German grammar

This page outlines the grammar of the German language.



In German all of the three genders of the Proto-Indo-European language have survived. The three genders are masculine (männlich/Maskulinum), feminine (weiblich/Femininum) and neuter (sächlich/Neutrum). Unlike English, the gender of a German noun and the sex of the thing to which the noun refers often differ. For example, in German, a stone (der Stein) is masculine. Words that describe a male or a female, such as woman (die Frau) or man (der Mann), generally take the grammatical gender corresponding to their sex, with the notable exceptions of "girl" (das Mädchen) and young woman (das Fräulein), as every noun ending with "-chen" or "-lein" is neuter. On the other hand, the gender of words that do not describe a male or a female, which are all neuter in English, is apparently random. The arbitrary nature of grammatical gender can be seen in the example of three common pieces of cutlery: "knife" (das Messer) is a neuter word, "fork" (die Gabel) is feminine, and "spoon" (der Löffel) is masculine. Students of German are often advised to learn German nouns with their accompanying definite article (equivalent of the word "the") since the gender can be easily recognised through the article. It must also be said that the ending of a noun often strongly suggests the gender. For instance, if a noun ends in "–e", it is likely that it is feminine, although this is not a universal rule.

eg: die Katze (the cat), die Blume (the flower), die Liebe (the love) - but: der Bote (the delivery boy).

Nouns ending in the following suffixes: -heit, -keit, -tät, -ung, -ik, -schaft, are also feminine.

eg: eine Freiheit (a freedom), eine Zeitung (a newspaper), eine Freundschaft (a friendship)



Unlike English, which has lost almost all forms of declension of nouns and adjectives, German still inflects nouns, adjectives and pronouns into four grammatical cases. The cases are the nominative (Nominativ), genitive (Genitiv), dative (Dativ), and accusative (Akkusativ). The case of a particular noun depends on the grammatical function of the noun in the sentence.

  • Nominative (Wer?): The subject of a sentence, the thing doing the action
  • Genitive (Wessen?): The possessor of something, or the object of certain other prepositions.
  • Dative (Wem?): The indirect object, as in when an object is given to someone, or the object of certain other prepositions
  • Accusative (Wen?): The direct object, the thing which is directly receiving the action, or the object of certain prepositions

Example: der Tisch (engl. the table)
Nom: der Tisch die Tische
Gen: des Tisch(e)s der Tische
Dat: dem Tisch(e) den Tischen
Acc: den Tisch die Tische

In a sentence (using only one noun for understanding purposes):
Der Tisch gab den Tisch des Tisch(e)s dem Tisch(e)
The table gave the table of the table to the table.

This sentence is an example of how cases are used in German (and in every other language with noun declension). This differs from English, where the word order in a sentence has more meaning. In German, because the function of each noun is not marked by its position within the sentence but by the declined articles — and in case of genitive and dative also by a suffix at the end of the noun itself — the German sentence could also be:

Der Tisch gab dem Tisch(e) den Tisch des Tisch(e)s.
Der Tisch gab des Tisch(e)s Tisch dem Tisch(e)
Den Tisch des Tisches gab dem Tisch der Tisch.
Dem Tisch(e) gab den Tisch des Tisch(e)s der Tisch.
Des Tisch(e)s Tisch gab dem Tisch(e) den Tisch.

Although some of these may sound exotic in modern day German, they are grammatically correct and with a flexible word order like that it is very easy, for example, to put the most important part of a sentence in the front of the sentence.

Contrary to strongly inflected languages like Latin or Lithuanian, German expresses cases more through the word's article than the ending of the word, quite comparable to Ancient Greek, though especially the difference between plural and singular is also expressed by suffixes on the words' endings (der Tisch, die Tische). Other exceptions of a suffix expressing the case of a noun along with the article are the forms of genitive 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.


First evidence of a decline of the genitive case can already be found in colloquial language of Early New High German (spoken from 1350 to 1650). When Martin Luther translated the Bible into German, the use of the Genitive case (along with the Preterite) was already rather unusual in most of the German dialects. Nevertheless Luther used the bureaucratic language of Saxony for his translations which still made extensive use of the Genitive (and other "archaic" elements more usual in Middle High German than in New High German) and thereby slowed down the loss of the Genitive to a certain extent. Today the use of the genitive case is still rare in spoken language - speakers often substitute the dative case for it in conversation, quite similar to Faroese. But the genitive case remains almost obligatory in written communication, public speeches and anything that is not explicitly colloquial in German and is still an important part of German Bildungssprache (language of education). Television programmes and movies often contain a mixing of both, dative substitution or regular genitive, depending on how formal or "artistic" the programme is intended to be. The use of the Dative substitution is more common in southern German dialects, whereas Germans from northern regions (where Luthers Bible-German had to be learned like a foreign language back then) use the genitive more regularly. Though it has become quite common not to use the genitive case when it would formally be required, great numbers of Germans know how to use it and generally do so. Especially among people of higher education, it's considered a minor embarrassment to be caught using the dative case incorrectly.

