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German grammar is the set of structural rules of the German language, which in many respects is quite similar to that of the other Germanic languages.
Although some features of German grammar, such as the formation of some of the verb forms, resemble those of English, German grammar differs from that of English in that it has, among other things, cases and gender in nouns and a strict verb-second word order in main clauses.
German has retained many of the grammatical distinctions that other Germanic languages have lost in whole or in part. There are three genders and four cases, and verbs are conjugated for person and number. Accordingly, German has more inflections than English, and uses more suffixes. For example, in comparison to the -s added to third-person singular present-tense verbs in English, most German verbs employ four different suffixes for the conjugation of present-tense verbs, namely -e for the first-person singular, -st for the second-person singular, -t for the third-person singular and for the second-person plural, and -en for the first- and third-person plural.
Owing to the gender and case distinctions, the articles have more possible forms. In addition, some prepositions combine with some of the articles.
A German noun – excluding pluralia tantum – has one of three specific grammatical genders (masculine, feminine, neuter). Nouns are declined for case and grammatical number (singular, plural). In German, all nouns are capitalized, not just proper nouns.
German has all three genders of late Proto-Indo-European—the masculine, the feminine, and the neuter. Most German nouns are of one of these genders. Nouns denoting a person, such as die Frau ("woman") or der Mann ("man"), generally agree with the natural gender of what is described. However, since the diminutive forms ending in -chen or -lein are grammatically neuter, there exist several notable counterexamples such as das Mädchen ("girl") and das Fräulein ("miss"). Thus these are not illogical, whereas das Weib (old, regional or anthropological: woman; a cognate of the English "wife") is really an exception. Furthermore, in German, the gender of nouns without natural gender is not predictable. For example, the three common pieces of cutlery all have different genders: das Messer ("knife") is neuter, die Gabel ("fork") is feminine, and der Löffel ("spoon") is masculine.
Students of German are often advised to learn German nouns with their accompanying definite article, as the definite article of a German noun corresponds to the gender of the noun. However, the meaning or form, especially the ending, of a noun can be used to recognize 80% of noun genders. For instance, nouns ending in the suffixes -heit, -keit, -ung, -tät, or -schaft are always feminine. Nouns ending in -ich, -ig, or -ing are nearly always masculine. As noted above, nouns ending in -chen or -lein are neuter. Many nouns starting with Ge- and ending in -e, as well as many nouns ending in -nis, -tum, or -sal, also are neuter. A noun ending in -e is likely to be feminine; it is masculine when it denotes people or a few animals: die Katze ("cat"), die Blume ("flower"), and die Liebe ("love") are feminine, while der Bote ("messenger"), der Junge ("boy") and der Knabe ("knave") are masculine. A few nouns ending in -e are neuter, like das Ende ("end"). Similarly, a noun ending in -er is likely to be masculine (der Teller, der Stecker, der Computer); however, das Messer ("knife") and das Wasser ("water") are neuter, whereas die Mutter ("mother") and die Butter ("butter") are feminine.
The German language has several different ways of forming the plural. Many feminine nouns are regular but many masculine and neuter nouns are not. For example, some plurals are formed with an "n" or "en", some with an umlaut and an "e", other plurals are the same as the singular, and some add "er" or an umlaut and "er". Many loanwords as well as some dialectal or colloquial nouns, take a plural in "s" (e.g. das Restaurant → die Restaurants). Some foreign endings, such as Latin -um, are deleted before the plural ending (e.g. das Zentrum → die Zentren). Sometimes the stress in the plural form is changed (e.g. der Muslim → die Muslime).
|die Frau (woman)||die Frauen|
|der Mann (man)||die Männer|
|die Kuh (cow)||die Kühe|
|der Globus (globe)||die Globen|
|der Atlas (atlas)||die Atlanten|
|der Kuss (kiss)||die Küsse|
|der Bus (bus)||die Busse|
|das Kabel (cable)||die Kabel|
|das Auto (car)||die Autos|
|die Mitarbeiterin (female colleague)||die Mitarbeiterinnen|
|der Kaktus (cactus)||die Kakteen|
Special colloquial or dialectal plural forms also exist. For example, Stöcker is often used as the plural of Stock "stick" in northern Germany, whereas the standard plural is Stöcke.
