1. Temporal prepositions vor, nach and während
The prepositions vor, nach and während are your friends. Why? Using any one of them is a simple way to orient your sentence temporally, in other words, to explain when something happened in relation to something else.
Vor is used to say that something happened before something else.
Vor dem Umzug habe ich viele Dinge weggeworfen. (Before the move I threw away many things.)
Nach is used to say that something happened after something else.
Nach dem Sturm gab es kaltes Wetter. (After the storm there was cold weather.)
Remember: The subjects after vor and nach take Dativ. Der Umzug becomes dem Umzug; der Sturm becomes dem Sturm.
Während is used to denote something happening at the same time as something else.
Während ihrer Reise sah Maria drei Schlösser. (During her trip Maria saw three castles.)
Remember: Während, unlike nach and vor, functions with Genitiv, or the possessive case. Therefore the feminine die Reise becomes ihrer Reise.
2. Infinitive with zu
Chances are, at this point in your studies, you’ve encountered some German sentences that contain the word zu plus an infinitive. These sentences are called zu + infinitive constructions. They’re not too complicated to construct, as long as you avoid some typical errors.
Let’s take a look at some examples.
Nach Verben (“after verbs”)
Zu constructions can appear after verbs in a sentence.
Ich habe aufgehört, Deutsch zu lernen. (I have stopped learning German.)
Note: this doesn’t mean “I have stopped to learn German.” Many German speakers have trouble with this in English—but back to our German lesson!
The zu goes directly before the infinitive verb in the second clause of the sentence. Remember to place a comma between the two causes!
When you encounter Trennbare Verben, or separable verbs, (more on separable verbs here) make sure to put zu in the middle of the verb, instead of at the beginning or end. For example: anfangen is a trennbares Verb, meaning that in an ordinary sentence you remove the prefix on the verb (an) and place it at the end of the sentence:
Ich fange an. (I begin.)
So if you wanted to use anfangen in an infinitive+ zu clause, you would say:
Ich probiere, ein neues Job anzufangen. (I try to start a new job)
Also remember: You cannot use infinitive + zu constructions with modal verbs (können, sollen, möchten, wollen, durfen, mussen). For example, instead of saying:
Ich kann jetzt nach Hause, zu gehen. (I can now go to my house.)
You would instead say:
Ich kann jetzt nach Hause gehen. (I can now go to my house.)
And finally, remember: The wild and wonderful German language features another construction with zu, although this one utilizes the construction um…zu.
Remember that um…zu constructions and infinitive + zu constructions are not the same. Um…zu constructions imply causation. For example:
Ich lerne Deutsch, um in Deutschland zu studieren. (I learn German, in order to study in Germany.)
The um indicates that you’re learning German for the specific purpose of studying in Germany.
Nach Adjektiven (“after adjectives”)
Zu constructions also function with adjectives in the first clause of the sentence.
Es ist langweilig, in der S-bahn zu sein. (It is boring to be in the S-Bahn [the subway system in Berlin])
These constructions function the same way as constructions after a verb, only with an adjective in the first clause.
Nach Substantiven (“after nouns”)
Finally, zu constructions can also match with opening clauses that contain nouns plus the verbs haben or machen.
Du hast keine Zeit, die Wohnung zu putzen. (You have no time to clean the apartment.)
3. Relativsätze (relative sentences)
Relative sentences are an important part of any new language. Sentences that are so simple in your native tongue, such as “This is my friend that I told you about,” suddenly become so much more complex when faced with a new language. But you’re in the intermediate levels of German now, so you’re ready to face this challenge.
Let’s say you wanted to tell someone about a cake you were buying.
Das ist der Kuchen. Ich kaufe den Kuchen. (This is the cake. I’m buying the cake.)
It’s better to say, “This is the cake that I’m buying,” right? So combine the two sentences.
Das ist der Kuchen, den ich kaufe.
Remember that the Artikel (der) must stay in Akkusativ (den) even in the Relativsätze. Let’s try an example with Dativ. Instead of:
Ich sehe meine Freundin. Ich hilfe ihr. (I see my friend. I’m helping her.)
