Is German Grammar Hard?

You might have heard that German grammar is notorious for being complex, rigorous and full of rules. Maybe you’re worried, for example, about learning the German case marking system that shows up on German articles, pronouns and adjectives — the nominative case, the accusative case, the dative case and the genitive case — or perhaps you’re downright terrified of verb tenses and conjugations

Yes, German grammar can be complex for those who don’t have much experience with it. But the truth is that the grammars of many languages take time and patience to learn, and German grammar is no different. Millions of people before you have learned German grammar, and so can you. With the right tools and mindset, you can build the skills it takes to speak German fluently without the struggle or the stress.

It’s okay to feel a little wary of starting out practicing German grammar. But the important thing is that you find a way to make learning German grammar easier for you. There are lots of German grammar exercises in textbooks, in language learning apps and around the internet. German grammar exercises can help you take your skills to the next level by helping you lock in the information you need to know with repeated drills.


Introduction To German Grammar: What Are German Grammar Rules?

Along with German vocabulary, you’ve got to know German grammar to be able to use the language. In order to express ideas and form sentences in German, you need to understand and follow German grammar rules.

German Verbs

Perhaps one of the most important parts of German grammar is knowing how to use German verbs — and that means knowing how to deal with German verb conjugations. While verb conjugations technically exist in English as well, there aren’t nearly as many, so learning them (and how and when to use them) takes time and discipline in German.

First, we start with an infinitive. German verbs exist initially in what’s known as the infinitive form, what English speakers would think of as a verb in the “to (verb)” form — like “to do,” “to eat” or “to sleep,” for example. With a few exceptions, German verbs in the infinitive form end in -en, making them fairly easy to recognize. The verb schlafen means “to sleep,” for example, and schwimmen means “to swim.”

To use German verbs in a sentence, they must be conjugated, which is a technical term that means German verbs must have their endings changed to match the subject of the verb, or who or what is doing the action of the verb, and the tense of the verb, or when the verb takes place — like the past, the present, or the future, for example.

If we take a verb like kaufen, “to buy,” we need to change the verb ending depending on the subject of the verb, or who’s doing the action of buying. To say “I buy” (in the present tense), we would say Ich kaufe, but to say “You buy,” we’d have to say Du kaufst. “He buys” is Er kauft, but “We buy” is Wir kaufen. Each German pronoun has its own corresponding conjugation, so they must be learned independently of each other, especially when verbs are irregular and don’t follow set conjugation patterns.

For some verb tenses, we must change the form of the main verb itself and add in an auxiliary verb, which has its endings changed. To form the past tense, we in many cases use a conjugated form of the the verb haben (“to have”) plus a past participle form of the main verb. So, for the verb kaufen, to say “I bought,” you’d say Ich habe gekauft, where habe is conjugated to match the subject ich and gekauft is the past participle form of kaufen. “You bought” would be Du hast gekauft, and “He bought” would be Er hat gekauft (note that gekauft stays the same while the forms of haben change).

Basics Of German Sentence Structure

One of the more confusing elements for English speakers practicing German grammar is getting used to German sentence structure. Learning where to put certain words in relation to each other — also known as syntax — is a major part of mastering the German language.

There are very strict rules about where verbs can be placed in German sentences. In simple sentences with a subject, verb and direct object, like “He reads the book,” German word order looks a lot like the subject-verb-object word order of English — Er liest das Buch. For the most part in sentences like these, the finite, or conjugated, German verb goes in the second position. If the sentence is a question rather than a statement, the verb usually comes first: Liest er das Buch?

But when you introduce more complex syntax, such as when you include so-called modal verbs like “can,” “will,” “must” and “should,” German sentence structure follows a slightly different set of rules. In these cases and in others, the main verb in German moves to the very end of the sentence, like in the example Er muss das Buch lesen, or “He must read the book.”

