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A-Z Of Grammar Terminology. The Meaning of Grammar Terms With Examples in English and German

Updated: Mar 14

When learning a foreign language, students usually find grammar terms quite daunting as it seems to be a language in its own right with many new terms to learn and understand. Most people learn grammar through the first foreign language they are taught, provided of course this was done properly. In this A to Z guide of grammar terms, I’m going to explain the most important terminology in a general way so that it can also applied to other European languages, not just German. My examples are in English and German.







Definitions of the Most Important Grammar Terms


Accusative

One of three, four or more cases (depending on the language). Also known as the “direct object”, the Accusative is the noun (or nouns) in a sentence that has the action of the verb being done to it. Most sentences would be incomplete without it.


e.g. I buy a car.

Ich kaufe ein Auto.


Whereas I (ich) is the subject of the sentence (see Nominative below), the car (Auto) is the direct object.


Active voice

The difference between active and passive voice is that in active sentences the subject (a person or thing that does the verb, i.e. the doer of the action; see below) is the focal point, whereas in passive sentences the subject is the act that is happening to or experienced by someone.


e.g. I buy the red car (active) Ich kaufe das rote Auto


The red car is being bought (by me). (passive)

Das Auto wird (von mir) gekauft.


Adjective

Words that are used to describe nouns. In most European languages other than English they take on endings to agree with the noun that they’re describing, either when placed before the noun, after the noun or both. In German, they just take on endings when they’re put before the noun. Learn more about German adjective rules here.

e.g. I bought a red car. The car that I bought is red.

Ich habe ein rotes Auto gekauft. Das Auto, das ich gekauft habe, ist rot.


Adverb

Words that describe, modify or quantify verbs. Information of time, manner, reasons, locations are normally adverbs.


e.g. Yesterday she took her car to work.

Sie ist gestern mit dem Auto zur Arbeit gefahren.


Affix

A small linguistic unit (morpheme) either added at the start of a word (Prefix) or the end (Suffix).


Article

Define a noun as specific (the) or unspecific (a) and in most European languages, unlike English, indicate its case (function in a sentence, see below) and gender (whether it’s masculine, feminine or neutral).


I enjoyed the lesson.

Ich habe den Unterricht genossen.


I have a question.

Ich habe eine Frage.


Apposition

A grammatical construction in which two units that are placed side by side offer different information about the same person or object.


Angela Merkel, Germany's former chancellor, recently gave her first interview since being out of office.

Angela Merkel, Deutschlands frühere Bundeskanzlerin, gab ihr erstes Interview seit dem Amtsabtritt.


Both the name and the supplementary clause refer to the same person.


Auxiliary verb

See verbs below.


Case

Cases indicate the function that a noun performs in a given sentence. They express the difference between subject and objects, often using different articles to reflect that. In English, the cases are mostly communicated by virtue of word order (subjects come before objects), whereas in German the articles express the case. The German language has four cases: nominative, accusative, dative, and genitive (see above and below).


I (nominative case) enjoyed the lesson (accusative case).

Ich habe den Unterricht genossen.


The question words make the difference more apparent.


Who (subject) does the work?

Wer macht die Arbeit?


Whom (object) did you see in the supermarket?

Wen hast du im Supermarkt gesehen?


Learn more about the cases in German here.


Comparative

To compare two unequal things, the comparative form is being used. In both English and German, the comparative form uses the ending -er.


He is taller than she is.

Er ist größer als sie


Conditional tense

This tense is used to communicate hypothetical claims or situations, polite questions and the like.


Could (rather than can) you please help me.

Könntest du/könnten Sie mir bitte helfen.


I would go on holiday if I could.

Ich würde in Urlaub fahren, wenn ich könnte.


Learn about the conditional tense in German here.


Connector

Either words that connect two or more main clauses ("main clause connectors") or main clause and subordinate clauses ("subordinate clause conjunctions"). See word order in German.


Conjugation/conjugated verb

To conjugate a verb means to change its root and/or ending to express different persons, moods (see active/passive), tenses etc.


I go

you go

He, she, it goes

we go

you go

they go


Ich gehe

du gehst

er/sie/es geht

wir gehen

ihr geht

sie/Sie gehen


For more information on the conjugation of German verbs in the present tense check our post on the topic.


Conjunction

Conjunctions are words that link separate clauses or sentences. See word order below.


I go to the supermarket because I need milk (I go to the supermarket and I need milk are separate clauses linked by because)

Ich gehe in den Supermarkt, weil ich Milch brauche.


Consonant

All other letters of the alphabet, with the exception (in German) of the vowels and ß. So b, c, d, f, g etc. For an explanation on when to use eszett ß in German, please check my separate post.


Dative

One of three or more cases, referring to the indirect object in a sentence. Normally a person or pet to whom something is being given or for whom something is being done.


