If English is your mother tongue, then that makes German your uncle tongue.
German-speakers, vice versa.
The relationship between English and German is all but ancient history—the two languages are long-lost linguistic siblings.
Today we’re going to look at the similarities and differences between German and English, especially in terms of grammar.
German grammar elements that are similar to English ones
– Word order
In many cases, German uses the Subject-Verb-Object word order, like English does. There are some exceptions to this order in both languages, but it’s still much more familiar than if you were to try to learn a language with a completely different word order, like Verb-Subject-Object.
– Irregular verbs
In English, regular verbs have an “-ed” ending in the simple past and past participle forms. Words like “cook/cooked/cooked” and “push/pushed/pushed” are regular verbs.
An irregular verb in English follows a different pattern in the past forms. Many of the most common verbs in English are irregular, including “eat/ate/eaten” and “see/saw/seen.”
In German, there’s a similar idea with weak and strong verbs.
We can imagine that “weak” verbs aren’t strong enough to change the default past forms, so they get a “-t” suffix in the simple past form (like an “-ed” in English) and also a “ge-” prefix in the participle form. Some examples of weak German verbs are machen/macht-/gemacht (for the verb “make” or “do”) and sagen/sagt-/gesagt (for the verb “say”).
The German “strong” verbs, on the other hand, are irregular, since they change the roots of the verbs quite a bit in the past forms. Examples of strong German verbs include kommen/kam-/gekommen (for the verb “come”) and gehen/ging-/gegangen (for the verb “go”).
I know what you’re thinking: “So what’s the point? Are you trying to say that verbs in both languages are just confusing?”
Well, sort of, but they’re often confusing in the same way. Because English and German share common linguistic ancestors, the verbs for both languages tended to develop along similar patterns. So if a verb is weak in German, it tends to be regular in English, and if it’s strong in German, it’s often irregular in English.
That’s not to say that there are no exceptions, since the German language often seems to have more exceptions than rules, but it’s a good general guideline. Also, simply knowing that there are different types of verbs in both languages can help you comprehend German grammar better.
Grammar elements that are easier in German than English
If you glance at this whole article, you’ll probably notice that this section is short. Yeah, sorry about that.
If you’re looking for more good news about learning German, though, check out German pronunciation, since that’s easier in German than in English.
Unfortunately, German grammar is a bit more intricate, let’s say, than English grammar. There just tend to be more tricky spots that confuse German learners, especially those who are used to English.
Nevertheless, there are still a few bright spots.
– No progressive tenses
The sentences “I eat” and “I am eating” are the same in German: “Ich esse.” You may think that’s confusing. After all, if someone says “Ich esse Fisch,” do they mean “I eat fish” or “I am eating fish”? But in reality, you can basically always figure out the speaker’s meaning from context.
For example, if you’re going into the cafeteria and your friend says “Heute esse ich Fisch,” then he or she added the heute (“today”), which shows that it’s just a one-time thing, not a frequent action. Likewise, if someone who’s invited you to dinner asks you, “Isst du Fisch?” then you can be sure that they’re asking if you generally eat fish, since they’re probably considering serving fish.
This whole issue can actually cause problems and confusion for German speakers who are learning English, but since that’s not you, we’ll let them worry about it.
– Adverbs being basically the same as adjectives
Look at these two sentences:
Der Mann ist gut. (The man is good.)
Der Mann singt gut. (The man sings well.)
As you can see, here English is the language that looks a bit strange, since we change “good” to “well” when it becomes an adverb. We also add a “-ly” to many other adverbs, while German doesn’t.
Unfortunately, this silver lining is indeed surrounding a huge, dark cloud: The major caveat here is that I said adjectives are basically the same as adverbs, but that only counts for basic adjectives, like in the examples above.
However, if you put the adjectives before a noun, then you have to include the dreaded adjective endings. Those endings mean that a simple word like gut can also turn into gute, guter, gutes or guten, depending on the context.
German grammar elements that are different from English ones
– Sending things, especially verbs, to the “back of the line”
This may not be strictly “basic” German grammar, but it’s usually something that you’ll come across by the time you get to chapter 5 or 6 in most good German textbooks.
In those chapters, you’ll start learning words like dass (that) or weil (because). These words and other similar ones are called “subordinating conjunctions,” and when you use them, they send the verb(s) to the end of the sentence or immediate clause.
For example, let’s elaborate on our “Ich esse” example from above. You eat (or are eating) for a reason, right? If that reason is “because I am hungry,” then you’d say “I am eating because I am hungry” in English. In German, it would be pretty similar, except the word “because” will send the verb to the end:
Ich esse, weil ich Hunger habe. (I am eating, because I hunger have.)
