Here is your overview German grammar guide with links to my essential guides to individual topics. As we go, I’ll bust the jargon and explain English and German grammatical terms you need. The final section below includes links to level-by-level breakdowns of the grammar you’ll typically meet as you move from beginner, to upper beginner, to intermediate German learner and beyond.
Still not even sure whether German grammar even matters? If so, then check out the companion post to this one: Learn German Grammar: why and how?
Here are links to the different sections of the rest of this post, so that you can easily jump ahead if you’re looking for something in particular. Then, if you want to know more, follow links in the final section to the Howtogetfluent essential German grammar guide on the topic of your choice:
Why bother with a German grammar guide?
For a German learner, grammar overviews and guides are great for three things:
- a sense of the “lay of the land” at the start of your journey to German fluency;
- as a source of reference when you have specific questions along the way; and
- for reviewing your knowledge (and plugging the gaps) as you become more advanced in the language.
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German grammar terms
I still have bad memories from high school German lessons of not understanding the difference between a subject and an object). So, I understand why many people are intimidated by grammatical jargon.
Now, I’ve no time for people who use jargon to exclude and confuse people but here’s the thing: every field of knowledge has its specialist vocabulary, whether we’re talking car maintenance, astrophysics or embroidery. It makes it possible to talk about a topic more quickly and accurately than otherwise would be the case.
It doesn’t take much effort to demystify grammar terms in English and German. German often has two words for each idea: like in English, there’s often a word derived from Latin. Unlike English, German also has its own “pure” Germanic coinages. These are usually pretty literal and really help get the meaning clear. For example, an “adjective” is a word that describes what someone or something is like: a fluffy cat, a thrilling experience. The German is either das Adjektiv or das Eigenschaftswort. “Eigenschaftswort” literally means “Quality word”. That gets the meaning of “adjective” across rather well, I’d say. In this overview German grammar guide, I’ve added the “pure” and the Latin-derived German terms.
German parts of speech
Nouns (der Hauptwort, -wörter; das Nomen, same plural / der Substantiv, -e) are words that denote a person, place, a thing – whether animal, vegetable or mineral or a more abstract feeling or concept: a dog (ein Hund), the weather (das Wetter), life (das Leben). A key feature of German is that each noun will be in a particular case (“case” indicates the relationship of the noun to other nouns or pronouns in the sentence or phrase: who’s doing what to whom and so on).
Key German noun topics:
Noun Gender (das grammatisches Geschlecht, pl: Geschlechter; das Genus, pl: die Genera)
Noun Plurals (der Mehrzahl, -en; der Plural, -e)
Cases (der Fall, pl: die Fälle; der Kasus, pl. same: die Kasus)
- German cases overview
- Nominative case (der ester Fall, der Wer Fall, der Nominative)
- Genitive case (der zweiter Fall, der Wes-Fall, der Genitiv)
- Dative case (der dritte Fall, der Wem-Fall, der Dativ)
- Accusative case (der 4. Fall, der Wen-Fall, der Akkusativ)
Articles (der, die das, ein, eine etc) (das Geschlechtswort, -wörter; der Artikel, pl. same: die Artikel) and other “determiners” before nouns.
Adjectives (das Eigenschaftswort, -wörter / Wie-Wörter / das Adjektiv, -e) are words that describe what somebody or something is like, for example old, young, intelligent, red, tired. German the sentence “The man is old” would be “Der Mann ist alt”. “Old” and “alt” are adjectives. A key feature of German is that adjectives have case endings, depending on the role of the noun that they’re describing.
Key German adjective topics:
Adjective endings (declension)(die Deklination der Adjektive)
Possessive adjectives (Possessive Adjektive)
Comparison of adjectives (die Steigerung der Adjektive)
- Comparative adjectives (der der Steigerungsstufe; der Komparativ)
- Superlative adjectives (der Superlativ; der Höchststufe)
Verbs (der Zeitwort, -wörter; das Verb, -en) are words that express a state or an action. For example: to be (sein), to love (lieben), to make (machen), to forget (vergessen).
The verb can be in the infinitive (die Nennform) which names an action or state (so it’s really a kind of noun: a verbal noun). It’s the “dictionary” form that we can usually put “to” in front of in English (to eat). In German, infinitives all end in -en (nearly all in -en). The infinitive is a fixed form and doesn’t change to show you who or what is doing the action or experiencing the state or when.
The form of the verb changes according to who’s at it! I (first person singular), you (second person singular or plural), he/she/it (third person singular), we (second person plural) or they (third person plural). Those changes (usually the ending, but sometimes a stem change) are called “conjugations” (like in English: I eat, he eats).
Verbs can also show the time of state or action (tense). Verbs can indicate a fact. That’s the indicative mood. Verbs can indicate possibility. That’s the subjunctive mood. In the imperative mood, verbs give a command. Verbs can also show whether somebody or something is doing an action (active voice) or whether it’s done to them by somebody or something else (passive voice). The conjugation of the verb often varies according to tense and mood (though some forms overlap).
So, in summary, when a German verb conjugates it is “marked” for five things: person, number, tense, mood, and voice. Another word for a conjugated verb is a finite verb (as opposed to the thee non-finite or unconjugated forms: the infinitive, the present participle and the past participle).
The object of the action of a verb may be in the accusative, dative or genitive case (and some verbs take objects in more than one case, depending on meaning).
Key German verb topics:
Verb types (das Verb, -en; die Zeitwort, – wörter) (infinitives, weak, mixed, strong, fixed and separable prefixes).
- Infinitive (die Nennform)
Verb tenses (die Zeitform, -en ; das Tempus, pl: die Tempora) (simple and compound)
Verb mood (die Aussageweise, -en; der Modus, pl: Modi).
