A-Z of Grammar Terminology. What is a definite, an indefinite article, an adjective etc.

When learning a foreign language, students usually find grammar 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 learn, provided of course the latter was taught properly. In this A to Z guide of grammar terms, I’m going to explain the most important terminology in the most general way so that it can also applied to other European languages, not just German. My examples are in English and German.




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.


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.


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.


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.


I (subject) enjoyed the lesson (object).

Ich habe den Unterricht genossen.


The question words make he 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.


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.


Conjugation

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.


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)


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.


e.g. 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.


e.g. Ich kaufe es meiner Schwester (I buy it for my sister).


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.


Gender

In most European languages nouns have two, in some languages like German nouns have three genders. 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 articles

Used to indicate non-specific nouns.


I’d like a pint of milk.

Ich hätte gern eine Flasche Milch.


Infinitive

The original, unconjugated form of the verb.


e.g. To play - spielen


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


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.


Passive voice

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

The homework is being done.

Die Hausaufgabe wird gemacht.


Plural

The plural form of nouns denotes more than one.


The woman- the women

die Frau - die Frauen


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.


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.

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

Ich kenne die Frau dort. Sie ist eine Freundin meiner Schwester.


Proper noun

Named owner or institution.


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.


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.


Singular

Opposite of plural.


Strong verb

Also known as irregular verbs because their root changes in the conjugation.


fahren (Infinitive; root/stem ‘fahr‘)

ich fahre

du fährst

er/sie/es fährt

wir fahren

ihr fahrt

sie/Sie fahren


Subject

A person or thing that does the verb, i.e. the doer of the action. The subject is also known as the Nominative case.


We are allowed to travel.

Wir dürfen reisen.


Subordinate clause

Independent clauses that provide additional information, such as reasons, that rely on the existence of a main clause. Unlike a main clause where the conjugated verb is second, in a subordinate clause the verbs go to the end of the sentence with the conjugated verb going last. See word order below.

We are allowed to travel because the infection rate is going down.

Wir dürfen reisen, weil die Infektionszahlen sinken.


Syntax

See word order below.


Tense

The form of a verb that gives reference to the time at which events take place. Most languages have at least the present, past and future tense.


I will travel to Greece this summer.

Ich werde diesen Sommer nach Griechenland reisen.


To learn about the Perfekt, Präteritum, Plusquamperfekt and Future tense in German, check out our blog.


Weak verb

Also known as regular verbs that keep the same root but change the endings according to who is speaking.


spielen (infinitive; root/stem ‘spiel‘)

ich spiele

du spielst

er/sie/es spielt

wir spielen

ihr spielt

sie/sie spielen

Word order

Also known as ”syntax”, refers to rules that govern the sequence of words in a sentence. The standard word order in both English and German is: Subject + Verb + Object.


I play tennis.

Ich spiele Tennis.


For German word order rules check our post on the topic,


Verb

Represents the action in the sentence, done by and agreeing with the subject. See conjugation.


If you have other terms that you’re confused about, please leave a comment and I’ll add an explanation to my post here. Thanks for reading!


On our blog, you will also find posts on the ten most useful verbs in German, reflexive verbs in German and how to use them, separable verbs and when they split, how to express preferences in German, the German future tense, the German perfekt tense. We also have an article on the most common phrases in German, a comparison between online dictionaries like Linguee, dict.cc, dict.leo and Collins, and a review of the apps Duolingo, Memrise, Babbel, Busuu, and Quizlet. and a post hat explains the difference between language levels a1, a2, b1 etc.


You might also be interested in my Ultimate Guide to Learning German. Check it out to learn how to learn German fast.


If you have any questions or comments, please email me. You will find more information about my German language school here.




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