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German Lessons in Grammar, & Exceptions to the Rules: Learn German Fast

By Sonia, published on 26/09/2017 Blog > Languages > German > Exceptions to the Rules when Learning German Grammar

It is interesting to note that when you google “grammar exceptions in German” and the like, almost nothing comes up. German is a surprisingly exception-free grammar, which is refreshing for English-speakers for whom most rules are followed by: “except for…” Yet here are 10 exceptions to watch out for when learning German.

1. “Weak” Masculines in German Grammar or the Second Declension

Though in German grammar the articles are declined, most nouns are not, except for the genitive “s”.  Yet there is an odd group of nouns called “weak masculines” or, in German, the “second declination” (”Zweite Deklination”). These take an “-en” at the end in certain cases.

Weak masculines are declined in German In German grammar, the masculine is the weaker sex. Also, bowties are cool.
Photo via VisualHunt

This group includes all masculines ending in:
-e
-ist
-ent
-ant
-and

Also a few ending in a consonant, but with no further distinguishing characteristics, such as “Bär”, “Mensch”, “Held” and “Rebell”.

These masculines are declined as following:

Singular

  • Nominative: der Mensch
  • Accusative: den Menschen
  • Dative: dem Menschen
  • Genitive: des Menschen

Plural

  • Nominative: Die Menschen
  • Accusative: Die Menschen
  • Dative: Den Menschen
  • Genitive: Der Menschen

2. Learn the Exceptions to the Weak Masculines

Because it wasn’t complicated enough, there are exceptions to the exceptions.

“Der Käse” und “der See”, though both ending in “e”, are declined normally.

Some masculines ending in -e or -en take the genitive “s” in addition to the second declension.

This includes “Name”, “Wille”, “Frieden”, “Samen”, and a few others. Thus, it would be “des Namens” and “des Friedens” instead of “des Namen” and “des Frieden”.

A few masculines ending in a consonant take an “-n” instead of an “-en”:

“Nachbar,” (neighbour), “Bauer” (farmer) and Ungar (the Hungarian national):

Der Nachbar
Den Nachbarn
Dem Nachbarn
Des Nachbarn

Die Nachbarn
Die Nachbarn
Den Nachbarn
Der Nachbarn

“Herr” has its own version of everything – it takes only an “-n” in singular, but “-en” in plural:

Der Herr
Den Herrn
Dem Herrn
Des Herrn

BUT:

Die Herren
Die Herren
Den Herren
Der Herren

There is also one neutral noun that uses the second declination but in its own peculiar iteration, namely only in the genitive:

Das Herz
Den Herz
Dem Herz
Des Herzens

Die Herzen
Die Herzen
Den Herzen
Der Herzen

Learn German online for some extra practice.

3. Conjugating German Verbs in “-ieren”

“Ich mache” / “Ich habe gemacht.” “Ich stehe.” / “Ich habe gestanden.” “Ich dekoriere.” / “Ich – habe gedekoriert?”

Nope.

Learning the participle of German words is hard enough – some also change the stem of the word, some don’t. Most end in “-en”. But all add “ge-” at the beginning, right?

Wrong. One group of verbs does not form a participle beginning with “ge-”: verbs ending in “-ieren”. And since they already end in “-en”, their past participle ends in “-t”.

So the correct form for the present perfect of “Ich dekoriere” would be “ich habe dekoriert.”

4. The Meaning of the German Phrase “Zu Hause”

You think you have learned German well enought to state your intention of going places. If you say you are going to the chemist’s, you say: “Ich gehe zur Apotheke.” Once you are there, you say: “Ich gehe in die Apotheke rein.” and “Ich bin in der Apotheke.”

But once you start talking about home sweet home, you say: “Ich gehe nach Hause” and “Ich bin zu Hause.”
Unless, of course, you’re talking about any sort of house, and not your own, in which case you can say: “Ich gehe zu das Haus” and “Ich bin im Haus.”

Zu Hause means you're there. “Ich gehe nach Hause”, BUT “Ich bin zu Hause.” German uses different locational conjunctions when speaking of home.

If this is too confusing, practice saying : “Ich gehe heim.” and “Ich bin daheim.” instead. That way you can just focus on going “zu” shops and being “in” them, and don’t have to worry about “nach” or “zu” as meaning any else.

Learn how to master the spoken German word and eradicate German mispronunciations here.

5. Why Germans Say “zu Hause” and Not “Zum Haus” When They Mean “At Home”

And what’s this about “zu Hause” anyway? Shouldn’t it be “zum Haus”, as “zu” definitely takes the dative form, right? After all, that’s what they teach you in German lessons. And what’s that extra “e” at the end?
Welcome to natural language evolution.

The extra “e” comes from an older form of German, where some words got an “-e” ending in the dative singular. This use has passed from the language, but remains in the colloquial form “zu Hause”.

So the dative is still there, but when the article disappeared, the ending didn’t get tacked on to “zu”, but remained attached to the noun.

Search for German classes London or near you.

6. German Prepositions That Are Used With the Genitive

Generally, prepositions are followed by either the accusative (durch, für, gegen, ohne, um, and locational prepositions indicating movement) or the dative (aus, bei, mit, nach, seit, von, zu, or locational prepositions without indication of movement).

But, just for fun, some of them use the genitive. This is not, per se, an exception, as a good grammar book will tell you about them. In fact, in terms of numbers they are by far the biggest group. But they are often ignored when learning German because:

1. A lot of these are seldom used in everyday speech, so that you may only encounter them in texts using a more formal or academic language.