So yeah, it sounds a little bit like Yoda when you’re starting to learn German, but you’ll get used to it and be able to produce sentences like that soon. Just start getting used to it, because it in the future come will (to use German sentence order!).
– Big compound nouns
The main reason for these long words is simple: They’re usually just a few short words smashed together into one longer one.
In English, we can say “Christmas tree,” with the adjective followed by the noun. In other languages, like Spanish for example, you’d say something like árbol de Navidad, literally “tree of Christmas.” But in German, you’d put that all into one glorious word: Weihnachtsbaum, literally “Christmastree.” And if you count the spaces, the German version actually has fewer characters than the Spanish one.
The main thing you’ll need to get used to when it comes to these big words is learning where the smaller words came together, which will also indicate how to pronounce them easily. And as your vocabulary grows, that will become easier to do.
– Verb conjugations
If you say “she don’t” in English, people will say it’s grammatically incorrect. Sure, listeners will almost certainly understand you, and you may even sound really cool when you sing it incorrectly in a song, but it’s still not considered standard English. For that, you’d need to say “she doesn’t.”
Changing that “do” by adding the ending “-es” is called conjugation. We don’t do it that much in English; basically we just have to add an “-s” or “-es” to the end of verbs following “he,” “she” or “it,” and also to change up the verb “to be,” since it’s always weird.
German also has conjugation, but you generally have to change every form of the verb according to the subject. Take the example of kommen (“to come”) as compared to English.
Needless to say, even though it’s something we do in English, it’s a lot more involved in German. You probably don’t even think about it when you speak English.
Also, another bit of less-good news: You also have to conjugate verbs in the past. Whereas in English you can say “I came,” and “came” stays the same for any subject, it changes in German. With that same verb in the Präteritum (simple past equivalent), it would be:
Whereas in English, it would just be:
Take heart, though: The sorta-good news is that these conjugations are usually somewhat predictable and you can learn the weird ones in sets.
Grammar elements that are more difficult in German than English
– Gendered nouns
In the case of German, there are actually three genders.
If you’re familiar with Spanish or French, you’ll probably know that those languages have “masculine” and “feminine” nouns. German has those two, also, but it adds in “neutral/neuter.” Unfortunately, the gender of a noun rarely has anything to do with whether it has masculine, feminine or neutral characteristics.
Mädchen (girl), for example, is famously neutral, not feminine, despite obviously describing a female person. But in this particular case, the word is neutral because it has the -chen diminutive ending, and all nouns with diminutive endings are neutral in German (Mädchen translates basically to “little maid”).
The takeaway lesson: If you learn a new noun in German, learn its gender immediately. It does matter, especially as you learn more and more, even though you may think it seems dumb or useless at first.
– Definite and indefinite articles
How do you say “the” in German? Isn’t it das, like in the movie title “Das Boot” ? Well, that’s one word that means “the” (which is called a “definite article”). But you can also say der, die, den, dem and des—they all also mean “the,” depending on the circumstances.
Similarly, “a” or “an” (the indefinite articles) can be ein, eine, einen, einem and eines. These two types of articles change depending on whether the word in question is connected to a subject, a direct object, an indirect object or a possessive word. You’ll hear a lot of talk about different “cases” like nominative, accusative and dative, and these are just basically grammatical terms to describe parts of sentences.
Oh, and to make it all a bit more confusing, the articles also change depending on the noun’s gender, of course.
Again, this is supposed to be about basic grammar, but this post on cases can help you sort this whole matter out.
Just to give a very basic example, let’s go back to our “good man” from above.
I can say “Der Mann ist gut” (The man is good), where der is the masculine definite article (this is also one of those rare cases when a creature with a sexual gender also has the same grammatical gender). In this example, der Mann is the subject of the sentence.
But if I made him the object of the sentence, I have to change that der to den:
Ich sehe den Mann. (I see the man.)
In this case, everything is the same, except the man has now been moved from the subject position to the object position, so we need to reflect that in the grammar by changing der to den. We’d have to make similar changes if we made him the indirect object or the owner of something.
– Adjective endings
German is very similar in this regard, but of course they had to go and take it too far again. Since German has three genders, you’d think it would need three endings. But it’s not that simple, of course, since much as indirect and direct articles (above) are affected by their position in the sentence, you also need to change adjective endings depending on whether the nouns that follow them are the subject, direct object, indirect object or possessive word in a sentence.
Have fun learning German.