German Grammar: The Complete Guide to 10 Core Grammatical Concepts
Need the lowdown on German grammar without being overwhelmed by all the details?
Then you’ve come to the right place!
This guide is designed to walk you through all the most important German grammar topics—no fuss, no muss.
It also provides links to our more in-depth blog posts on each topic, so you can keep reading any particular topic you need to learn about right now.
- 1. Nouns
- 2. Cases
- 3. Verbs
- 4. Adjectives
- 5. Adverbs
- 6. Conjunctions
- 7. Prepositions
- 8. Tenses
- 9. Moods
- 10. Word Order
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Nouns are the stuff of sentences—literally. When you’re learning German nouns, you’re not just memorizing singular words. Every noun in German should be considered a two-part package.
All German nouns are capitalized. You don’t really have to worry about whether something is a “proper noun” or not, like we do in English. If it’s a person, place or thing, it gets capitalized.
Articles are the little words that come before nouns. They tell you if you’re talking about something definite (the dog) or something indefinite (a dog).
There are three genders in German articles: masculine, feminine and neuter. Each have their own unique articles:
- Masculine articles: der (the), ein (a)
- Feminine articles: die (the), eine (a)
- Neuter articles: das (the), ein (a)
Every German noun is assigned a gender. So, as “chair” in German is masculine, you say der Stuhl (the chair) or ein Stuhl (a chair). Or with the feminine word “flower”, you say die Blume (the flower) or eine Blume (a flower).
All plural nouns in German take on the feminine article die, and may also get a new ending. Common endings include –e, –er, –en or –s. Sometimes, an umlaut may also be added to a vowel.
There are times in German where two nouns can get squished together, creating compound nouns. These can result in combos like die Handschuhe (gloves, literally “hand shoes”) or die Arbeiterunfallversicherungsgesetz (law relating to worker’s compensation insurance).
In German grammar, nouns and pronouns can change depending on what role they are playing in the sentence. This role is the “case” they are in.
For example, in the sentence Ich habe einen Hund (I have a dog): “I” is the subject, the do-er of the verb, so it is in the “nominative” case. “Dog” is the object of the verb, it is receiving the action of the verb, so it goes in the “accusative” case.
There are four cases to learn, and each one can change the personal pronouns and articles (both definite and indefinite) used.
The nominative case (der Nominativ) is used to express the subject of a sentence who performs the action of the verb.
In this case, you’ll be using the standard personal pronouns and articles:
- ich — I
- du — you (singular, informal)
- er/sie/es — he/she/it
- wir — we
- ihr — you (plural, informal)
- sie — they
- Sie — you (formal)
- Masculine: der/ein
- Feminine: die/eine
- Neuter: das/ein
- Plural: die
The accusative case (der Akkusativ) is used to express the direct object of the sentence. It’s the “receiver” of the subject’s actions and is influenced by them.
The bold words in the following example are all direct objects, so they go in the accusative case.
Ich sehe den Hund. (I see the dog.)
Ich liebe dich. (I love you.)
Ich mache einen Kuchen. (I make a cake.)
- mich – me
- dich – you (singular, informal)
- ihn/sie/es – him/her/it
- uns – us
- euch – you (plural, informal)
- sie — them
- Sie — you (formal)
Accusative articles (note, only the masculine articles change):
- Masculine: den/einen
- Feminine: die/eine
- Neuter: das/ein
- Plural: die
The dative case (der Dativ) is used to express the indirect object of the sentence. This would be the noun that receives or is acted upon by the direct object.
Die Junge gibt dem Hund den Ball.
The boy gives the dog the ball.
The ball is the direct object (note the accusative den article), and it is being given to the dog, who is the indirect object. (note, the dative dem article)
The dative case is known to be a tricky one for German learners. It changes pronouns and articles in a way that can make discerning genders confusing. But once you’ve learnt these changes, it allows you to convey concise yet intricately complex meanings!
- mir – me
- dir – you (singular, informal)
- ihm/ihr/ihm – him/her/it
- uns – us
- euch – you (plural, informal)
- ihnen — them
- Ihnen — you (formal)
- Masculine: dem/einem
- Feminine: der/einer
- Neuter: dem/einem
- Plural: den
The genitive case (der Genitiv) is used to express possession or association. In English, we indicate possession by saying something is “of” someone or by adding -‘s to nouns. In German, the approach is a bit similar.
Typically, you’ll have to change the “possessor” noun’s article. Then, for masculine and neuter nouns, you must add –es (for short, one-syllable nouns) or –s (for multi-syllable nouns).
