English-speakers studying German tend to be baffled not only by its pronunciation and long compound words, but also by its grammar. The addition of genus (genders) alone is alien to English, but these have to be conjugated as well, never mind all the little pitfalls of word order and other particularities inherent to any language.

1. Using the Wrong Gender in German

A friend of mine who was learning German, frustrated by genders, invented the word “de” to encompass them all. That is what English has - a single gender, and a single, undeclined article to go with it: “the”.

German, however, has three: masculine, feminine and neuter. There is nothing to it but to learn the article along with the word, but there are a few groups of words that always have the same gender.

German nouns that are neuter

Words ending in the diminuitive -chen are always neuter, which explains why a girl - “ein Mädchen” - though biologically female, is grammatically neuter.

When an infinitive is made into a noun, it is always neuter as well:

  • “das Lesen” (the reading),
  • “das Schreiben” (the writing).

So are words ending in “-il” (”das Profil”), “-tum” (”das Eigentum”) and “-ment” (”das Element”).

Masculine words in the German language

Masculine nouns include those ending in “-er” (”der Bäcker”, the baker), “-ich” (”der Teppich”, the rug), “-eich” (”der Bereich”, the area) and “-ismus” (”Optimismus”, for example).

Which German Words Are Feminine?

Feminine nouns end in “-heit” (”die Freiheit”, freedom), “-enz” (”die Existenz”, existence), “-schaft” (”die Gesellschaft”, society) and “-ung” (”die Bildung”, education). You can find a more comprehensive list here.

This article includes some additional tips - the points of the compass, for example, are masculine.

2. What Is the Right Plural for German Nouns?

Ein Baum, viele - Baums? Baume? Baumen? Bäumen? Bäume?

Where English, with few exceptions (mice, anyone?) settles its plurals fairly simply by adding an “s” at the end of words, German never bothered. That’s why it is important when learning German vocabulary to learn the plural with the actual word.

There are five main plural forms in German. Learn about German grammar rules and the exceptions to these rules here.

Plurals often add Umlauts.
The plural of the German noun "Baum" is "Bäume".

Some words actually do take a plural in -s. These are usually words of foreign origin, such as “Büro”, office (from the French “bureau”), “Club” (figure it out) or “Auto” (the actual German word for car is “Personenkraftwagen” or PKW, which is much too long.)

Some words don’t change much. If the central vowel is an “e” or an “i”, nothing else changes. If the vowel is an “a”, “o” or “u”, it gets an Umlaut: “ein Garten - die Gärten”, “eine Tochter - die Töchter”, “eine Mutter - die Mütter”. Most words ending in “-er” follow this scheme.

Some plurals end in -e: “der Freund - die Freunde”. These are usually one-syllable, and the same goes: if the main vowel is “a”, “o” or “u”, give it an Umlaut; the same if it is the diphtongue “au”: “der Sohn - die Söhne”, “der Baum - die Bäume”, “eine Stadt - die Städte”. There are exeptions to the Umlaut rule: “der Tag, die Tage”.

Still others end in “-er” - and again the Umlaut rule applies. “Das Kind - die Kinder”, “der Mann, die Männer”, “das Schloss, die Schlösser”.

And finally, there is the ending in “-n”. If the stem word ends in a consonant, “-en” is used; if it ends in a vowel other than “e”, “-nen”. Here, the Umlaut rule does NOT apply (it would just be too easy.) Words in ending in “-eit” and “-ung” generally have this ending. Many are feminine, even without the “-eit” or “ung” ending. “Eine Möglichkeit - viele Möglichkeiten”, “der Junge, die Jungen”, “eine Zeitung, die Zeitungen”.

Learn German online to help practise your genders and nouns.

3. How To Use the Right Ending for German Adjectives

Right. So you have your gender sorted out, and the plural of your word. You can decline “der, die, das” and “mein, dein, sein” but now -poof! - there is an adjective.

The gender is easy - it’s the same as the noun it defines.

With the indefinite article (“eine”) or the definite article, the adjective gets the ending in “e” in the nominative and accusative feminine and neuter, and “-en” for all other genders and cases.

However, the masculine nominative with “ein” takes an “-er”, the neuter with “ein” takes the “-es” in the nominative and accusative.

