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A Closer Look at the German Language

When you are learning a new language the grammar can be daunting – how do the cases work? Why is the word order so different from the one you are used to? Why are the adverbs and adjectives so confusing? What does transitive or intransitive mean? And particularly in German grammar, the inflections are so complicated – there are combinations of gender, case and plurals; not to mention that for some reason the nouns are capitalized – how will you ever get it all sorted out in your head? At Lingoda we understand the difficulties encountered when we learn new languages, and offer grammar lessons where you can discuss all of these subjects and more with a native, German-speaking teacher. In this way, you will learn naturally, speaking German from the very beginning, and you will find that a lot of your German grammar skills will simply evolve because you’re actually speaking the language.

German Grammar - The Four Cases

In German grammar, the cases are nominative (Nominativ), genitive (Genitiv), dative (Dativ), and accusative (Akkusativ). The words used for cases affect nouns, unlike in English where they are only usually applicable to pronouns, so you can have more than one meaning for a sentence depending on which case words you use. As all nouns are either masculine, feminine or neutral, and this doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the gender you would intuitively give a noun (girl, for instance –Mädchen – is neutral!), it really helps to learn each word together with its nominative case, e.g. der Junge instead of just Junge for boy.

Case Explanation Question Example Translation
Nominative This relates to the subject of the sentence, or the “doing thing”. Nominative case words are der (masculine), die (feminine and plural), and das (neutral). Who or what is giving the paint brushes to the dog? Paul gave the dog his sister’s paint brushes. Paul gab dem Hund die Malpinsel seiner Schwester.
Accusative This relates to the direct object of the sentence, or the thing which is receiving the action. Accusative case words are den (masculine), die (feminine or plural), and das (neuter) What did Paul give to the dog? Paul gave the dog his sister’s paint brushes. Paul gab dem Hund die Malpinsel seiner Schwester.
Dative This the indirect object, such as when an object is given to someone. Dative case words are dem (masculine and neuter), der (feminine), and den (plural). Whom gave Paul his sister’s paint brushes? Paul gave the dog his sister’s paint brushes. Paul gab dem Hund die Malpinsel seiner Schwester.
Genetive This is the possessor, relating to the English “whose?”. Genitive words are des (masculine and neuter) and der (feminine and plural). Whose paint brushes gave Paul to the dog? Paul gave the dog his sister’s paint brushes. Paul gab dem Hund die Malpinsel seiner Schwester.

Word Order in German

The word order, or syntax, in German grammar is generally more complex and flexible than English syntax. For simple sentences, where you have a subject, a verb, and an object or some other sentence element, the syntax will be familiar to English speakers since it follows the same rules, for instance the boy throws the ball would be der Junge (the boy – subject) wirft (throws – verb) den Ball (the ball – object).

Often, however, a sentence or phrase in German does not start with a subject, but with some other element. What is important to remember as a student of German grammar is that no matter how your sentence starts, the verb is always second, and if the sentence didn’t start with a subject, the subject must come immediately after the verb. For instance:

  • Tomorrow, my son goes to Berlin – Morgen (tomorrow) geht (goes – verb) mein Sohn (my son – subject) nach Berlin (to Berlin).

An exception to this would be if the sentence includes elements such as interjections, names, or exclamations – usually with a comma – for example:

  • Yes, tomorrow my son goes to Berlin would be ja, morgen geht mein Sohn nach Berlin. You see that in such a case the initial word or phrase before the comma comes first, but the German grammar “verb second and subject next” rule still applies to the rest of the sentence.

The German "Nebensatz"

Nebensatz, the subordinate or dependent clause in German grammar, is a phrase or part of a sentence that cannot stand by itself and is therefore dependent on or subordinate to the main sentence. A subordinate clause can begin a sentence or end it, but it is always separated from the main sentence with a comma, and always contains a subordinate conjunction which comes first and a verb which follows the conjunction. As you become familiar with the words which herald subordinate conjunctions, the clauses will become easier and more intuitive. Some examples of subordinate clauses are:

  • As soon as he arrives, we’ll eat. – Sobald er eintrifft, werden wir essen
  • I have to join our soccer team, although I’m not good at soccer. – Ich muss der Fussball-Mannschaft beitreten, obwohl ich schlecht im Fussball bin.
  • There are carrots for supper, whether you like them or not. – Es gibt Karotten zum Abendbrot, ob du sie magst oder nicht.
  • Whenever the sun is shining, everybody is happy. – Wann immer die Sonne scheint, sind alle glücklich.
  • Mary studies medicine, because she wants to become a dentist. – Mary studiert Medizin, weil sie eine Zahnärztin werden möchte.

In conclusion, don’t be afraid of German grammar! Although it may look confusing at first, the rules of the grammar make sense once you have learnt the basics, and your teachers at Lingoda will help you every step of the way, and plus, you will have access to extensive learning materials.