The genitive possessive articles depend on the gender of the possessor noun as well.
Here’s an example of the genitive case in action:
Das Haus meiner Schwester ist sehr groß.
The house of my sister is very interesting. / My sister’s house is very big.
Genitive possessive articles:
- meiner– of me
- deiner – of you (singular, informal)
- seiner/ihrer/seiner – of him/of her/of it
- unser – of us
- eurer – of you (plural, informal)
- ihrer — of them
- Ihrer — of you (formal)
For masculine or neuter nouns, switch –er endings with –es endings.
- Masculine: des/eines
- Feminine: der/einer
- Neuter: des/eines
- Plural: der
Verbs are so-called “doing” or “action” words. To play, to run, to paint or to learn are all examples of verbs.
In basic German sentences, verbs will typically be in the “second position.” That is, the main conjugated verb would usually be the second word in the sentence, directly following the subject noun.
In most cases, verbs will stick to the second position even if the subject doesn’t take the first position.
For interrogative or “question” statements and imperatives, or command statements, conjugated verbs take the first position. When this happens, the German sentence takes on an “inverted word order” and the subject comes after the verb.
German verbs change depending on who is doing the action, just as in English. Think of: “I play” vs. “She plays“.
The only difference in German, each “person” has a different verb ending, whether “I”, “you”, “he/she/it”, “we”, etc.
This change is called conjugation. And the conjugation of verbs depends on what category they fall into.
Weak (regular) verbs
Most German verbs fall under this category and simply follow the normal conjugation rules.
For example, let’s see how the German weak verb spielen (to play) would be conjugated:
Ich spiele. Du spielst. Er spielt.
I play. You play. He plays.
See how the stem of spiel– still sticks around, and it’s just attached to different endings. These endings are: e, st, t, en, t, en.
Strong (irregular) verbs
German strong verbs are a bit rebellious during conjugations and the vowels in the stem often change in the du (you) and er/sie/es (he/she/it) forms.
For example, let’s look at the German irregular verb sehen (to see), which experiences a vowel change from e to ie.
Ich sehe. Du siehst. Er sieht.
I see. You see. He sees.
As implied in their name, mixed verbs take on traits of both strong and weak verbs. They do take on endings when conjugated to different tenses, but may also experience stem-vowel changes in the past tense.
For example, let’s see the German mixed verb kennen (to know):
Ich kenne. Ich kannte. Ich habe gekannt.
I know. I knew. I have known.
Separable German verbs come with prefixes that can, well, be separated! These prefixes are extra words, typically prepositions, that give total clarity to what the verb means.
The concept exists in English too—think about verb phrases like “getting up” or “breaking down.”
When using these verbs, the prefix is typically moved to the end of the sentence.
aufstehen (auf + stehen) — to get up, stand up
Er steht um 8 Uhr auf.
He gets up at 8 o’clock.
But beware! Not all verbs that “look” like they have a separable prefix actually have one. For example entspannen. (to relax)
German reflexive verbs relate to actions that would be inflicted upon the subject itself. This means that they’ll come attached with reflexive pronouns.
The verb word itself still follows their strong, weak or mixed natures, but the reflexive pronoun must show up somewhere in the sentence.
sich duschen — to shower
Ich dusche mich jeden Tag.
I shower every day.
This small category includes verbs that often take on a “helping” role in sentences. They function to give more meaning and detail about another verb in the sentence.
The three main German auxiliary verbs are haben (to have), sein (to be) and werden (to become).
The auxiliary verb is generally considered the “main” verb of the sentence that faces conjugation. The secondary verb being described may not have to get conjugated.
Modal verbs are used for when you’re describing the possibility, necessity or desire of something. They’re usually meant to emphasize another verb or verb phrase. Therefore, modal verbs are technically auxiliary verbs.
In German, there are six modal verbs. They follow their own quirky conjugation patterns, so they don’t really fit into any of the above categories. You’ll have to memorize each of their unique conjugations.
- mögen — like
- können — can
- dürfen — may
- sollen — should
- wollen — want
- müssen — must
The key thing to know with modal verbs is that they send the second verb to the end of the sentence in the infinitive (how you find verbs in the dictionary). For example:
Die Kinder wollen mit dem Hund spielen.
The children want to play with the dog.
Yes, even German adjectives get endings! They’re present when the adjective comes before the noun, and this scenario can be categorized into what’s known as declension.
A weak declension is when the adjective comes after a definite article (ie; the, this). In the nominative case, the adjective’s ending would be –e (for singular nouns) or –en (for plural nouns).
