How to Learn German Grammar: Fast, Simple, Easy-to-remember Study Techniques
When we’re learning German grammar, we don’t really want to stop and smell the roses.
We don’t want to linger in grammar books and wander casually through conjugation explanations. We want to zip through our grammar studies so we can get where we’re going: German fluency and the ability to actually communicate with native speakers.
Fortunately for German learners, there are a number of handy hacks that can help you learn German grammar in a way that’s simpler, faster, more accessible and easier to remember.
Try out these 10 techniques and you’ll give your German grammar learning progress an instant speed boost.
- 1. Verb Conjugations: Put Them into Groups
- 2. Irregular Verbs: Put Them in a Verb Book
- 3. German Verb Placement: Remember These Shortcuts
- 4. Breakable Verbs: Build on Those Same Shortcuts
- 5. Time Words: Be Flexible with Placement
- 6. Modal Verbs: Don’t Just Learn Meanings, Learn Context
- 7. Grammatical Gender: Group and Label Nouns
- 8. Cases: Focus on the Accusative for Efficiency
- 9. The Conditional Tense: Just Add Umlaut!
- 10. It’s Okay to Cheat… Sometimes
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1. Verb Conjugations: Put Them into Groups
Here’s how to learn German grammar the hard way: memorize an entire conjugation table for all the forms of every single new verb you encounter.
Sound awful? Yeah.
Here’s how to learn German grammar the fast and easy way: put verb conjugation rules into groups that you can apply to many different verbs.
We’ll get you started with some common verb groupings that German learners can use.
For regular verbs (where the stem doesn’t change in different verb forms) such as trinken (to drink), machen (to do/make) and suchen (to search), follow these simple instructions:
Take the infinitive and subtract the –en. You’re left with the stem. Then add the appropriate ending to the stem:
- Ich (I): -e
- Du (informal you): -st
- Ihr (you all) and er, sie, es (he, she, it): -t
The conjugations for Sie (you formal), wir (we) and sie (they) remain the same as the infinitive, and this rule holds true for all verbs in German—regular and irregular.
Let’s implement this rule on the conjugation of the verb machen (to do), as an example.
The infinitive is machen, and the stem is mach, so you get the following conjugations:
Next, we have verbs whose stems change in different forms. It gets easier to remember such verbs by categorizing them even further into three main groups:
- Stem change e to ie. Eg: lesen (to read): ich lese, du liest, er/sie/es liest, ihr lest, wir/Sie/sie lesen
- Stem change a to ä. Eg: fahren (to drive): ich fahre, du fährst, er/sie/es fährt, ihr fahrt, wir/Sie/sie fahren
- Stem change e to i. Eg: geben (to give): ich gebe, du gibst, er/sie/es gibt, ihr gebt, wir/Sie/sie geben
You might have noticed that the verb conjugation rules are pretty similar to regular verbs. The only change is that there’s a stem change in the du and er/sie/es forms.
Haben and Sein
Two of the most important verbs in German are haben (to have) and sein (to be). The conjugations for these verbs have to be learned by heart.
One easy way to do so is to take a die made of either cardboard or wood and label all the pronouns: ich, du, er, sie, es... (I, you, he, she, it). Then, roll the die and state the correct conjugation for whichever pronoun appears. This trick works for verbs where the conjugations simply have to be memorized (more on those just below).
2. Irregular Verbs: Put Them in a Verb Book
As you’re probably aware, there are tons of irregular verbs in German. Annoyingly, this means that there’s a long list of verbs that you need to individually learn by heart as they don’t fit the usual patterns of conjugation.
One of the easiest ways to work your way through the verbs is to add them to a verb book. You can quickly make one out of a journal or notepad.
Make four columns on each page: One for the English translation, one for the present tense, one for the past tense and one for the future tense. There are of course other tenses that you could add, such as the conditional, but if you’re a beginner these four columns should be enough for now. Research the conjugations with your grammar book or on your favorite conjugation app.
It’s important that you return to this verb book often to review each word and to try and drum the conjugation into your head. Constantly reviewing them can really help them stick, especially if you speak them out loud! Not only that, but you’ll also see that there are in fact some patterns to irregular verbs—see if you can spot them when you list your verbs.
3. German Verb Placement: Remember These Shortcuts
The verb positions in German are quite rigidly placed depending on the type of sentence you have. These shortcuts will help you get the word order right whenever you construct a sentence in German:
- In W Fragen (W Questions), the verb comes second, after the question word.
Woher kommen Sie? (Where do you come from?)
- In statements, the verb again comes in the second position (after the subject).
Ich komme aus Deutschland. (I come from Germany.)
- In yes/no questions (Ja/Nein Fragen) the verb comes first.
Kommen Sie aus Deutschland? (Do you come from Germany?)
- A comma splitting up two clauses usually makes the following verb go to the end. In German, you need to split up clauses with a comma, but that isn’t always necessary in English. You always need to notice these commas as they’re like signposts—they tell you that the following verb needs to go to the end of the sentence.