A German book called Der Dativ ist dem Genitiv sein Tod ("Dative is for Genitive its death") alludes to this phenomenon (being called "genitive's death struggle" by the author) in its title. In standard German, the title would be "Der Dativ ist der Tod des Genitivs" ("Dative is Genitive's Death"). As is apparent, the book uses the modern, casual way of speaking by employing the dative case 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.



Cases after prepositions

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 wegen (because of) is followed by the genitive case (although in casual speech, and with pronouns, the dative case is usually used). 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).

Prepositions and cases

The following chart shows cases of several preposition.
Accusative Dative Genitive Accusative or Dative
bis aus anstatt an
durch außer statt auf
entlang bei außerhalb hinter
für gegenüber innerhalb in
gegen mit trotz neben
ohne nach während über
um seit wegen unter
wider von jenseits vor
zu zwischen

Declension of adjectives

The declensions 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 cases which exemplify all three cases:
Masculine nominative singular Feminine dative singular
definite article der schöne Mann vor der verschlossenen Tür
indefinite article ein schöner Mann vor einer verschlossenen Tür
no article schöner Mann vor verschlossener Tür


The German language has twelve different ways of forming the plural. A student of German as a foreign language must learn the plural for each new noun learned; although a great many feminine nouns are very regular in the formation of the plural, many masculine and neuter nouns are not. For example, some plurals are formed with an "n", some with "en", some with an umlaut and an "e" or an umlaut and an "en", other plurals are the same as the singular, some add "er" or an umlaut and "er", etc.

Nominal (or noun) phrases

(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

  • "Die dritte umwerfende Vorstellung des Schillerdramas in dieser Woche in Hamburg"

(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.

  • "Die Drei" (the three of them)
  • "Der große Mann" (the tall man)
  • "Der Mann" (the man)

If the noun is uncountable, an article is not used; otherwise, the meaning of the sentence changes.

  • "Ich kaufe billiges Bier" (I buy cheap beer)
  • "Ich kaufe ein billiges Bier" (I buy a bottle/can/glass/... of cheap beer)
  • "Ich habe Geld" (I have money)
  • "Ich habe das Geld" (I have the money) or (I have enough money to...)

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 gender is determined by the main noun.

Genitive attribute

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.

  • "Der Beruf des alten Mannes" (The profession of the old man.)
  • "Die Hütte des Häuptlings des Stammes" (The hut of the chief of the tribe)

(genitive phrase has its own genitive phrase). This is uncommon in modern German. "Die Hütte des Stammeshäuptlings" (The hut of the tribe's chief) is preferred.

A direct translation of "Der Beruf des alten Mannes" would be "the profession of the old man." "The old man's professions" could be translated directly and correct as "Des alten Mannes Beruf", though this form is almost never used in modern German.

In early high German, the genitive attribute can consist of a personal pronoun in its genitive case. In modern German, this is no longer used; the corresponding possessive pronoun is used instead.

OLD: "Die Gnade seiner" (his grace)
NEW: "Seine Gnade"


A nominal phrase may contain a "position phrase"; this may be seen as merely another nominal phrase with a preposition (or postposition) or a pronominal adverb (See Adverbial phrases).

  • "Eine Wolke am Himmel" (a cloud in the sky)
  • "Der Bundeskanzler während des Bürgerkriegs im Kongo" (the Chancellor during the civil war in the Congo)

(position phrase has its own position phrase)

  • "Der Regen im Dschungel im Sommer" (the rain in the jungle in the summer)

(Several position phrases)

  • "Der Berg dort" (that mountain over there)

Extended attribute phrase

Unlike English, German permits lengthy nominal modifiers such as

"Der während des Bürgerkrieges amtierende Premierminister" (The acting Prime Minister during the civil war, literally:the during the civil war holding-office prime minister) or "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 difficulties in communication).

These are a feature of written (particularly educated) German. One hears them in the context of formal oral communications as well (such as news broadcasts, speeches, etc.).

Relative clause

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). Historically 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 take their gender and number from the noun they modify, but the case from their function in their own clause.

Das Haus, in dem ich wohne, ist sehr alt.
The house in which I live is very old.

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'.).

Alles, was Jack macht, gelingt ihm.
Everything that Jack does is a success.

In German, all relative clauses are marked with commas.


A German noun has one of three specific grammatical genders (masculine, feminine, neuter) and belongs to one of three declensions. These features remain unaltered by inflection but must be considered in this process. The grammatical gender influences articles, adjectives and pronouns. Note that gender and sex differ in many cases, as mentioned above.

Number (singular, plural) and case (nominative, accusative, dative, genitive) must be taken into account in the process of declension.