A strong declension is when there isn’t a definite article. Since there’s no article telling you the noun’s gender, the adjective has to pick up the slack. The adjective’s ending will usually resemble the ending of the definite article, if it had been present.
A mixed declension is when the adjective follows an indefinite article or a possessive pronoun. (ie. a, an, some) The mixed declension adjective endings are similar to the weak declension’s, but the masculine and neuter adjective endings resemble the strong declension’s.
To make things more deliciously complex, the ending of the adjective will also depend on the noun’s case.
In terms of placement, German adjectives are quite like English ones, so no need to worry about where they should go. You can place them right before the noun or have them come after “is” or “are.”
Der Hund ist braun. Der braune Hund isst Frühstück.
The dog is brown. The brown dog eats breakfast.
Comparative and superlative
The comparative is used when you’re comparing two or more nouns, or noticing a change in how much a noun embodies an quality. In English, if something is more or less of a certain quality, then you would add –er to the end of an adjective.
The same applies for German verbs! But if the adjective comes after an article and before a noun, then you’ll need to add the correct gender- and case-specific suffix after –er.
Let’s see an example with the adjective traurig, meaning “sad”:
Er ist trauriger als er. Der traurigere Junge weinte.
He is sadder than him. The sadder boy cried.
The superlative is used when a noun embodies the most of a certain quality. In English, we would add the endings -st or -est to the end of an adjective. In German, you would typically add two things: the ending –sten to the adjective, and the word am before the adjective.
However, if the adjective comes after an article and before a noun, you won’t need am. Again, the adjective gets an ending depending on the case and gender of the noun.
Er ist am traurigsten. Der traurigste Junge weinte.
He is the saddest. The saddest boy cried.
Adverbs describe and add life to adjectives and other adverbs. In English, we tend to identify them through specific endings, such as -ly or -ish.
In German, there isn’t really a specific “adverb” ending. In fact, many German adjectives can take on adverbial roles without the need to add specific suffixes. For example, notice how the adjective schnell here doesn’t need to change at all to become an adverb:
Ich laufe schnell.
I run quickly.
There are also adverbial phrases, which don’t necessarily contain adjectives, but are a collection of words that describe how, where or when something is being done: interessanterweise (interestingly), überall (everywhere), immer (always).
German adverbs are typically found after and close to the verbs they modify. They can be a little distanced from the verb by object nouns.
However, you can have adverbs start sentences as well. Remember the “inverted” German sentences, in which the subject isn’t the first word in the sentence but the main verb still takes the second position.
Here are some examples, each showcasing a specific adverb in different positions:
Ich laufe schnell. Schnell laufe ich zur Schule.
I run fast. I run quickly to the school.
Notice again that there’s no ending for the adverb schnell.
When you start having more than one adverb in a sentence, then it’s time to start following a specific order: time, manner, place.
In other words, adverbs describing “when” come first, followed by those describing “how” and then finishing with those describing “where.”
Gestern habe ich viel in der Bibliothek gelesen.
I read a lot in the library yesterday.
Gestern means yesterday (time adverb), viel means a lot (manner adverb), and in der Bibliothek means in the library (place adverbial phrase).
Conjunctions are the words that connect phrases and clauses together in a sentence. In German, there are two types of conjunctions to know.
Coordinating conjunctions connect phrases and clauses, without changing the sentence’s word order. Whatever comes after this type of conjunction will follow a normal sequence, as if it were its own sentence.
Here are two examples of coordinating conjunctions:
und — and
Ich spiele Klavier und singe im Chor.
I play the piano and sing in the choir.
aber — but
Das Essen ist lecker, aber es ist zu teuer.
The food is delicious, but it is too expensive.
Subordinating conjunctions would be used when there’s a dependent clause involved.
When the sentence starts with the independent clause, then the subordinating conjunction would introduce the dependent clause. In the dependent clause, the conjugated verb is pushed to the end.
Putting the subordinating conjunction at the start of a sentence will also change the word order of the concluding independent clause. The inverted word order takes effect—the conjugated verb is pushed to the front.
bis — until
Du darfst nicht gehen, bis du gegessen hast.
You may not leave until you have eaten.
weil — because
Weil ich krank bin, muss ich Medikamente kaufen.
Because I’m sick, I must buy medicine.
Prepositions are the word or words that describe a noun in relation to something else. Typically, prepositions describe position, movement or timing.
German prepositions can be categorized by the cases that they utilize. The nouns that follow these prepositions take on different cases.
The noun that immediately follows these prepositions must use the accusative case. For example:
durch — through
Ich gehe durch den Tunnel.