Unlike English, which has lost almost all forms of declension of nouns and adjectives, German inflects nouns, adjectives, articles and pronouns into four grammatical cases. The cases are the nominative (Nominativ, Werfall, 1. Fall), genitive (Genitiv, Wes[sen]fall, 2. Fall), dative (Dativ, Wemfall, 3. Fall), and accusative (Akkusativ, Wenfall, 4. Fall). The case of a particular noun depends on the grammatical function of the noun in the sentence.
Note: In earlier usage (17-19th century) German words derived from Latin also had a vocative and an ablative case, and some words still have a vocative (e.g. Jesus, vocative Jesu or Jesus, and Christus, vocative Christe or Christus).
|Nom.:||der Tisch||die Tische|
|Gen.:||des Tisch(e)s||der Tische|
|Dat.:||dem Tisch(e)||den Tischen|
|Acc.:||den Tisch||die Tische|
In contrast to strongly inflected languages like Latin, German expresses cases more through the article which accompanies a noun than through the inflection of the noun; although the number (singular vs. plural) is also expressed by inflecting the noun (der Tisch, die Tische). Other exceptions of a suffix expressing the case of a noun along with the article are the forms of genitive and dative singular and dative plural. Yet, one could still say that transferring the case-information to the article preserved the German case system throughout its development from Old High German to contemporary German.
Today, the use of the genitive case is relatively rare in spoken language - speakers sometimes substitute the dative case for the genitive in conversation. But the genitive case remains almost obligatory in written communication, public speeches and anything that is not explicitly colloquial, and it is still an important part of the Bildungssprache (language of education). Television programs and movies often contain a mix of both, dative substitution and regular genitive, depending on how formal or "artistic" the program is intended to be. The use of the dative substitution is more common in southern German dialects, whereas Germans from northern regions (where Luther's Bible-German had to be learned like a foreign language at that time) use the genitive more frequently. Though it has become quite common not to use the genitive case when it would formally be required, many Germans know how to use it and generally do so. Especially among the higher educated, it is considered a minor embarrassment to be caught using the dative case incorrectly. So it is not typically recommended to avoid the genitive when learning German: although the genitive has been gradually falling out of use for about 600 years, it is still far from extinct. The historical development of the Standardsprache has to some extent re-established the genitive into the language, and not necessarily just in written form. For example, the genitive is rarely used in colloquial German to express a possessive relation (e.g. das Auto meines Vaters "my father's car" may sound odd to some Germans in colloquial speech), but the partitive genitive is quite common today (e.g. einer der Besten "one of the best"). Furthermore, some verbs take the genitive case in their object, but this is often ignored by some native speakers; instead, they replace these genitive objects with (substitutional) prepositional constructions: e.g. Ich schäme mich deiner. ("I'm ashamed of you.") turns into Ich schäme mich wegen dir (or deinetwegen). ("I'm ashamed because of you.").
A German book series called Der Dativ ist dem Genitiv sein Tod ("The dative is to the genitive its death") alludes to this phenomenon (being called "genitive's death struggle" by the author) in its title. In correct standard German, the title would be Der Dativ ist des Genitiv[e]s Tod ("Dative is Genitive's Death"), or alternatively Der Dativ ist der Tod des Genitivs. As is apparent, the book uses dialect, i.e. by employing the dative case together with a possessive pronoun instead of the genitive, to poke fun at what the author perceives as a decline in the German language, since in written German a dative construction replacing the genitive is still considered a major error. This is, by the way, not how most Standard German speakers would colloquially replace the genitive case; rather, this usage is prevalent in some German regional dialects, such as Bavarian. Standard German speakers would construct Der Dativ ist der Tod vom Genitiv, which is (being literally the English "of the Genitive") incorrect in the Standard as well, but far less incriminating.
Linguistically, the thesis of the genitive case dying out can easily be refuted. Indeed, the genitive case has been widely out of use in most dialects of the German language for centuries. Only the replacement of dialects by a colloquial Standard German is new, and the use of the genitive case in the written language is unaffected. Also, many Germans wrongly use the genitive after prepositions such as nahe, gemäß and entgegen, although the dative is required.
