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German Lessons: An Overview of German Grammar

From Sonia, published on 05/10/2017 Blog > Languages > German > Learning German: the Basics of Grammar

If you want to learn German, you have to get used to the fact that German is a foreign language. As you are an educated person, this may seem obvious, yet many a language student has given up because they didn’t realise just how much work taking language courses can be.

It’s not simply a question of learning vocabulary – the grammar is different, too.

Things that seem self-evident to us in English – such as the order of words in a sentence – are suddenly very different in German. Here are some examples, and a few tips for books on learning German to get you started.

Contrasting English and German Grammar

When learning German, English speakers are confronted by all the differences between the two languages. Some of them are relatively minor – German capitalises all nouns, not just the proper ones, and can combine them into mega-words of gargantuan proportions, such as “Schulausflugteilnahmegenehmigung” (an authorisation to take part in a school outing).

Others are just a little bit frustrating. Some verbs tenses are missing or used differently. For example, German grammar has no continuous tenses to express an action that is still happening at the moment you are talking, but uses instead the simple present. This is less of a problem for English-speakers learning German than for German speakers wanting to learn English, as they have to learn how to use a tense which has no equivalent in their language.

One happy difference between the English and German language is the relative derth of exceptions in German. There are a few exceptions in declension (”weak” masculines) and conjugation (verbs ending in “-ieren”), some prefix verbs that are separable, and there are some adjectives that get a tad wonky when they’re declined.
A few of the other differences are outlined below.

Learning German Gender and Cases

Of course, as English doesn’t use gender for inanimate objects and only pronouns are declined, the existence in the German language of both gender (three!) and declension (four cases!) is a bit of a challenge.

What genders are there in German?

Gender in the german language German has three genders: masculine, feminine and neuter.
Photo credit: amboo who? via Visual hunt / CC BY-SA

As a forward-thinking language, German has three genders: masculine, feminine and neuter. But while you might logically expect women and female animals to be feminine, men and male animals masculine, and anything inanimate to be neuter, this is not the case. Just as two-gender languages such as French and Italian assign gender to inanimate objects, so too do the Germans.

There are some rules to establish what the gender of a noun is – words designating certain specific things (calendar words or the points of the compass, for example) or with certain specific endings will all take the same article. But for the rest, there is no hope but to learn the article (masculine “der”, Feminine ”die”or neuter “das”) along with the word itself.

Cases in German Grammar

Cases are helpful in determining as what part of speech as noun is functioning. The nominative case is used for the subject and object of verbs such as “sein” (to be) and “werden” (to become). The accusative is used for direct objects, the dative for indirect objects. The genitive is the possessive case.

In addition, certain prepositions take specific cases, and locational prepositions take either the accusative (if there is movement) or the dative (if there is none).

How To Master German Sentence Structure

At first, German sentence structure seems to resemble that of English. The usual German word order is the same:

Subject + Verb + Indirect (dative) Object* + Direct (accusative) object
(*In English, the placement of the indirect object depends on whether the preposition “to” is used or not.)

However, German can move any other part of speech, including adverbs, into first place, bumping the subject into third place after the verb. The use of cases still makes it clear what their role in the sentence is. In second place, no matter what else, comes the verb.

At least, the verb comes second in main clauses, and if the verb tense takes an auxiliary verb, the auxiliary takes the second place, while the infinitive or participle comes at the end:

Subject + Auxiliary Verb + Indirect Object + Direct Object + Infinitive or Participle.

German word order is sometimes flexibe. The existence of cases in the German language makes it possible to mix up word order in a German sentence.
Photo credit: susivinh via VisualHunt / CC BY-ND

Sentence structure of German subordinate clauses

In secondary clauses, the verb comes at the end, with any auxiliaries at the very end :

Conjunction + Subject + Indirect Object + Direct Object + Infinitive or Participle + Auxiliary Verb

The German Imperative Voice

The order of words in German imperative sentences is somewhat different.