I walk through the tunnel.
Dative prepositions work the same way, but they take the dative case instead. That means you have to keep on your toes for those article and adjective endings! For example:
mit — with
Ich gehe mit meinem Freund in den Supermarkt.
I go to the supermarket with my boyfriend.
Predictably, these prepositions enforce the genitive case. Their use is becoming increasingly uncommon, at least in spoken conversation where the dative is often used instead. However, they do make appearances in more formal contexts, so it’s good to know them regardless.
wegen — because of
Wegen des Sturms können wir nicht spielen.
Because of the storm we can’t play.
In German, these are called Wechselpräpositionen (Wechsel means “switch”). They’re appropriately named, because these prepositions can enforce either the accusative or dative case, depending on the context.
Sounds finicky, but fortunately, there’s a general rule to figure out which case should be used. The accusative is used for motion or direction, while the dative is for describing position or objects static location.
Here’s an example with one two-way preposition:
auf — on, onto, upon
Dative: Der Rucksack liegt auf dem Bett.
The backpack is on the bed.
Accusative: Ich lege den Rucksack auf das Bett.
I put the backpack on(to) the bed.
While the English language has multiple ways of expressing the present tense (das Präsens), German only has one (whew).
For weak (regular) verbs, you take the verb stem (by dropping the infinitive –en or –n ending) and add endings unique to each personal pronoun.
For strong (irregular) verbs, you do a similar ending switch to the verb endings. However, some strong verbs with vowels in their stems also experience vowel-changes in their du and er/sie/es conjugations.
Some verbs, such as sein and haben, have their own unique conjugations that you’ll just need to learn.
Mixed verbs, which include modal verbs, take on conjugations similar to both weak and strong verbs.
There are two forms of the past tense in German: the simple past (aka preterite or imperfect) and the present perfect (aka perfect). Let’s start first with the simple past.
Like in English, the simple past tense (das Präteritum/das Imperfekt) conjugates verbs to a form that, by itself, will make clear you’re talking about actions of the past. Think about sentences like “I bought milk” or “I ran a mile.”
It’s likely called “simple” past due to this reason. You only have to work with one verb!
Here’s an example, using the weak verb spielen (to play), strong verb fahren (to drive) and mixed verb bringen (to bring).
Ich spielte im Park. Mutti brachte Snacks. Wir fuhren nach Hause.
I played in the park. Mom brought snacks. We drove home.
It’s important to note that the simple past sounds a bit more literary, and therefore tends to be reserved more for written or formal texts. When just talking casually you’re more likely to use the Perfect Tense.
The present perfect (das Perfekt) also describes the past, but it’s probably the one you’ll encounter most often in actual conversation.
For this tense, there are two elements. Firstly, you need an auxiliary verb: haben (to have) or the verb sein (to be), the latter usually reserved for action verbs requiring movement.
The second part is the conjugated past participle of the main verb, which will have the prefix ge-, and usually a -t ending.
So, the complete formula is: haben/sein (present tense) + main verb (past participle).
Let’s see how this works, using the same verbs and sentence format as used in the simple past example above:
Ich habe im Park gespielt. Mutti hat Snacks gebracht. Wir sind nach Hause gefahren.
I played in the park. Mom brought snacks. We drove home.
Notice how in the last sentence, the auxiliary verb used is sein (to be), as the sentence is about movement.
Past perfect (das Plusquamperfekt) is used for actions that occurred before a specific moment in the past.
In English, the past perfect tense is created by combining the past tense of the verb “to have” and the past participle of the main verb. This creates sentences like “I had eaten” or “They had walked.”
The German past perfect is the same. You’ll now be conjugating the auxiliary verbs haben or sein into their simple past (preterite) tense.
The formula is: haben/sein (preterite) + main verb (past participle).
Ich hatte gespielt. Mutti war gefahren.
I had played. Mom had driven.
In everyday conversation, you can often just use the standard present tense alongside a word like “tomorrow” or “next week” to refer to future plans. For example:
Morgen gehen wir ins Schwimmbad.
Tomorrow, we’re going to go the swimming pool.
However, when making promises, assumptions or formal declarations about future intent, you should use the Future 1 tense.
Future 1 (futur 1) acts much like English simple future tense.
In German Future 1 tense, you use the present tense of the verb werden (to become). Werden is here the equivalent of the English verb “will.”
The formula is then: werden (present tense) + main verb (infinitive). So you don’t have to worry about conjugations for the main verb!
Ich werde spielen. Du wirst spielen.
I will play. You will play.