It’s much better to say:
Ich sehe meine Freundin, der ich hilfe. (I see my friend, who I’m helping).
Here’s a chart with all the articles you’ll need to construct these kinds of sentences:
NOMINATIV AKKUSATIVE DATIV
der den dem
das das dem
die die der
die die denen
Remember: You’ll notice in the table above that all of the Artikel for Relativsätze are the same Akkusativ and Dativ Artikel that you would use normally.
The big exception? Plural Dativ, which would ordinarily be den, but in Relativsätze is denen.
Also pay attention to word order when constructing Relativsätze. The verb always goes on the end of the Relativsätze, not directly after the subject.
4. Verbs with prepositions
Verbs with prepositions don’t really present a complicated grammatical topic. But they require a lot of memorization.
Basically, most German verbs take a preposition, and there’s very little rhyme or reason to which German verb matches with which preposition. For example, in English, you would say, “I fell in love with you.” But in German, you would say Ich habe mich in dich verliebt.
Not mit, which means “with.” You’d use In.
How do you learn all of these? Memorize, memorize, memorize…but, more importantly, create examples and use them repeatedly. These constructions will only start to sound natural to you if you use them over and over and over again. Here’s a list and a memorization game to get you started, but remember, it’s not enough to look at the list; you need to use these forms before you’ll start using them naturally.
5. Prepositional question words and answers
Verbs with prepositions aren’t tricky, they just require a lot of memorization. But verbs with prepositions do become tricky when you start asking questions.
Let’s look at an example. We’ll use warten auf, which means “wait for.”
Say you wanted to ask “What are you waiting for?” Would you say, “Was wartest du?”?
No. You would combine auf, warten’s preposition, with a question word—in this case, you’ll use Wo + auf, with an r in the middle to avoid having two vowels next to each other. So, you would say, “Worauf wartest du?”
Got it? Good, because the answers aren’t always so simple either. Let’s take sich freuen über, a reflexive verb that means to be excited about something.
Let’s say you wanted to ask your friend, “What are you excited about?”
Worüber freust du dich? (remember that extra r in the question word)
If your friend wanted to say that she was excited about a noun, a specific object or thing, she would say
Ich freue mich über mein neues Job. (I’m excited about my new job.)
But what if she wanted to say that she was excited about having a new job?
Ich freue mich darüber, ein neues Job zu haben. (I’m excited about having a new job.)
The preposition acquires a da (plus that elegant r) at the beginning, a comma appears between the two clauses, and zu comes before the infinitive in the second clause.
6. Deshalb, trotzdem, weil, denn
Finally, let’s take a look at the words that mean “therefore,” “nevertheless” and “because,” essential words for crafting longer and more complex sentences and expressing deeper thoughts in German.
Weil and denn both mean because in German. Let’s say you wanted to say that you bought flowers because they were pretty. You would say:
Ich habe Blümen gekauft, weil sie so schön sind. (I bought flowers, because they are so pretty.)
Or, you could say:
Ich habe Blümen gekauft, denn sie sind so schön. (I bought flowers, because they are so pretty.)
Notice a difference between those two sentences? In weil constructions, the verb goes at the end of the sentence (am Ende). In denn constructions, the verb appears directly after the subject, just like it would in a regular clause.
Deshalb and trotzdem function differently, although both take the verb in the second position in the second clause. Let’s look at deshalb first. Deshalb means therefore. So if you wanted to say, “I am hungry, therefore I want to eat,” you would say:
Ich habe Hunger, deshalb möchte ich essen.
Notice how möchte appears in the second position, not at the end of the sentence as it would in a weil construction.
Now let’s look at trotzdem. Say you wanted to say, “It is raining, nevertheless I will go outside.” In German, you would say:
Es regnet, trotzdem gehe ich draußen.
Once again, the verb stands in the second position in the second clause.
All of these topics can be confusing, and the various tips and tricks associated with them can be difficult to master. But with plenty of practice, you’ll internalize these rules in no time.
Then you’ll be able to communicate complex and causal ideas in German with ease.