To put more emphasis on the verb, it comes first:

Lasse mich los!
Lerne dein Vokabel!

Word order in German questions

For questions, German sentence structure all depends on whether the question can be answered by yes or no, or not. In questions needing a question word, the question word takes first place, leaving the verb in second place.

For questions taking a yes or no answer, the verb comes first, then the subject, then the rest:

Kennst du die richtige Wortfolge für diesen Satz?

German Verb Tenses

German tenses include past, present and future German tenses allow you to express actions taking place at different times in relation to each other.
Photo via Visualhunt

As mentioned before, German Verbs don’t have any continuous tenses, but does have a simple present, simple past, a future tense and prefect tenses for all three.

Expressing the present in German

When you want to express something happening now, or a repeated action that has taken place in the past and will continue to take place, you use the simple present:

Ich dusche. = I am showering.
Ich gehe jeden Tag in die Schule. = I go to school every day.

German tenses for past actions

The simple past is mostly used in the written language, and tells of a past action that is no longer taking place. This action can be punctual or repeated:

Ich duschte Gestern. = I showered yesterday.
Als Kind ging ich jeden Tag in die Schule. = As a child I went to school every day.

The present perfect is formed by: The auxiliary verb “haben” or “sein” in the simple present + a past participle.

It is used much like the simple past and has mostly replaced it in everyday speech.

Ich habe geduscht. = I showered.
Als Kind bin ich jeden Tag in die Schule gegangen. = As a child I went to school every day.

The past perfect is formed by: The auxiliary verb “haben” or “sein” in the simple past + a past participle

It is used to indicate a past action that takes place before another action that is also in the past.

Bevor ich aus dem Haus ging, hatte ich geduscht. = I had showered before leaving the house.

Bevor ich zur Universität ging, war ich zur Schule gegangen. = I had gone to school before going to university.

How Does German Express the Future?

One way to express future actions in German is actually the simple present. It is used for actions happening in the near future, as long as the context makes it clear that it is not happening immediately. This corresponds to one of the uses of the present continuous in English:
Ich dusche jetzt, dann gehe ich ins Kino. = I am showering, then going to the cinema.

Morgen gehe ich wieder in die Schule. = Tomorrow, I am going back to school.

But German also has its own future tense for actions farther away in the future or in instances when it could otherwise be unclear. It is formed by:
The simple present of the verb “werden” + the infinitive

Nächste Woche werde ich ins Kino gehen. = I will go to the cinema next week.

Wenn ich wieder gesund bin, werde ich in die Schule gehen. = I will go back to school when I am healthy again.

And yes, there is a future perfect, which takes:
The simple present of the verb “werden” + participle of the main verb + the infinitive of “haben” or “sein”

It is used for future events expected to happen or events in the past one suspects are over at the time of writing:

Irgendwann werden alle Filme in 3-D gedreht sein. = Some day, all movies will have been shot in 3-D.

Er ist nicht zur Schule gekommen, er wird krank gewesen sein. = He hasn’t come to school, he must be sick.

Some Books To Help You With Your German Courses

Grammar books are good for reference. Learning German from books is not the ideal way, but books on grammar and vocabulary can help you consolidate what you learnin in your German online courses.
Photo credit: musenationaldeleducation via VisualHunt / CC BY-NC-ND

Most books for learning German are focussed on conversation, aiming at building up vocabulary and grammar through a series of situations – such as the “Idiot’s Guide To Learning German” or the first two “ German for Dummies”. These are good for starting out in a foreign language.

If you are looking for a reference book on German grammar, the last two “German for Dummies” (”Intermediate German for Dummies” and “German Essentials for Dummies”), “The Everything Essential German Book” and Collins Easy Learning Complete German all offer chapters sorted according to parts of speech.

For more visual learning, children’s books and illustrated dictionaries are a must, for example from the Usborne language series or Gisela Specht and Juliane Forßmann’s “Bildwörterbuch Deutsch”. There are even some illustrated flashcards by Berlitz.

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