Ich habe eine Pizza gegessen, weil ich Hunger hatte. (I ate a pizza because I was hungry.)
One useful tip that I’ve personally used to memorize word order is to box, circle, underline or write the verbs in different colors in the sentence. This helps create a mental image that makes you feel as though something is wrong whenever you misplace the verb and prompts you to place it correctly.
Another great way to learn word order is to simply hear German in use in the authentic German videos on FluentU. These videos include native German media like movie clips and trailers, news segments, entertaining commercials, inspiring talks and more.
Listen closely to the sentence structure as you’re watching these videos and make note of the word order. Don’t understand a particular German word? No problem. Hover over it in the interactive subtitles for a contextual translation and a chance to see the word in example sentences and in the context of other videos.
Adaptive, interactive quizzes give you the chance to practice what you’re studying. Use FluentU at home in your browser or anywhere you are on your iOS or Android device.
4. Breakable Verbs: Build on Those Same Shortcuts
Breakable verbs are very much a unique feature of the German language and there are more than 12,000 of these. It’s important to understand the syntax of breakable verbs and how they’re used as well as where to place them in a sentence.
Every breakable verb is comprised of a verb and a prefix. The verb part is like the main tool, and the prefix is like an accessory. I can change these prefixes/accessories to form new meanings. Thus, it makes sense to list breakable verbs according to the verb stems, in order to remember their meanings well.
If you consider the verb stem fahren, there’s a series of breakable verbs building off of it:
abfahren: to depart—which breaks into fahren and ab (prefix)
losfahren: to drive away—which breaks into fahren and los (prefix)
zurückfahren: to drive back—which breaks into fahren and zurück (prefix)
In this manner, one can create word lists or trees with different verb stems of breakable verbs and improve German vocabulary!
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s start building on the word order shortcuts we discussed above.
When a breakable verb is used alone in a sentence or a question (as in, the breakable verb is the only verb in the statement or question) the prefix is positioned at the end. Let’s take a look at an example.
Anrufen (to call someone on the telephone) splits into rufen (the verb part) and an (the prefix).
Statement: Ich rufe meine Mutter an. (I call my mother.)
Yes/No Question: Rufst du meine Mutter an? (Are you calling my mother?)
W Question: Wann rufst du meine Mutter an? (When are you calling my mother?)
As you can see, the verb part is either placed in the first or second position, as usual, depending on whether it’s a yes/no question, a W question or a statement and conjugated according to the subject pronoun.
5. Time Words: Be Flexible with Placement
Exceptionally, time in German sentences can begin a statement (not questions though) or be placed anywhere. (I am thinking this has something to do with German people being sticklers for time, and so subconsciously they’ve made this a free entity to place in the language).
Look at the following examples:
Heute gehe ich in die Bäckerei. (Today, I’m going to the bakery.)
Ich gehe am Wochenende ins Kino. (I go to the cinema on the weekend.)
6. Modal Verbs: Don’t Just Learn Meanings, Learn Context
The big five modal verbs in German are können (can), müssen (must), dürfen (may), sollen (should) and wollen (want). These are whole modal verbs, as a second main verb is required along with these verbs.
The partial modal verbs are möchten and mögen. They’re partial modal verbs as they don’t require a second verb.
You know the words. Now, how do you use them?
First and foremost, it’s important to associate the context with modal verbs. You can use each modal verb only in a certain context:
- können is used to express ability/talent
- müssen is used to express forced conditions
- dürfen is used to express permission in legal and personal situations
- sollen is used to express advice
- wollen is used to express a strong desire
- möchten is the equivalent of “would like” and is used to politely ask for something like a coffee or an order
- mögen is used to express general likes and dislikes
Next, the conjugations for each of these verbs need to be learned. One can use the technique with the dice again.
Modal verbs are neither regular nor irregular, they’re just a separate set of verbs that work differently. They’re mainly used as helping/auxiliary verbs.
In modal verbs, the ich and the er/sie/es conjugations are the same, which makes them a tad easier to remember.
After memorizing the conjugations, one final thing you’ll need to learn is the positioning of the words in a sentence.
In statements and W questions, the modal verb comes in the second position (after the question word or the subject), whereas in yes/no questions, it comes in the first position, conjugated according to the subject pronoun. The second verb comes at the end in the infinitive form.
This makes more sense when you see it in use:
Wann kannst du morgen kommen? (When can you come tomorrow?)
Ich soll viel Wasser trinken. (I should drink a lot of water.)
Darf ich hier parken? (May I park here?)
Again, the boxing or circling technique would help with remembering the verb positions.
7. Grammatical Gender: Group and Label Nouns
The biggest monster in the German language is getting the articles and genders right. Often there’s no logic as to why a particular noun is masculine, feminine or neutral. For example, why is a chair masculine, but a bag is feminine and a mobile phone is neutral? No answer!
Here are some useful tips to create some method in the madness.
Group Similar Objects by Type, Then Learn by Exception
For example, if we were to group all electronic gadgets in German, most of the objects are masculine. The exceptions are the mobile phone and the radio, which are neutral and the telephone, which is feminine.