This site has educative tables, and here are some examples about how German adjectives behaves depending on whether they are preceded by the definite or indefinite article:

  • Der schwarze Kater (tomcat) ist in einer kleinen Kiste. -> Ein schwarzer Kater ist in der kleinen Kiste.
  • Der Mann legt den schwarzen Kater in eine kleine Kiste. -> Der Mann legt einen schwarzen Kater in die kleine Kiste.
  • Der Mann gibt dem schwarzen Kater eine graue Maus. -> Der Mann gibt einem schwarzen Kater die graue Maus.
  • Die graue Maus des schwarzen Katers schmeckt gut. -> Eine graue Mause eines schwarzen Katers schmeckt gut.
  • Das schöne Mädchen gibt dem kleinen Kind das gelbe Auto. -> Ein schönes Mädchen gibt einem kleinen Kind ein gelbes Auto.

4. Another Problem in German Grammar: Using the Wrong Case with German Prepositions

In theory, it is easy to learn German declention. Certain prepositions are always followed by the accusative (durch, für, gegen, ohne, um) and others by the dative (aus, bei, mit, nach, seit, von, zu). But what about the others? “In”, for example, or “auf”, “unter” and so many, many more?

Any prepositions having to do with location can take either the accusative or the dative. So how is a poor student of German to know which is which?

Let’s take “in”. Now we need something to put in, and something else for it to be put into. Since we’re science freaks, we are going to put Schrödiger’s Katze (cat) in a Kiste (box). It is “die Katze” and “die Kiste”. This is important.

Now, first we have to put the cat in the box. Since this is a movement - we are moving the cat from one place (her lovely spot on the windowsill, right where the sunlight falls) to another (a closed box with a grain of radioactive substance) - we have to use the accusative:

Die Katze kommt in die Kiste.

Now we close the lid and leave the poor beast to puzzle quantum physists as to whether or not it is alive. Since the cat is no longer moving (the box is small), we use the dative:

Die Katze ist in der Kiste.

In German grammar, use the accusative for movement and the dative for location.
In German, a different case is used depending on whether the cat is being put into a box or is already inside. Photo credit: tehchix0r via Visual hunt / CC BY-NC-SA

Sound simple? It is - until you start wondering what is moving where. It quickly gets very philosophical.

Taking German courses London can help you there!

5. When Not To Use an Article In Front of a German Noun

As in English, there are times when German does not use an article in front of a noun. The difficulty is finding out when.

Some nouns never use articles (proper nouns of certain companies and most cities and countries). For others, the article can be left out when:

The noun is an indefinite plural.

There is no such thing as a plural for an indefinite article in German.

  • Ich kaufe ein Brötchen. -> Ich kaufe Brötchen.
  • Ich hole eine Tasse. -> Ich hole Tassen.

German terms denoting size, weight or number do not get an article

  • Eine Tasse Tee.
  • Ein Löffel Zucker.
  • Ein Schuß Milch.
  • Zwölf Affen.
  • Zwei Kilo Mehl.

German vocabulary for materials and substances

  • Der Tisch ist aus Holz.
  • Das Kleid ist aus Seide.

Also professions and nationalities when used in sentences with the verbs “sein” and “werden” or after “als”.

6. Using “Kein” Instead of “Nicht” When Speaking German

Would John F. Kennedy, had he been less intent on showing solidarity, have said “Ich bin nicht ein Berliner” or “Ich bin kein Berliner?” Why does German even have several ways of negating a sentence?

Negate with kein for a noun, nicht for a verb or sentence.
"Ich bin kein Berliner" or "Ich bin nicht ein Berliner"? German negation is subtle.
Photo via Visualhunt

As a matter of fact, English does, too. You can say “I am not a Londoner” or “I am no Londoner”. But which is correct?

It depends on what, exactly, is being negated.

  • Use “nicht” when negating a verb or entire sentence: “Ich gehe nicht einkaufen”, “I am not going shopping” or “Ich will nicht auf die Party gehen”, “I don’t want to go to the party.”
  • Use “kein” when negating a noun: “Ich will keine Gurken.” “I don’t want any pickles”; “Ich gehe auf keine Party” “I am not going to any party.”

As you can see, if you can negate in “not…any” in English, “kein” is the better word. It replaces the indefinite article “einer/ein/eine”. In these sentences, you are not insisting you don’t want anything (which would be very Zen) or aren’t going somewhere specific, but saying you don’t want pickles, specifically, and are not going to parties in general.