Future 2 (futur 2) refers to actions that will be completed at some point in the future. It is similar to the English future perfect tense, making sentences resembling English “will have” sentences.
Future 2 incorporates three verbs: werden, the main verb and either haben/sein. It’s very similar to Future 1, except the past participle of the main verb is used.
The formula is: werden (present tense) + main verb (past participle) + haben/sein (infinitive).
Ich werde gespielt haben. Mutti wird nach Hause gefahren sein.
I will have played. Mom will have driven home.
Moods are sentence “attitudes.” They describe the nature and tone of the verbs used in a sentence, so that whoever hears it would understand the speaker’s intentions.
This indicative mood (der Indikativ) is what you’ll be using most of the time: for the matter-of-fact sentences, the ones that simply express facts, opinions or questions. The indicative is also used to describe things that have happened, is happening or would happen.
Declarative statements are the sentences that just relay information. For example, all the sentences in the example below:
Er kommt zu spät. Das überrascht mich nicht. Ich glaube, er hat uns vergessen.
He’s late. That doesn’t surprise me. I think he forgot about us.
Interrogative statements are sentences that pose questions. From a declarative statement, it’s pretty easy to form question statements—you move the conjugated verb to the first position of the sentence, followed by the subject, then the predicates or objects (if any):
Kommt er zu spät? Überrascht dich das? Meinst du, er hat uns vergessen?
Is he late? Does that surprise you? Do you think he forgot about us?
If an auxiliary verb is involved, then that auxiliary verb (conjugated) would take the first position instead.
While the translations for the above examples include the word “does” and “do,” this isn’t really the word being used. The German verb for “to do” isn’t utilized in most interrogative statements, since all that’s needed is the conjugated main verb.
But what about those “W-questions” asking about the who, what, when, where, why and how? These are known as “question pronouns” and in German, they’re called W-Wörter (W-words). The six most common ones are:
- Wer — Who
- Was — What
- Wann — When
- Wo — Where
- Warum — Why
- Wie — How
If you’re using a W-word in a question, then it would take the first position, followed by the main conjugated verb.
This mood is for commands and orders. The imperative will solely use pronouns meant for directly addressing others: du (you), ihr (you, plural), wir (we) and Sie (you, formal). So you’ll only have to worry about the conjugations related to those pronouns!
Forming the imperative involves putting the conjugated verb to the front of the statement. However, for du commands, the conjugated verb would have its ending (-st or –t) dropped.
Gib mir das Buch!
Give me the book!
Sie, ihr and wir commands use the simple present tense verb conjugations. Also, for the polite Sie commands, the pronoun must appear.
Lesen Sie bitte die Unterlagen.
Please read the documents.
Subjunctive (der Konjunktiv)
The subjunctive (der Konjunktiv) is where we enter the esoteric realm of possibility and hearsay. There are two categories of the German subjunctive: Konjunktiv 1 and Konjunktiv 2.
Konjunktiv 1 is used for indirect speech. In other words, someone’s words are being quoted or reported by another. To form this mood, you’ll have to take the stem of the verb (in present tense) and add specific endings. These endings are the same for every verb except sein, which has its own unique forms.
Here are some examples of Konjunktiv 1 at work:
Sarah sagte, sie sei müde. Sarahs Mütter sagte, sie müsse mehr schlafen.
Sarah said she is tired. Sarah’s mother said she must sleep more.
Konjunktiv 2 is used to express speculations, imaginings and hypotheticals. There are two main ways to accomplish this mood.
The first way is by using special conjugations of the main verb, and conveniently, these conjugations resemble the simple past conjugations. Vowel umlauts may also be added.
The second way is by utilizing the auxiliary verb werden. This verb will receive special conjugations that will automatically imply the Konjunktiv 2 mood, that something “would” occur.
Here’s a sentence that utilizes both of these methods:
Wenn ich das Geld hätte, würde ich den Computer kaufen.
If I had the money, I would buy the computer.
10. Word Order
At this point, you’ve seen several examples of how word order can work in German sentences. Sometimes, they’re in the basic Subject-Verb-Object format. Other times, they’re inverted and push the subject or a verb elsewhere.
As a quick refresher, here are some of the core elements that you should be wary of when considering word order:
- Conjunctions (especially subordinating conjunctions)
- Adverbs (especially if there are different types of adverbs)
- Verbs (especially if there are more than one)
By far, adverbs may be the most tricky factors for unraveling correct sentence word order. As a general guide, remember the rule of TMP: time, manner, place.
So there you have it: a speed-run of German grammar!
Take the time to study up a bit more on these concepts, and you’ll master them in no time!