2. For those that are commonly used, the dative is replacing the genitive in common usage.

You can do this, too, but just so you can show off, here are a few of the most common ones:

  • Wegen: “Wegen des Regens bin ich zu spät gekommen.” (Because of the rain, I came in late.)
  • Während: “Während des Unterrichts sollte man nicht mit dem Handy spielen.” (You shouldn’t play with your mobile during class.)
  • Trotz: “Trotz der komischen Grammatik kann Deutsch lernen Spaß machen.” (Despite its odd grammar, learning German can be fun.)
  • (An)statt: “Ich gehe auf die Konferenz statt der Sekretärin.” (I am going to the conference instead of the secretary.)
  • Dank: “Dank meines Online-Sprachkurses habe ich mein Deutsch erheblich verbessert.” (Thanks to my online language course, I was able to improve my German greatly.)

You can find more here.

7. Exceptions on How To Decline German Adjectives

Adjectives take an “e” in the nominative and an “-en” everywhere else, right? And stays in its pure form in phrases with “sein” or “werden”:

”Er ist schon.” (He is handsome.) “Sie wird berühmt.” (She will become famous.)

Well, sort of.

For one, if you are using the indefinite article “ein”, the adjective will take on the missing “-er” in the masculine nominative and the “-es” of neuter nominative and accusative:

  • Der kleine Hund – >  Ein kleiner Hund

The small dog -> A small dog

Der kleine Hund but ein kleiner Hund This cute little dog illustrates the use of adjective endings with indefinite articles.
Photo credit: practicalowl via Visual Hunt / CC BY-NC

  • Das  kleine Kind -> Ein kleines Kind

The small child – > A small child.

  • “Ich habe ein schönes Kleid gekauft.”

I have bought a nice dress.

Some German adjectives also get slightly modified when they are declined.

For one, you don’t add an extra “e” if the adjective already ends in one, such as “leise”, quiet:

  • “Die Katze ist leise” (the cat is quiet)-> “Eine leise Katze” (a quiet cat).

Adjectives ending in “-el” usually lose the “e” before the last consonant:

  • “Das Zimmer ist dunkel” (the room is dark) -> “ein dunkles Zimmer” (a dark room)

Adjectives ending in “-er” lose the “e” IF the preceding vowel sound is a diphtongue:

  • “Die Schraube ist locker” (the screw is loose) -> “eine lockere Schraube” (a loose screw) = no diphtongue, the “o” in “locker” is a pure vowel.
  • “Das Essen war teuer” (the meal was expensive) -> “ein teures Essen” (an expensive meal) = “eu” is a diphtongue, so the “e” before the “r” is dropped.

The German adjective “hoch”

“Hoch” has its very own rules: the “c” gets dropped when declining.

“Der Berg ist hoch” (the mountain is high)
“Ein hoher Berg” (a high mountain) declines as:

Ein hoher Berg
Einen hohen Berg
Dem hohen Berg
Des hohen Berges

8. German Verbs Where You Cannot Separate the Prefix

All right, you’ve been learning German for years, took ten online languages course, now you have finally got it. If the verb has a prefix, the prefix likes to take off and go to the end of the sentence.

Not all prefix verbs can be separated from their prefixes. Verbs with prefixes are usually separated, with verb stem and prefix going their separate ways.
Photo credit: AndGeorgeMakes4 Studios via Visual Hunt / CC BY-NC-SA

So it’s:

  • “Ich komme gleich nach.” (nachkommen, not to be confused with the noun “Nachkommen”, which means descendants.)
  • “Du schaust zu.” (zuschauen)
  • “Er bereitet sich vor.” (vorbereiten)
  • “Wir brechen es zer.” (zerbrechen)

Wait, what?

Obviously, “zerbrechen” is built upon the verb “brechen”, to break, and it means “to break apart”. “Zer” is a prefix, and yet, the correct form is: ”Wir zerbrechen es.”

There is a certain amount of prefix verbs where the prefix cannot be separated.

These are verbs starting with:

  • Be- (besprechen, begegnen, bekommen)
  • Emp- (empfangen, empfinden)
  • Ent- (Entstehen, entfernen)
  • Er- (erfinden, erklären)
  • Ge- (gebrauchen, gelangen)
  • Miss- (missbrauchen, misstrauen)
  • Ver- (verlassen, verbieten, versprechen)
  • Voll- (Vollenden, vollziehen)
  • Zer- (zerbrechen, zerstören)

If you are using flash cards in some form (digital or analog) to learn German vocabulary, you can mark separable prefix verbs with a little dot or a hyphen. This will help you learn them as you go instead of having to learn an extra list of inseparable prefixes like the one above.

9. When the Verb Doesn’t Come at the End in a Subordinate Clause

Generally, when dealing with subordinate clauses, the conjugated verb comes at the end; in other words, if you are using a tense that has an auxiliary verb, the auxiliary verb comes after the main verb:

  • “Ich sagte ihm, dass ich gestern einkaufen war.” – I told him I went shopping yesterday.

However, if the verb is modal or is used with another verb in the infinitive (verbs such as “lassen”, for example), for the sake of sanity the auxiliary comes before the others:

  • “Ich sagte ihm, dass ich gestern habe einkaufen müssen.” (NOT “dass ich gestern einkaufen müssen habe.”) – I told him that I had to go shopping yesterday.

That’s about it. Wait, weren’t you promised ten? Well, it’s probable I overlooked some obscure exception to an even more obscure rule, but as I said, German is fairly straightforward. Not easy, but mostly rules stick.

Learn all about German spelling and how to master the written German language here.

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