There are, however, legitimate dative constructions to indicate possession, as in "Dem Knaben ist ein Buch zu eigen". The construction zu eigen, virtually appears only in Latin beginners' translations, as the sentence should indicate (puero liber est). Some dialects have "Dem Knaben ist ein Buch" which is literally a dativus possessivus. If a genitive is unmarked and without article (practically, in the plural), usage of von, followed by the dative, is not only legitimate but required, as in: "Die Belange von Minderheiten sind zu schützen" (minorities' affairs are to be protected). In that case, "Belange der Minderheiten" would contain a definite article, which does not reflect the intended indefiniteness of Minderheiten; "Minderheiten" itself is an unmarked plural, i.e. it could be any grammatical case. Additionally, the dative case is commonly used to indicate possession of bodily parts that are the direct objects of an action. Constructions such as Er brach sich den Arm. ("He broke his arm.", literally "He broke himself the arm.") and Du stichst dir die Augen aus, Junge! ("You'll put your eyes out, kid!", literally "You [will] put yourself the eyes out, kid!" ) are typical and correct in any context. In English, this construction only occurs in the construction to look someone in the eye and its variants.
The dative case is used for the indirect object of a verb. The sentence "Ich gebe meinem Sohn(e) einen Hund" ("I give my son a dog") contains a subject "ich", a verb "gebe", an indirect object "meinem Sohn(e)"; and a direct object "einen Hund". "Meinem Sohn(e)" is the to whom or the destination of the object of the subject's action, and therefore takes the masculine dative -m.
Dative also focuses on location. (See accusative or dative prepositions below.) German places strong emphasis on the difference between location and motion; the accusative case is used for motion and the dative for location. There are four important verbs that show this dichotomy: hängen/hängen, legen/liegen, stellen/stehen, setzen/sitzen (motion/location). The sentence Ich hänge das Bild an die (acc.) Wand., "I hang the picture on(to) the wall." demonstrates motion. On the other hand, the sentence das Bild hängt an der (dat.) Wand. shows location; now, the picture is located on the wall, so Wand is dative.
The case of a noun after a preposition is decided by that preposition. No prepositions require the nominative case, but any other case may follow one; for example, the preposition für (for) is followed by the accusative case, the word mit (with) is followed by the dative, and the word außerhalb (outside of) is followed by the genitive case. Certain prepositions, called "two way prepositions", have objects either in dative or accusative, depending on whether the use implies position (e.g. in der Küche = "in the kitchen", dative case) or direction (e.g. in die Küche = "into the kitchen", accusative case).
(The content of this section is not yet applicable for proper names.)
A German nominal phrase, in general, consists of the following components in the following order:
article, number (cardinal or ordinal), adjective(s), noun, genitive attribute, position(s), relative clause, reflexive pronoun
(the third stunning performance of the drama by Schiller this week in Hamburg)
Of course, most noun phrases are not this complicated; adjectives, numbers, genitive attributes, positions, relative clauses and emphasizers are always optional.
A nominal phrase contains at least a cardinal number, an adjective, a pronoun or a noun. It always has an article, except if it is an indefinite plural noun or refers to an uncountable mass.
If the noun is uncountable, an article is not used; otherwise, the meaning of the sentence changes.
A nominal phrase can be regarded a single unit. It has a case, a number, and a gender. Case and number depend on the context, whereas the main noun determines the gender.
A nominal phrase may have a genitive attribute, for example to express possession. This attribute may be seen as merely another nominal phrase in the genitive case which may hang off another nominal phrase.
A direct translation of "Der Beruf des alten Mannes" would be "the profession of the old man." "The old man's profession" could be translated directly and correctly as "Des alten Mannes Beruf", though this form is almost never used in modern German, even if educated circles regarded it a very elegant use of language. It is found in poetry, especially if helpful for metrical and rhyming purposes.
German permits lengthy nominal modifiers, for instance:
"Der während des Bürgerkrieges amtierende Premierminister" (literally: the during-the-civil-war-office-holding prime minister), the Prime Minister holding office/officiating during the civil war.
"Die noch zu Anfang des Kurses relativ kleinen, aber doch merklichen Verständigungsschwierigkeiten" (literally: The still-at-the-beginning-of-the-course-relatively-small-but-nevertheless-noticeable communication difficulties), the communication difficulties still relatively small at the beginning of the course, but nevertheless noticeable.