The declension can be more difficult than in other languages such as Latin; not only the word ending, but also the root may be altered by inflecting.

Articles and article-like words

Articles have a feature called "strength", which influences the declension of the adjectives. There are strong articles, weak articles, and articles that have strong and weak cases. Sometimes this feature is not constant in daily use.

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.

Cardinal numbers

Cardinal numbers are always placed before any adjectives. If the number is not very high, it is usually not combined with an indefinite plural article like "einige" or "mehrere". Personal pronouns of the first and second person are placed in front of numbers. Personal pronouns of the third person cannot be used with numbers.

"Drei Hunde" (three dogs)
"Die vier apokalyptischen Reiter" (the four horsemen of the Apocalypse)
NOT: "Einige fünf Äpfel" BUT: "Einige Äpfel" or "Fünf Äpfel" (some apples, five apples)
"Ein paar tausend Euro" (a couple of thousand euro)
"Wir vier" (we four)

If you use a cardinal number, you must use the plural form of the nominal phrase, in contrast to languages like Turkish.

NOT: "Zehn Pferd" (turk. "On At")
BUT: "Zehn Pferde" (ten horses)
EXCEPTION: "Zehn Bier", "Zehn Biere" (both possible in some cases like drinks. Though grammatically wrong, almost always the former is used.)

Whereas there is a cardinal number meaning "one" in English, Germans use the indefinite article instead. The difference is expressed by the intonation.

"Ein rotes Buch" can mean
"a red book" - ein rotes Buch; or
"one red book" - ein rotes Buch

The numbers zwei (two) and drei (three) have endings for case in some cases. Where an adjective would have weak endings, numbers don't have endings. If an adjective had strong endings, these numbers may also have strong endings in the genitive case

"das Haus zweier junger Frauen" (two young women's house)

If there is no other word carrying the strong ending of the genitive plural, the numbers must carry it.

"die Reise dreier Schwestern" (three sisters' voyage)

If these numbers are centre of a nominal phrase in the dative plural and no other word carries case markers, they may carry dative endings.

"Ich habe zweien Bananen gegeben" (I've given bananas to two (of them))(old pronunciation)

Special case for 'eins' in German: It can be represented as : "eins", "eine", "einer", "eines", "einem" or "einen" depending on the sentence. This is because in German, 'eins' means one, while 'ein' (as in "Das ist ein Buch") is the German equivalent of the English word "a" ("This is a book").


To correctly agree German adjectives, the case, number and gender of the nominal phrase must be considered along with the article of the noun. German adjectives normally go before the noun which they are changing. German adjectives have an ending before the noun. The ending is normally the letter "-e" in the singular form and "-en" in the plural form.

Like articles, adjectives use the same plural endings for all three genders.

"Ein lauter Krach" (a loud noise)
"Der laute Krach" (the loud noise)
"Der große, schöne Mond" (the big, beautiful moon)

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.

NOT: "Die Musik ist laute" BUT "Die Musik ist laut" ((the) music is loud)

There are three degrees of comparison: positive form, comparative form and superlative form. In contrast to Latin or Italian, there is no grammatical feature for the absolute superlative (elative).


German pronouns of the first person refer to the speaker; those of the second person refer to an addressed person. The pronouns of the third person may be used to replace nominal phrases. These have the same gender, number and case as the original nominal phrase. This goes for other pronouns, too.

pronoun [position(s)] [relative clause]

Personal pronouns

Personal Pronouns
1st sg 2nd sg 3rd sg 1st pl 2nd pl 3rd pl 2nd formal
Nominative ich du er sie es wir ihr sie Sie
Accusative mich dich ihn sie es uns euch sie Sie
Dative mir dir ihm ihr ihm uns euch ihnen Ihnen
Genitive meiner deiner seiner ihrer seiner unser euer ihrer Ihrer

Adverbial phrases


German verbs may be classified as either weak, with a dental consonant inflection, or strong, showing a vowel gradation (ablaut). Both of these are regular systems. Most verbs of both types are regular, though various subgroups and anomalies do arise. The only completely irregular verb in the language is "sein" (to be). However, textbooks for foreign learners often class all strong verbs as irregular. There are fewer than 200 strong and irregular verbs, and there is a gradual tendency for strong verbs to become weak.

Modal particles

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 doch, mal, halt, eben, nun, schon, eh or ja. Many of these words also have a more basic, specific meaning (e.g. ja "yes", schon "already"), but in their modal use this meaning is not directly expressed.


German sentence structure is somewhat more complex than in other languages, with phrases regularly inverted for both questions and subordinate phrases.


  • Wietusch, Gudrun, Grundkurs Grammatik Cornelson (2006) ISBN 978-3464618059

External links

  • – Comprehensive German grammar in English
  • German Grammar – Toms Deutschseite - German grammar explained by a native speaker (in English)

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