If you group all beverages instead, you discover that hot beverages such as tea and coffee are masculine, strong beverages such as wine, vodka and champagne are masculine, juices are masculine and mild drinks such as water and beer are neutral.
Surround Yourself with Grammatical Gender Labels
Labeling is another useful technique. Take out a bunch of sticky notes, write the German word for an object with the correct article and stick it on that object in your house. Looking at this object every day with a sticky note on it embeds the article and gender in your brain.
For example, write down Der Tisch and stick it on the table, Der Stuhl on the chair, Die Tasche on the bag and so on.
German possessive articles are equally important, so you can put those on your labels, too. (Plus, if you share a bit of your German knowledge, these notes can warn your siblings or roommates to stay away from your stuff!)
Use possessive articles correctly with the help of the following questions:
- Who possesses the object? If it’s me, use mein-. If it’s you, use dein– or Ihr– and so on.
- What’s the gender of the possessed object? If it’s feminine or plural, add an e at the end of the possessive article, i.e. mein would become meine, dein would become deine and so on.
8. Cases: Focus on the Accusative for Efficiency
Most people who’ve spent even a little time considering how to learn German grammar are aware that the language uses cases. Each case refers to a different use of nouns, and depending on the case of nouns in sentences, it can change the definite and indefinite articles. A change in case can also have an effect on adjective endings.
The easiest one to learn is the nominative as it’s the only one we use in English, and it doesn’t affect any articles or adjective endings. The next easiest one to learn is the accusative.
It’s important that you get as familiar as possible with the accusative as, after the nominative, it’s the most-used case in German. Learning this case well will make your German studies a lot more efficient, especially in the very early stages.
Plus, once you’re skilled at using the accusative in German, you’ll find that it helps to reinforce the dative and genitive as you move on to learn them. That’s because you’ll already be used to changing articles and adjective endings according to certain situations.
In other words, changing articles and adjective endings according to the dative and genitive cases—which is often viewed as being much harder than the accusative case—won’t come as such a shock to you.
Taking one of these accusative quizzes will help you bring your knowledge up to speed in no time at all!
9. The Conditional Tense: Just Add Umlaut!
If you’re ever unsure how to form the conditional tense of a verb, remember you just need to add an umlaut to the preterite form of the verb.
You can see that in action in this list:
war — wäre
was — would be
musste — müsste
had to — would have to
hatte — hätte
had — would have
This is a very solid rule of thumb, so if you ever need to guess the conditional form of a verb, it’s a safe guess to simply stick an umlaut on the first vowel.
10. It’s Okay to Cheat… Sometimes
Even native German speakers don’t get their own grammar right 100% of the time, and it’s not like anyone bats an eyelash at them. That’s because there are rarely situations or scenarios that call for absolutely perfect grammar. Most people are very relaxed with their use of language, which is shown by everyone’s use of slang.
This is something you should use to your advantage as you’re learning German grammar. You don’t have to be too hard on yourself if you forget a grammar rule or word while you’re speaking, and you shouldn’t let this harm your confidence.
In fact, even though you may begin a conversation feeling very nervous, you may surprise yourself when you realize just how much you’re able to remember once you get started.
You’ll also find that you naturally pick up clues from what the other person is saying, and the language they use might even help you remember some key grammar points. So, don’t let your inexperience get in the way of your confidence—just keep talking and see what comes to you!
If you’re a native English speaker, cheating is even easier and more effective. Many aspects of English and German grammar are very similar to one another, so this is definitely something that you should use to your advantage.
For example, when you start to learn German, you’ll see that quite a bit of basic word order follows the same patterns as in English. To see this work, take a look at these sentences:
Ich trinke Tee. (I drink tea.)
Ich habe Tee getrunken. (I have drunk tea.)
The only big difference is in that second German sentence where the past participle is at the end of the clause.
Another way in which German and English are very similar is in their verbs. Quite a few German verbs look just like their English translations, such as the following:
singen (to sing)
tanzen (to dance)
stinken (to stink)
The whole point of this is to show you that you can steal ideas from English if you’re ever stuck with an aspect of German grammar. If you’re midway through a conversation or writing something and you aren’t sure of the German translation for a verb, you could just try and Germanize the English word.
You can do that by adding “-en” as in the above examples. And if it’s sentence order that you’re confused about, you could stick to the English rules and you have a good chance of being right.
Just make sure you don’t fake your German too much in any courses or classes that you take—your teacher won’t be impressed and it won’t help you pass any important tests!
Hopefully, all of these tips for how to learn German grammar will make it all much easier!
Laura Harker is a freelance writer based in North Yorkshire, U.K.
Gayatri Tribhuvan is a passionate linguist from Bangalore, India and teaches German, French and other languages. She enthusiastically contributes her knowledge in the linguistics field. Get to know more about the language school that she runs in Bangalore, India here.
Download: This blog post is available as a convenient and portable PDF that you can take anywhere. Click here to get a copy. (Download)