A similar movement happens when the verb is part of a subordinating clause introduced with words like als (“when”), obwohl (“although”) and während (“while”); in these cases, the verb migrates to the end of that subordinating clause. In the sentence Wir sind glücklich obwohl wir kein Geld haben., or “We are happy although we have no money,”

If an adverb of time — so, a word like heute (“today”) or jetzt (“now”) — is the first word in the sentence, the verb must come second. Take an example sentence like Heute gehe ich zur Schule. (“Today I’m going to school.”) Because the time adverb heute (“today”) is first in the sentence, the subject pronoun ich (“I”) actually follows the verb gehen (“to go”), which is in the second position.

German Nouns And German Gender

Just like in English, one of the key elements of German grammar is the German noun, which describes a thing, person, place, idea, quality or action. German nouns are important because in many cases they indicate who or what is doing the action of the verb (the subject) — or who or what is having that action done to it (the object). They are fundamental parts of a German sentence!

According to German grammar, all German nouns have a number (singular or plural, a concept which also exists in English) and a gender (masculine, feminine or neuter).

The concept of gender doesn’t exist in the same way in English, so it can be tricky to grasp at first. When we say that German nouns have gender, it doesn’t mean that every person, place, object or idea is inherently male, female, or neutral; it’s just a system of categorization that exists in German grammar (and in that of many other world languages). You can think of gender as a “type” or even “genre” of noun if that’s helpful.

This means that every noun belongs to one of these three categories, and the adjectives and articles — that is, the words “the,” “a” and “an” — that accompany these nouns must reflect the gender, too. For example, the gender of the word Buch (“book”) is neuter, so it takes the article das to become das Buch (“the book”) in the nominative case (more on that below).

The gender of the word Gabel (“fork”) is feminine, so its article in the nominative case is die, giving us die Gabel (“the fork”). And the gender of the word Tisch (“table”) is masculine, so you’d say der Tisch (“the table”). German gender can be confusing, and there’s not a whole lot of logic to it; in many cases, you’ve just got to learn the gender of each word and commit them to memory! Sometimes the ending of a noun can clue you into which gender it might have, but so many words are irregular that you’ve got to learn and practice them on your own to master them.

German Case Marking On German Articles And German Pronouns

As you can see, the gender of a German noun is reflected in the definite articles (the English equivalent of “the”) and the indefinite articles (the English “a” or “an”) that come before a German noun.

But that’s not the only grammatical element that shows itself on German articles; you’ve also got to understand how to use the German case system. German case markings, or declensions, help speakers indicate and understand what role a certain noun is playing in the sentence — whether it’s the agent of an action, the direct recipient of that action or some other role.

Remnants of the case marking exist in English, too, in pronouns (words like “you,” “they,” “him” and “us,” for example). To get an idea of how this works in English, think about how you’d say something like “We like him,” but not “Us like he.” It all depends on whether these pronouns are serving as the subject of the sentence or in this case, the object of the main verb (here, the verb “like”). If the man is the subject of the verb, the sentence becomes “He likes us,” not “Him likes us.” This is a nice parallel to make to English if you’re struggling to understand what case marking is.

But the German case system is much more complex than that of English and affects all nouns, not just pronouns. There are four cases in German — the nominative case, the accusative case, the dative case and the genitive case. What does that mean, and what does it look like on German nouns?

Nouns and pronouns in the subject position (you can think of it as the noun that’s doing the action) take the nominative case, as in Der Mann isst, or “The man eats,” from the verb essen (“to eat”). But when der Mann is the object of the action isst (so, the thing that gets eaten), it appears in the accusative case and becomes den Mann, as in Der Löwe isst den Mann, or “The lion eats the man.”

And similar rules apply for the German masculine and neuter indefinite articles ein and the feminine indefinite article eine and their corresponding forms, though they are a bit different. There’s also the German word kein or keine, meaning “no” or “none.” It is case-marked the exact same way as the indefinite articles. Try getting a handle on German grammar with a free Babbel German lesson!

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