Ich kaufe meiner Schwester ein Auto.

I buy a car for my sister.


In terms of word order, the Dative case almost always comes before the Accusative, unless the latter is a pronoun. For a detailed explanation of the difference between the Dative and Accusative in German, check out my post on the topic.


Ich kaufe es meiner Schwester.

I buy it for my sister.


Declension

Declensions are changes of the articles put before nouns as well as the form of a noun, adjective, and pronoun that allow to identify its case.


e.g. der Mann (Nominative case)

den Mann (Accusative)

dem Mann (Dative)

des Mannes (Genitive)


Definite article

Used to indicate that the noun is specific or known to the reader or interlocutor. In other languages also expresses gender and case.


The owner of the shop served me today .

Der Besitzer des Geschäfts hat mich heute bedient


Definite or Demonstrative pronoun

A pronoun that is declined like an article and used to refer to a specific person or thing.


I really like this mug.

Diese Tasse gefällt mir besonders gut.


Direct object

See accusative above.


Direct speech

A sentence in which the exact words are reproduced as a quote and put in speech or quotation marks.


John F. Kennedy: Ich bin ein Berliner


Unlike English, the first quotation mark is at the bottom rather than the top to indicate the beginning of a quote. See German punctuation rules.


Diphthong

A compound sound with two vowels.


Frau

Wien

Wein


Feminine

Referring to the feminine gender of nouns. See Gender below.


Finite form of verbs

Finite refers to the conjugated form of the verb that indicates who is speaking. The infinite form doesn't. See infinitive and conjugation.


Future tense

The future tense in German is used to express that something is certain to happen or a supposition. There are two future tenses in the language Future I and II.


Es wird gleich regnen (Future I)

(It will rain soon)


Wir werden uns nächstes Jahr wiedersehen.

We will see each other again next year.


Gender

In most European languages nouns have two, in some languages like German nouns have three genders (masculine, feminine, neuter). In modern English the genders are largely lost. The gender determines the inflection of the noun, see above. To learn German gender rules read our post on the topic.


The dog bit the man. He (rather than it) bit him.

(Der Hund hat den Mann gebissen. Er hat ihn gebissen)


Genitive

The genitive is one of three or more cases, depending on the language. It communicates ownership or a possessive relationship between nouns. In English, the preposition “of” indicates the genitive case. What comes after “of” takes the genitive case as it is the owner of that which comes before the “of”. See cases above.


e.g. This is the car of my sister.

‘Das ist das Auto meiner Schwester.


Indefinite pronoun

Indefinite pronouns are pronouns that refer to a noun that can't be clearly defined.


Nothing remains the same

Nichts bleibt wie es war.


Nowadays, everything is more expensive.

Heutzutage ist alles teurer.


Impersonal verbs

Impersonal verbs use "es" as their subject rather than a noun or any other pronoun.


e.g. es gibt, es regnet, es blitzt, es donnert, es schneit, es stürmt.


Imperative

Is a grammatical mood (see below) that expresses the intention to influence the behaviour of another person by giving commands or orders. Imperative sentences give instructions, make a request or issue a command. The rules for the imperative in German can found in a separate blog post.


Imperfect

Also known as "Präteritum", the imperfect tense in German is one of three past tenses. It is chiefly used in writing.


Indefinite articles

Used to indicate non-specific nouns.


I’d like a pint of milk.

Ich hätte gern eine Flasche Milch.


Indirect speech

Also known as reported speech, indirect speech in German is used to report what someone else has said.


He said he would go to the office.

Er sagte, er gehe gleich ins Büro.


Indicative

The indicative constitutes the default mood of a verb, also known as "realis". It presents the action of the verb as a statement of fact, whereas the subjunctive ("irrealis") presents the action as contingent, hypothetical or an expression of doubt or desire. See Konjunktiv below.


Infinitive

The original form of the verb as it is found in a dictionary.


e.g. To play - spielen


Infinitive clause

Infinitive clauses or infinitive constructions in German are either governed by certain verbs or follow the conjunctions "um", "ohne", "anstatt".


She has the intention to attend her German course tomorrow.

Sie hat die Absicht, morgen den Deutschkurs zu besuchen.


For an explanation of how to use um...zu in German, refer to my blog post on the topic.


Inflection

The term “inflection” refers to a change of articles in light of the gender of the noun, while declensions change articles according to their case. There is no difference in English.


Der Mann- die Frau- ein/der Blumenstrauß

Der Mann schenkt der Frau einen Blumenstrauß.

The man gifts a bouquet to the woman.


Inseparable verbs

Verbs with a prefix that don't separate. The opposite of separable verbs which do split. See below.


Er zerreißt das Papier

He tears apart the paper.


Interrogative pronoun


Intransitive verbs

Intransitive verbs are verbs that do not require an accusative object. See transitive verbs below.


