When grappling with the infamous German grammar, my students sometimes ask me whether some of the rules are so difficult that even native speakers get them wrong from time to time. My short answer is "yes, unfortunately!" My longer answer is that various factors are at play here- regional dialects, an increasing tendency to speak and, to some extent. also write more informally, and finally a lack of understanding of some of the rules. Some fellow German teachers suggest that it is technically wrong to speak of 'mistakes' here as the language is constantly changing with how people are using. The latter is true, of course, but if it were simply okay for German native speakers to use their language as they see fit, irrespective of its rules, then why wouldn't the same liberty apply to students of the language? Why would they make mistakes and native speakers could say whatever they want? I believe certain rules in the language must be followed if clarity of expression is our common goal, and this applies to native speakers and students alike. In this blog post, I'm looking at the most common mistakes by native speakers in the hope that students of the German language won't repeat them.
1) "Der Dative ist dem Genitiv sein Tod"- When Germans don't know how to use the cases
This title of a quite popular book in Germany (which would translate as "the dative is the genitive's death") hits the nail on the head because many German native speakers use the dative case in situations when "Hochdeutsch" (standardised German) would have them use the genitive. This isn't just a matter of regional dialect, as some suggest. Rather, it is a sign of the increasing colloquialisation of the language, in the course of which informal ways of speaking creep into writing and the rules on how the cases are supposed to be used are being eroded. Let's look at some examples.
Das ist das Buch von meiner Schwester FALSE -> Das ist das Buch deiner Schwester CORRECT
Das ist das Buch von Maria FALSE-> Das ist Marias Buch CORRECT
The dative preposition "von" is often used to indicate ownership and sidestep the genitive altogether, even though the very point of the genitive is to express ownership and possession. The correct use of "von" would is mainly for directions (e.g. travelling from one place to another) and periods of time (from one moment until another), calendar dates, as an instigator in passive sentences ("by") among other situations. According to cases rules, the genitive case immediately follows after the noun that is being owned, unless it's a named owner. Then the genitive comes before the noun with the genitive "s".
However, the genitive isn't the only cases that suffers, in the above at the hand of the dative. The dative is also under attack by the accusative case. Where the dative case normally indicates recipients of the accusative case (usually, people benefiting from the action of the verb), many natives use the accusative preposition "für" instead.
Ich kaufe einen Blumenstrauß für meine Mutter FALSE-> Ich kaufe meiner Mutter einen Blumenstrauß CORRECT
Rather than representing people or pets that receive the accusative object (here, the mother receiving the bouquet), "für" should be used in sentences where there is no recipient, the dative isn't possible (for instance, after verbs such as "sein"), to help or address someone or in the sense of the English "in the interest of".
Ich kaufe Getränke für die Party. (The party isn't benefitting, isn't a person/pet, so the dative cannot be used here)
Der Blumenstrauß ist für meine Mutter. ("Sein" as a verb can't be used with the dative case)
Sie erhielt eine Spende für ihre Wohltätigkeitsorganisation. (as above)
2) Using articles where they shouldn't
One very widespread habit among German native speakers is to incorrectly use articles for so-called proper nouns, especially named people, in order to express the different cases in which the person is being used in a sentence.
Der Markus ist am Telefon. (Nominative)
Ich kenne den Markus schon seit Jahren. (Accusative)
Ich habe dem Markus ein Geburtstagsgeschenk gekauft. (Dative)
According to German grammar rules, articles shouldn't and don't need to be used for so-called proper nouns. The mere position of the named person in the sentence is indicative enough of the case, so the articles are superfluous.
3) Misusing prepositions
Ich gehe auf (die) Arbeit FALSE-> Ich gehe zu der (zur) Arbeit CORRECT
Sie ist auf der Post FALSE-> Sie geht zu der (zur) Post (when is making her way towards it) OR Sie geht in die Post (when she is outside entering the post office) CORRECT
Er arbeitet auf der Post FALSE-> Er arbeitet bei der Post CORRECT
Wegen dem schlechten Wetter konnten wir nicht kommen FALSE-> Wegen des schlechten Wetters CORRECT
Ich habe das wegen dir gemacht FALSE-> Ich habe das deinetwegen gemacht CORRECT
4) Using the continuous present that the language doesn't have
Many German native speakers are eager so eager to express that they are performing an action in this very moment that they use what in English would be called the "continuous present". The problem is- this tense doesn't exist in the German language.
Ich bin am arbeiten FALSE-> Ich arbeite gerade CORRECT
Sie ist am Telefonieren FALSE -> telefoniert gerade OR sie ist am Telefon CORRECT
5) Butchering comparatives and superlatives
The worst error regarding comparatives in German is, without a doubt, the incorrect use of "als" and "wie" or the combination of the two. While "wie" is used to compare two equals, "als" is used to compare unequal things.
Susi ist größer wie Marc FALSE-> Susi ist größer als Marc CORRECT
Ihr Haus ist so groß wie unser Haus CORRECT
6) Confusing das with dass
The confusion of das with one s and dass with two rests on a misunderstanding of two different types of subordinate clauses- relative clauses that use das and subordinate clauses after dass. While relative clauses provide further information about a noun in a main clause and use the German articles to refer back to that noun, dass clauses follow verbs that express opinions, perceptions, feelings, knowledge, and intentions.
Der Mann fährt ein Auto, dass gelb istFALSE-> Der Mann fährt ein Auto, das gelb ist CORRECT
Ich glaube, das du recht hastFALSE-> Ich glaube, dass du recht hast CORRECT
7) Believing that the ß is dead
Many German native speakers believe that the ß (eszett or "scharfes s") fell victim to several reforms in the language that happened at the end of the 1990's and no longer exists. It is very much alive, though. It should be used after two consecutive vowels and long vowels.
Sie giesst Tee in die Kanne FALSE -> gießt Tee in die Kanne CORRECT
Die Strasse liegt am Bahnhof FALSE -> Straße liegt am Bahnhof CORRECT
8) Imperative gone wrong
When using the imperative, some German native speakers tend to confuse regular and irregular verbs.
Geb ihr bitte den Schlüssel zurück! FALSE> Gib ihr bitte den Schlüssel zurück! CORRECT
Treff dich doch morgen mit ihm! FALSE> Triff dich doch morgen mit ihm! CORRECT
9) Präteritum- all verbs are regular
The same confusion of regular and irregular verbs also happens in the Präteritum tense where they frequently make irregular verbs regular.
Sie ladete ihre Schwester ins Kino ein FALSE> Sie lud ihre Schwester ins Kino ein CORRECT
Er rufte seinen Bruder an FALSE> Er rief seinen Bruder an CORRECT
10) Subjunctive- hypothetical situations don't happen
As far as the subjunctive is concerned, some German native speakers struggle with both, the so-called Konjunktiv 1 which is used for reported speech (indirekte Rede) and the Konjunktiv 2 that is used for hypothetical situations. Instead, they use "würden" for everything.
Ich würde gern älter sein FALSE-> Ich wäre gern älter CORRECT
Sie sagt, sie würde am liebsten in die USA umziehen FALSE -> sagt, sie ziehe am liebsten in die USA um
As these 10 examples show, the German language isn't just a challenge for foreigners, German native speakers are struggling with it as well. Grammar-loving German teachers like me are therefore not surrounded by perfect German when they visit back home. Ganz im Gegenteil (on the contrary)...
On our German language blog "Auf Deutsch, bitte!" you will find explanations of all main grammar topics in the language- from the German articles to word order in the language. Work with us to learn German properly.