These are a feature of written (particularly educated) German. One also might hear them in the context of formal oral communications as well (such as news broadcasts, speeches, etc.).
A nominal phrase will often have a relative clause.
Aside from their highly inflected forms, German relative pronouns are less complicated than English. There are two varieties. The more common one is based on the definite article der, die, das, but with distinctive forms in the genitive (dessen, deren) and in the dative plural (denen). Etymologically this is related to English that. The second, which is more literary and used for emphasis, is the relative use of welcher, welche, welches, comparable with English which. As in most Germanic languages, including Old English, both of these inflect according to gender, case and number. They get their gender and number from the noun they modify, but the case from their function in their own clause.
The relative pronoun dem is neuter singular to agree with Haus, but dative because it follows a preposition in its own clause. On the same basis, it would be possible to substitute the pronoun welchem.
However, German uses the uninflecting was ("what") as a relative pronoun when the antecedent is alles, etwas or nichts ("everything", "something", "nothing"), or when the antecedent is an entire clause.
But when was would follow a preposition (still modifying an entire clause), it needs to be replaced with wo + preposition or wor + preposition when the preposition begins with a vowel. The same applies to indirect questions.
In German, all relative clauses are marked with a comma.
The inflected forms depend on the number, the case and the gender of the corresponding noun. Articles have the same plural forms for all three genders.
In relation to nouns, cardinal numbers are placed before adjectives, if any. If the number is relatively low, it is usually not combined with an indefinite plural article (e.g. einige or mehrere). Personal pronouns of the first and second person are placed before numbers. Personal pronouns of the third person cannot be used with numbers.
The cardinal number "one" is partly identical in form and inflection to the indefinite article. The number is distinguished from the article in speech by intonation and in writing sometimes by emphasis (e.g. italics or spacing: "ein" or "e i n"). In colloquial German, the indefinite article ein is sometimes shorted to [ən] (like English an), whereas eine becomes [nə]. In dialects, the shortening may arrive at [ə] (Schwa, like English a) or [a] in Upper German regions. The cardinal number (= one), however, always retains its full pronunciation.
The numbers zwei (two) and drei (three) (and sometimes other numbers as well) have case endings in some instances. Where an adjective would have weak endings, numbers do not have endings. If an adjective had strong endings, these numbers may also have strong endings in the genitive case
If there is no other word carrying the strong ending of the genitive plural, the numbers must carry it.
If these numbers are center of a nominal phrase in the dative plural and no other word carries case markers, they may carry dative endings.
German adjectives normally precede the noun they are modifying. German adjectives have endings which depend on the case, number and (in the singular) gender of the nominal phrase. There are three sets of endings: strong endings, mixed endings and weak endings. Which set is used depends on what kind of word the adjective comes after, and sometimes also on the gender and case.
Like articles, adjectives use the same plural endings for all three genders.
Participles may be used as adjectives and are treated in the same way.
In contrast to Romance languages, adjectives are only declined in the attributive position (that is, when used in nominal phrases to describe a noun directly). Predicative adjectives, separated from the noun by "to be", for example, are not declined and are indistinguishable from adverbs.
The declension of an adjective depends not only on the gender, number and case of the noun it modifies, but also on whether the indefinite article, definite article or no article is used with it. The following table shows two examples which exemplify all three cases:
|Masculine nominative singular||Feminine dative singular|
|definite article||der hübsche Mann (the/that handsome man)||vor der verschlossenen Tür (in front of the/that locked door)|
|indefinite article||ein hübscher Mann (a handsome man)||vor einer verschlossenen Tür (in front of a locked door) [a specific door]|
|no article||hübscher Mann (handsome man)||vor verschlossener Tür (in front of a locked door) [an undefined door or any door]|
Note that the word "kein" is declined similarly to the indefinite article.
