incorrect, since handkerchief is neuter in German (Das Taschentuch), so the object form (accusative) needs to be the same as the nominative case (das / ein Taschentuch).

Regards,

Jennfier