How to Learn German Grammar

German noun genders, ever changing plural endings, four cases, separable verbs, adjective declensions, and gigantic compound nouns - Oh my!

How to Learn German Grammar

Many of these grammatical structures are affected by noun genders, which you can learn about and practice here! German Noun Library | German Noun Genders

What the heck are all of these things!? German grammar seems incredibly complicated, especially when you are at the beginning of your language learning journey, but it actually operates quite logically once you have a better grasp of the language. Mark Twain once wrote an essay titled “The Awful German Language” in which he expressed his frustration with the difficulty of learning German. In the following paragraphs, I will attempt to provide you with some resources to assist you in your study of this incredibly challenging yet rewarding language. For your enjoyment, Mark Twain quotes will be sprinkled throughout.

“Surely there is not another language that is so slipshod and systemless, and so slippery and elusive to the grasp. One is washed about in it, hither and thither, in the most helpless way; and when at last he thinks he has captured a rule which offers firm ground to take a rest on amid the general rage and turmoil of the ten parts of speech, he turns over the page and reads, "Let the pupil make careful note of the following exceptions." He runs his eye down and finds that there are more exceptions to the rule than instances of it.”
- Mark Twain

Confused by the ever changing plural endings? Read How to Learn German Noun Plurals.

Learning German Noun Genders (der, die, das)

If English is your first language, you might not be familiar with the concept of noun genders. In German, every noun has a gender: der (male), die (female), and neuter (das). This is different from our English concept of biological sex/gender. 

“Okay, so does that mean men take a masculine article, women take a feminine article, and “things” take a neuter one?” 

While that would make a ton of sense, the assignment of articles in German is much more random. In fact, the word Mädchen (girl) takes the neuter article “das” while the word Rübe (turnip) takes the feminine one. Why are girls neuter in German but turnips are female? I don’t know. Maybe God is afflicted by a bit of die Schadenfreude (a fantastic German word meaning “pleasure derived from the misfortune of others”). Check out the following article for a more in depth look at noun genders and how to learn them: German noun genders: their importance and how to learn them.

“Every noun has a gender, and there is no sense or system in distribution; so the gender of each must be learned separately and by heart. There is no other way. To do this one has to have a memory like a memorandum-book. In German, a young lady has no sex, while a turnip has. Think what overwrought reverence that shows for the turnip, and what callous disrespect for the girl.”
- Mark Twain

Learning German Cases (Nominative, Accusative, Dative, Genitive)

Each of these sections could be an entire article, and perhaps one day they will be, but for now I’d just like to give a brief overview of the four German cases. In short, the nominative case is the subject of the sentence. The accusative case can be thought of as the object (there are exceptions of course). The dative case is (To/For) (Whom/What) an action is done. The genitive case is used to show when something belongs to someone. That’s all very confusing, so let’s look at a quick example of each.

Der Mann beisst den Hund. (The man bites the dog)

Der Mann is the subject (in this case, the thing doing the action), so it takes the nominative case and keeps the article “der”. Der Hund is the object (the thing being bitten), so it takes the accusative case and the article “der” becomes “den”. See the tables below for how the articles change with each case.

Der Mann gibt der Frau einen Hund. (The man gives the woman a dog)

In this example, the man still takes the nominative and the dog still takes the accusative, but now “der Frau” introduces the dative case because she is the receiver of the dog.

Der Hund des Mannes. (The man’s dog)

This example demonstrates the genitive case. The article of the thing that owns something (the man in this case) changes to the genitive form to demonstrate possession of something.

German grammar: an overview of changes in definite articles.
German grammar: an overview of indefinite articles.

If you made it this far, then I congratulate you on your effort to learn German. Reward yourself with one of these German Youtube Channels | Beginner to Intermediate. There are two more factors that determine which case you should use: the verb and the preposition. In general, most verbs require the accusative form. Here are three important verbs that take the dative case: helfen (to help), gehören (to belong to), and danken (to thank). 

The chart below details which prepositions take the accusite or the dative case. I’ll also point out three common prepositions that take the genitive case: trotz (despite); wegen (because of); während (during). If you are having trouble remembering all of these prepositions, try reading this article: Learn German with Spaced Repetition!

German prepositions in accusative and dative forms.

I think that’s enough for today. I’ll send you off with another quote from Mr. Twain

“Every time I think I have got one of these four confusing “cases” where I am master of it, a seemingly insignificant preposition intrudes itself into my sentence, clothed with an awful and unsuspected power, and crumbles the ground from under me.”
- Mark Twain

Looking for more? Take our FREE German Noun Gender Quiz!

How our platform works

Our goal is to create a tool that utilizes visual memory techniques to allow people to more effectively learn German noun genders.
feminine “die” nouns are red
masculine “der” nouns are blue
neuter “das” nouns are green
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