- Indicative mood (die Wirklichkeitsform, -en; das Indikativ, -e).
- Subjunctive mood (der Möglichkeitsform, -en; der Konjunktiv, -e).
- First subjunctive (der Konjunktiv I)
- Second subjunctive (der Konjunktiv II)
- Imperative mood (der Befehlsform, die Befehlsformen)
- Modal verbs (Modalverben)
Verbal voice (die Handlungsrichtung / das Genus des Verbens / das Genus verbi)
- Active voice (die Tatform, -en; das Aktiv, -e)
- Passive voice (die Leideform, -en; das Passiv, -e)
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Prepositions (das Verhältniswort, -wörter; die Preposition, -en) are small words typically indicating position, direction or time but sometime also a logical relationship. The German “Verhältniswort”, literally “relation word” actually makes things clear. These words link nouns or pronouns (people, animals, places, things) together so that their relationship to each other is revealed. For example: Der Hund steht vor der Tür (location, static: The dog is in front of the house). Wir fahren in die Stadt (location, movement: We’re driving into town), Er ist vor seinem Vater gestorben (time: He died before his father); Dank seinem Geld muss er nicht arbeiten (logic: Thanks to his money, he doesn’t have to work). The case of the nouns or pronouns to which prepositions relate depends on the pronoun (and some pronouns occur with the accusative or the dative, depending on the meaning).
Key German preposition topics:
Accusative prepositions (Präpositionen mit dem Akkusativ)
Dative prepositions (Präpositionen mit dem Dativ)
Variable prepositions (Wechselpräpositionen)
Genitive prepositions (Präpositionen mit dem Genitiv)
Pronouns (das Fürwort, pl: -wörter; das Pronomen, pl. the same: die Pronomen). A pronoun stands in for a noun and thus, like nouns, pronouns change according to case to show their relationship to other nouns or pronouns in the phrase. Pronouns examples: he (er), nobody (niemand), something (etwas).
Key German pronoun topics:
Personal pronouns (persönliche Fürwörter; Personalpronomen)
Possessive pronouns (besitzanzeigende Fürwörter; Possessivpronomen)
Demonstrative pronouns (hinweisende Fürwörter; Demonstrativpronomen)
Indefinite pronouns (unbestimmte Fürwörter; Indefinitpronomen)
Reflexive pronouns (rückbezügliche Fürwörter; Reflexivpronomen)
Relative pronouns (bezügliche Fürwörter; Relativpronomen). A relative clause (Relativsatz) make clear who or what a person or thing already mentioned in the main clause is or adds more information about that person or thing. In the relative clause, you use a relative pronoun, rather than naming the person or thing again. For example:
Adverbs (der Umstandswort, -wörter / das Adverb, -ien) tell us more about the state or action of a verb, or more information about an adjective or even another adverb. In English they are often like adjectives but with -ly added: quick > quickly. In German their form is often exactly the same as the equivalent adjective: schnell > schnell. It’s important to get the adverb in the right place in a sentence or phrase. If you have more than one adverb, you need to get the order of adverbs right too.
Conjunctions (das Bindewort, -wörter; die Konjunktion, -en). Conjunctions are words that join up two clauses that could be simple free-standing sentence in their own right. For example: and (und), but (aber), because (weil), neither…nor (weder…noch).
Here on the site, the Conjunctions overview post looks at both types of conjunctions. First, co-ordinating conjunctions (nebenordnende Konjunktionen). These add two clauses of equal importance (two Hauptsätze), Second, subordinating conjunctions (unterordnende Konjunktionen). These link a clause containing a main idea with a subsidiary idea (a subordinate clause – der Nebensatz, -sätze)).
Just one more big topic to cover in this German grammar guide!
Word order and sentence structure (der Satzbau)
English words are generally not marked for case, so the word order can be very important in showing who does what to whom: “The man bites the dog” is very different from “The dog bites the man”.
In German “Der Mann beisst den Hund” and “Den Hund bisst der Mann” mean the same thing (even though the emphasis is a little different in each).
So, the order that individual words and different parts of a sentence come in a phrase or sentence can be more flexible in German than in English.
On the other hand, in some ways German word order is more fixed, for example the position of the verb in the sentence or the order in which we place adverbs.
In general, it actually makes more sense to talk of sentence structure than word order. We need to understand the position of not just individual words but also the position of of a phrase, a group of words that together perform a function, for example “den alten Mann”, “mit dem Hund”, “am kommenden Mittwoch”. These are examples sentence parts (das Satzglied, pl: -er). There are four Satzglieder: subject (das Subjekt, -e), predicate (das Prädikat, -e), object (das Objekt, -e), adverbial (das Adverbial, -ien).
Key German word order topics:
Simple sentences (der einfache Satz, pl: die einfache Sätze)
Complex sentences (zusammengestellte Sätze): clauses (der Teilsatz, -sätze), compound sentences (Satzreihe); complex sentences (Satzgefüge) of a main clause (der Hauptsatz, –sätze) and a subordinate clauses (der Nebensatz, -sätze)
German grammar level by level
To conclude this overview German grammar guide, let’s turn to how much grammar you need at each stage of your German journey.
Most modern courses will teach grammar in more-or-less the same order. This is done with reference to the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages attainment scale (from A1 up to C2) and to leading exams, such as the Goethe-Institut German exams. Of course, the boundaries between levels aren’t hard and fast. Good courses will introduce more “advanced” grammar in useful “set phrases” that you can learn “on trust” until the time is right to understand more deeply what’s going on. Here at Howtogetfluent, I’m working on a series of grammar overviews for the different CERFL attainment levels.
A1 German grammar
A2 German grammar
B2 German grammar
C1 German grammar
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