Konjunktiv

The subjunctive in German is comprised of Konjunktiv I and Konjunktiv II. While Konjunktiv I is used in indirect or reported speech (see above), the Konjunktiv II is used in hypothetical statements.


Locative

Adverbs of place or direction.


Der Hund liegt immer hier

The dog always lies here.


Er legt sich gern hierhin.

He likes to lie down here.


Main clause

Also referred to as “independent clause” as it can stand on its own feet and doesn’t require any additional information to be grammatically correct. In a German main clause, the conjugated verb needs to be the second idea. See word order below.


I like to play tennis.

Ich spiele gern Tennis.


Manner

To explain how something is done or happens, the German language uses adverbs (see above).


She took the bus to school every day.

Sie fuhr jeden Tag mit dem Bus zur Schule.


As the example shows, the German word order of adverbs is different from English in that we follow time-manner-place or, to be more precise, tekamolo.


Masculine

See Gender above.


Modal verb

See verbs below.


Mood

A grammatical term that indicates the speaker's attitude towards the utterance. See indicative, subjunctive, imperative, modal verbs.


Neuter

The neutral gender in German. See genders.


Nominative

See case above.


Noun

Nouns are single words, the first letter of which is capitalised, generally preceded by an article. An explanation as to why nouns are capitlised in German can be found on my blog.


Object

In German, there are two objects- the direct object (see accusative above) and the indirect object (see dative above).


Object pronouns

Since the German language distinguishes between direct and indirect objects (see above), the language also uses different pronouns in the place of nouns that reflect their case. See case above.


Passive voice

Opposite of active voice, see above. Passive rules in German.

The homework is being done.

Die Hausaufgabe wird gemacht.


Past participle

The form of the main verb (see verbs below) in the Perfekt and the Past Perfect tense in German.


Perfekt tense

The Perfekt tense in German is one of three past tense and mostly used in spoken German.


Personal pronoun

Also known as subject and object pronouns (see subject and object), they either refer to a person or used instead of a person or thing to avoid repetition of the noun.


Ich bleibe zu Hause.

I stay at home.


Ich kenne meine Freundin. Sie ist sehr zuverlässig.

I know my friend. She is very reliable.


See pronoun below.


Personal verbs

Most verbs in German fall into this category. They are verbs that can be used with any subject pronoun or noun. As opposed to impersonal verbs (see above).


Plural

The plural form of nouns denotes more than one. German plural rules can be found here.


The woman- the women

die Frau - die Frauen


Possessive pronoun

Possessive pronouns in German and many other European languages signify ownership or belonging.


Prefix

See affix.


Preposition

A word, usually preceding a noun, that expresses the time, manner or location of something in relation other events. Common English prepositions are on, to, with.

The child is on the bus.

Das Kind sitzt im Bus.


Check out our posts on preposition rules in German here.


Prepositional object

Prepositional objects in German are dependent on verbs that go with certain prepositions.


Present tense

The first of six tenses in German used to either refer to actions in the here and now or general statements.


Ich schreibe gerade einen Blog-Beitrag.

I am writing a blog post.


Pronoun

Pronouns are words that substitute nouns (like she) that were mentioned elsewhere in the discourse (the woman) or function as a noun phrase used by themselves. More on Pronoun rules in German here. The German language distinguishes between nine different types of pronouns: personal pronouns (see above), object pronouns (see above), reflexive pronouns (see below), possessive pronouns (see below), definite and indefinite pronouns (see above), and interrogative pronouns (see above)

I know the woman over there. She is my sister’s friend.

Ich (personal pronoun) kenne diese Frau (definite pronoun) dort. Sie (personal pronoun) ist eine Freundin meiner (possessive pronoun) Schwester.


Proper noun

Nouns that designate a single entity such as a named person or institution. By contrast, common nouns refer to a class of entities. London is a proper noun that refers to the capital of the United Kingdom, whereas the noun city would refer to any large towns.


London’s restaurants are very good.

Londons Restaurants sind sehr gut.


Reflexive verb

Verbs that refer back to the subject because their object (direct or indirect) is the same as its subject and the action of the verb is being done to the subject.


I wash myself.

Ich wasche mich.


Our post on reflexive verbs in German can be found here.


Reflexive pronoun

See reflexive verb.


Relative clause

Clauses that are used to describe a noun. In English, you use the relative pronouns “who”, “which” or ”that” to introduce the relative clause. In German, you use the definite articles. Read more about relative clause. in German here.


e.g. Die Frau, die Deutsch lernt, hat einen deutschen Mann.


Relative pronoun

See relative clause above.


Separable verbs

A category of verbs in the German language that is made up of a prefix and a main verb. See our more detailed explanation on separable verbs in German.


e.g. aufstehen, ausgehen, ankommen, umziehen.


Singular

Opposite of plural.