Declension of adjectives is mandatory even in proper names. The name of Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, for instance, changes into "das Kunsthistorische Museum" when preceded by a definite article. Adjectival bynames given to historical or legendary persons must also be declined according to their grammatical role in a phrase or sentence. Hence, one says Karl der Große ist im Jahre 800 Kaiser geworden ("Charlemagne became emperor in the year 800"), but das Schwert Karls des Großen ("The sword of Charlemagne").
pronoun [position(s)] [relative clause]
|1st sg.||2nd sg.||3rd sg.||1st pl.||2nd pl.||3rd pl.||naturally: 2nd formal|
grammatically: 3rd pl.
The reflexive personal pronoun (in English, "myself" etc.) takes distinct forms only in the 3rd person (and 2nd person formal address) dative and accusative, to wit, sich. (Uncapitalized also in the 2nd person formal).
German verbs may be classified as either weak, if they form their past tense with a dental consonant inflection, or strong, if they exhibit a vowel gradation (ablaut). Most verbs of both types are regular, though various subgroups and anomalies do arise. However, textbooks often class all strong verbs as irregular. There are more than 200 strong and irregular verbs, and there is a gradual tendency for strong verbs to become weak.
In German declarative main clauses the finite verb is always placed as the second element. When there are more verbs in a sentence, the non-finite ones are placed at the end of the clause. With a subordinating conjunction, all verbs appear at the end of the clause. A verb placed as the second element does not necessarily mean it is the second word, rather, it is the second constituent of the clause. For instance the first position may be occupied by an article and a noun, a possessive pronoun, or even an entire subordinate clause.
Examples: (Underlined word indicates verb as second element.)
Examples: (Underlined words indicate verbs as both second and last elements.)
The following examples illustrate the use of subordinate clauses as the first element in a verb second structure: (Bold words indicate a subordinate clause. Underlined words indicate verbs as both second and last elements in the sentence.)
Inside a subordinate clause, introduced by a conjunction or a relative pronoun, the finite verb form comes last. Examples: (Bold words indicate the subordinate clause, bold italicized words indicate subordinating conjunction, bold underlined words indicate verbs at end of the sentence)
German has many verbs that have a separable prefix that can be unattached to its root. Examples are aussehen, to appear or look, and vorstellen, to imagine, or to introduce.
Prepositions in German can be difficult for English speakers to master. The simple reason is that prepositions are designed to give some direction, location, intensity, etc. to a sentence. The way an English speaker would indicate such things may be totally different from the way a German speaker would.
Furthermore, there are instances where German uses a preposition in a way that might seem strange to a native English speaker, e.g. as a separable prefix attributed to a verb. For example, in "Mach' die Lichter aus!" (Turn the lights off!), aus (out) is used instead of "ab". There is also the verb ausschlafen, literally "to sleep out", which in English idiom would be expressed by "sleep in".
The objects of some prepositions have a fixed case. For example, if 'bei', a dative preposition, is used in a sentence, its object will be dative, as in the sentence "Ich mache einen Besuch bei meiner Familie. (I'm visiting with my family). Notice the dative feminine inflection on "mein".
|Accusative||Dative||Genitive||Accusative or dative|
* With the dative in colloquial style and most often with pronouns.
** May take the ("hypercorrect") genitive.
*** As a preposition takes the genitive or a colloquial dative: entlang des Weges (dem Wege) "along the way", but as a postposition it takes the accusative with the same meaning: den Weg entlang.
"Unusual" prepositions, which exist in vast amounts in bureaucratic style, as a rule take the genitive. The nascent preposition "Richtung" (lit. "direction", as in "ich fahre (in) Richtung München", I'm driving in the direction of Munich) takes the accusative. An expanded list of prepositions taking the genitive case may be found here.
Two-way prepositions with either the dative or accusative mean location with the dative, as in "where" (wo?), and direction with the accusative, as in "where to?" (wohin?).
Modal particles (Abtönungspartikel) are a part of speech used frequently in spoken German. These words affect the tone of a sentence instead of conveying a specific literal meaning. Typical examples of this kind of word in German are wohl, doch, mal, halt, eben, nun, schon, eh, auch or ja. Many of these words also have a more basic, specific meaning (e.g. wohl "well", ja "yes", schon "already", auch "also"), but in their modal use, this meaning is not directly expressed — that is, there is no real English equivalent to those words, so in an English translation, the German modal particles are usually omitted.
German sentence structure is somewhat more complex than that in other languages, with phrases regularly inverted for both questions and subordinate phrases.
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