Get a 40% off forever discount with this pretty big deal. Ends Soon!
Get a 40% off forever discount with this pretty big deal. Ends Soon!
GermanPod101.com Blog
Learn German with Free Daily
Audio and Video Lessons!
Start Your Free Trial 6 FREE Features

What’s German Grammar All About?

Thumbnail

Congratulations, you’ve joined the club! By just opening this article, you’ve become a learner of German. Excited?

Well, that’s how easy it really is. Lots of people say that learning German is hard, but it’s really just something you have to approach methodically.

And that’s because of German grammar. While German vocabulary is based on roots and quite logical, and German pronunciation is easy to master with a few new lip shapes, the grammar tends to prove difficult for learners (though some say that it’s getting simpler over time).

So now that you’re learning German, what exactly is it that you need to pay attention to? How complex are the different parts of German grammar, and what is it going to take to master them? It’s time to find out right here, once and for all. 

Without further ado, here are the elements of German grammar you really need to know when starting out.

Log in to Download Your Free Cheat Sheet - Beginner Vocabulary in German Table of Contents
  1. General Rules
  2. German Noun Gender
  3. German Cases
  4. German Word Order
  5. German Verbs
  6. Conclusion

1. General Rules

Someone about to Push Over a Wooden Block for a Domino Effect

German grammar is considered “rigid,” but it just has lots of details to keep track of. It’s definitely an intellectual challenge to get on top of it all, but once the patterns start feeling natural, it’s pretty exciting to see your mind intuitively handle new rules it didn’t even know were possible before.

The German grammar rules that trip most people up have to do with the noun gender and case system. English gets by fine without either, so why bother in German? Well, to a German, the noun genders just sound right when they’re used correctly, and something’s off when a non-native consistently makes mistakes.

In general, adjectives and articles are the hardest things to learn for this reason—they change based on case and gender, meaning your brain has to work fast to keep track of the case and gender of every element in the sentence.

On top of that, the German word order is sometimes opposite of that in English in terms of verb placement. A long German sentence can even have a stack of modal verbs at the end that you have to decipher!

Overall, though, as long as you systematically work through these new rules, it’s just a matter of time. Nobody who’s been consistently studying German for years has failed to absorb these patterns.

2. German Noun Gender

A Dog Looking Out the Window

In German grammar, nouns take on one of three genders, and a noun’s gender affects the articles and the adjectives. The German definite articles are der, die, and das, corresponding to the masculine, feminine, and neuter genders respectively.

If you’re not familiar with the concept of grammatical gender, try disassociating it mentally from the concept of human gender. “Gender” here really means “genre,” as in classes of words.

Each word belongs to a certain “class,” and that’s reinforced naturally for native German speakers thanks to massive input. They’ll always see the word Fenster (“window”) with the article das, and so to them, it’s crazy to think it could be anything but a neuter word.

The same mentality extends toward indefinite articles and adjectives, which take specific endings based on the gender of the word. So, you have to pay attention to the gender in order to form an accurate sentence.

For the foreign learner who might not have time to be raised in a German family, noun gender presents a rather significant obstacle. These just have to be learned by rote, even though there are a few tricks. Don’t despair, though. As your brain gets used to learning more and more German words, the habit of remembering the gender along with them will start to become second nature.

    → Just getting started with this whole German thing? See our list of the Most Common Nouns to get a headstart!

3. German Cases

Someone Checking Their Email Outside

German has four cases: nominative, accusative, dative, and genitive (though the genitive case is not used very often in speech or casual writing). Each of these cases provides extra information about the grammatical role of the noun in the sentence.

Examples are worth a lot more than descriptions when it comes to something like this.

  • Ich gebe ihm meinen Rechner. / “I give him my computer.”

Here, ich is in the nominative case because it’s the subject of the sentence. Meinen Rechner is in the accusative case, since it’s the direct object. Finally, ihm is the indirect object, so it’s in the dative case.

You’ll note that we have vestiges of this in English too, even though the medieval case system that English used to have is all but gone. For example, we say “him” in this case to mark the object, not “he.” German simply takes that to the next level.