7. Where Does the Verb Go In a German Sentence?

English has a fairly straightforward view of word order. Subject + Verb + Object. German, on the other hand, likes to take its verbs out for walks and give them a change of pace. When you learn German, it’s fairly important to remember where to put it:

In a normal sentence, the Verb always comes second. The first word can be the subject, the object (a little old-fashioned, but possible), a question word such as “Wann” or “Warum”, occasionally, though rarely, an adverb or adverbial phrase (In der Küche befindet sich der Kuchen.)

In verb forms using an auxiliary verb such as “haben” + a participle form, the auxiliary is treated like the actual verb and the participle comes at the end: “Ich habe die Plazierung des Verbes verstanden.”

If a verb has a prefix, this may be detachable, in which case it comes at the end: “Ich komme dir nach”, from “nachkommen”, or: “Ich sehe heute Abend mit einigen Freunde fern.” From “fernsehen”, to watch TV.

In a subordinate clause, the verb comes at the end: “Ich fragte mich, wo der Verb hinkommt”. In subordinate clauses, the auxiliary verb comes at the end after the participle: “Ich sagte, daß ich die Plazierung des Verbes verstanden habe.”

In questions without a question word, the verb comes first: “Kommt der Verb an erster oder zweiter Stelle?”

8. In German, Do You Use “Will” or “Werden” for the Future Tense?

When building the future tense, English uses the auxiliary verb “will”: “I will learn German online to-morrow.” But if you say: “Ich will morgen online Deutsch lernen”, you are not saying you are actually going to do so - just that you want to. “Will” is a form of “wollen”, to want. The proper auxiliary verb for the future tense is “werden”, which can also mean “to become”:

  • “Ich werde gut in Deutsch”: I will become good in German.
  • “Ich werde morgen Deutsch lernen:” I will learn German to-morrow.
  • “Ich will morgen Deutsch lernen”: I want to learn German to-morrow.

9. When Should You Use “Wann” Instead of “wenn” When Speaking German?

“Ich sage es dir, wenn ich nach Hause komme.” “Wenn willst du nach Hause kommen?”

The first is good German grammar, the second is not, but in neither of them are they discussing what time someone is coming home. It is easy for students of German to confuse the German “wenn” with the English “when”.

In the first instance, this is true, but not in the sense of “at what time”. It’s simply explaining that the telling is contigent to the coming home. It’s similar to: "I’ll tell you when I know", or "It will be finished when it’s finished."

"Wenn du nach Hause kommst, mußt du deine Hausaufgaben machen.”

“When you come home you will have to do your homework.”

Doing his homework is linked to coming home.

German uses "wenn" to mean both "when" and "if"
If you want to learn German, do your homework and learn to say the correct use of "when".
Photo credit: Jens-Olaf via Visualhunt / CC BY-NC-ND

Generally, though, “wenn” is best translated as the English “if”.

  • “Wenn du besser werden willst, musst du deine Hausaufgaben machen.”

“If you want to get better, you have to do your homework.”

  • “Wenn du Deutsch lernen möchtest, kannst du einen Online-Sprachkurs machen.”

“If you want to learn German, you can take an online language course.”

So, how do you ask what time someone is coming home? You use “Wann”.

  • “Ich lasse dir wissen, wann ich nach Hause komme.” “Wann kommst du nach Hause?”
  • “I will let you know when I am coming home.” “When are you coming home?”

If you want to go through this again, this site is slightly more concise than the others.

10. Where Does the Adverb Go in German Sentences?

English tends to put adverbs at the end of a sentence or just BEFORE the verb, but in German grammar they tend to come right AFTER the verb:

  • "Ich gehe gerne einkaufen."

I happily go shopping.

If the verb has objects, it comes after the indirect (dative) but before the direct (accusative) object:

  • "Ich gebe meinem Sohn jeden Tag ein belegtes Brot."

I give my son a sandwich every day.

German grammar is probably the hardest part for a student to learn, as it differs from English in so many details. But persevere, and you soon will be talking like a native!

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

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Sonia is an Egyptologist turned writer and translator. She speaks 3 and a half languages, can translate hieroglyphs and enjoys yoga, singing, embroidery and travelling through all of time and space.