Also note that, according to German grammar, cases can be governed by prepositions as well. There are sets of prepositions that belong to each case, and those have to be learned too since they don’t quite line up like you’d expect in English. There are even ‘two-way’ prepositions, which change their case based on the motion of the subject!

  • Ich laufe in das Kino. / “I am running into the movie theater.”
  • Ich laufe in dem Kino. / “I am running around in the movie theater.”

Why das or dem? The difference is that in the first example, you move from “outside” the theater to “inside,” while in the second example you’re always “inside.”

Again, this kind of thing can really seem tricky at first, but the more you open up your mind to a new way of thinking, the easier it will come to you. In addition, as you learn more idioms and set phrases, the cases will become fixed in your mind.

4. German Word Order

A Woman Listening to Music with Earbuds

If there’s one thing to remember about German word order, it’s “V2.” That’s linguistics shorthand for “verb-second,” which is itself shorthand for “the verb takes the second position in the sentence.” Often, this lines up with English, where the verb is literally the second word.

  • Ich höre Musik. / “I’m listening to music.”

But what happens if you add some adverbial phrases?

  • Ich höre jeden Tag Musik. / “I listen to music every day.”

Jeden Tag (“every day”) can’t go at the end of the sentence in German like it can in English. The verb must stay in the second place.

One thing that trips up learners is how, in subordinating (secondary) clauses, the verb moves to the end of the sentence. It turns out that “V2” only applies to main clauses!

  • Ich mag dich, weil du so schön bist. / “I like you because you are so beautiful.”

Here, the pronoun du and the verb bist get stretched far apart syntactically. This can sometimes lead to confusion when a German speaker is explaining a long and complicated concept, and the listener has to wait until the end to find out what the verb is!

5. German Verbs

A Car Going Down a Scenic Road

Let’s take a closer look at verbs before closing out here.

German verbs have easy and hard aspects. First the good news: In German grammar, tenses work much like they do in English, except occasionally even simpler. In English, we distinguish between present progressive (“I am going”) and present habitual (“I go”).

In German, both of those are expressed in the simple present tense:

  • Ich fahre. / “I drive.” OR “I am driving.”

This present tense can also indicate future events, as long as context is given within the sentence.

  • Ich fahre morgen nach Köln. / “I’m driving to Cologne tomorrow.”

German forms its past tense much like English does, with a simple past and a present perfect. In spoken German, though, the simple past has mostly disappeared in favor of the present perfect.

  • Ich habe ihn heute gesehen. / “I saw him today.”

Unfortunately, one of the harder features of German verbs is something it shares with English. Combining a German verb with a preposition turns it into another verb entirely, much like how in English, to take someone out and take someone down are two very different concepts.

Finally, German verbs are reflexive much more often than English ones are. Take the verbs sich unterhalten (“to have a conversation with”) and sich erinnern an (“to remember”). The particle sich is a reflexive particle just like -self in the English words “myself” and “yourself.” It sounds a bit off to say, “I’m having myself a conversation with you,” but that’s the way you’ll have to say it in German!


6. Conclusion

Learners can agree that learning German grammar is a rewarding experience, through all its ups and downs. It teaches you to get familiar with a complex, logical system in an intimate way, and when you can speak German fluently, the proof of your hard work is there with every sentence you say!

So, are you wondering how to master German grammar? It all comes with time.

That time goes a lot faster, though, when you have a good resource backing you up!

If you feel like you need some extra German grammar help or just want to stay consistent with your studies, try out GermanPod101! With podcasts for learners at every level, from beginner to advanced, and dozens of helpful guides and articles, you’ll never be lost for words.

As you learn new vocabulary with us, you’ll automatically learn words in context and easily remember the grammatical structures associated with them. That way, German grammar will become something you naturally pick up instead of something you have to struggle to remember. A little bit of concentrated review here and there, and you’ll wonder what you ever had to worry about.

Which of these German grammar points are new to you, and which ones seem the most difficult so far? Let us know in the comments!

Log in to Download Your Free Cheat Sheet - Beginner Vocabulary in German