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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A small linguistic unit (morpheme) either added at the start of a word (Prefix) or the end (Suffix).
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.
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.
See verbs below.
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.
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
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.
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.
To conjugate a verb means to change its root and/or ending to express different persons, moods (see active/passive), tenses etc.
He, she, it goes
For more information on the conjugation of German verbs in the present tense check our post on the topic.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
See accusative above.
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.
A compound sound with two vowels.
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.
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.
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)
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 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 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.
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.
Also known as "Präteritum", the imperfect tense in German is one of three past tenses. It is chiefly used in writing.
Used to indicate non-specific nouns.
I’d like a pint of milk.
Ich hätte gern eine Flasche Milch.
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.
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.
The original form of the verb as it is found in a dictionary.
e.g. To play - spielen
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.
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.
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.
Also known as question words in German.
Intransitive verbs are verbs that do not require an accusative object. See transitive verbs below.
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.
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.
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.
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.
See Gender above.
See verbs below.
A grammatical term that indicates the speaker's attitude towards the utterance. See indicative, subjunctive, imperative, modal verbs.
The neutral gender in German. See genders.
See case above.
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.
In German, there are two objects- the direct object (see accusative above) and the indirect object (see dative above).
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.
Opposite of active voice, see above. Passive rules in German.
The homework is being done.
Die Hausaufgabe wird gemacht.
The form of the main verb (see verbs below) in the Perfekt and the Past Perfect tense in German.
The Perfekt tense in German is one of three past tense and mostly used in spoken German.
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.
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).
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 pronouns in German and many other European languages signify ownership or belonging.
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 objects in German are dependent on verbs that go with certain prepositions.
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.
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.
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.
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.
See reflexive verb.
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.
See relative clause above.
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.
Opposite of plural.
Stem and ending
The stem is the root of the verb (usually, infinite - en), while the ending refers to the personal pronoun that is used.
Ich spiele (ending) Tennis.
Strong verbs are verbs that have a stem change in the past tense, while weak verbs do not. The strong-weak verb distinction is similar to, but not entirely identical with, the one between regular and irregular verbs. The criterion for the latter is whether there is a stem change in any tense, including the present, while for the former it is the past tense only. For students of the German language, the distinction between regular and irregular is therefore a more useful one in practice.
An example of a strong and irregular verb is the verb "fahren" because its root changes in the conjugation.
fahren (Infinitive; root/stem ‘fahr‘) in the present tense
er/sie/es fuhr in the Präteritum
er/sie/es ist gefahren in the Perfekt tense
A person or thing that does the verb, i.e. the doer of the action. The subject is also known as the Nominative case. For more information on the subject-object distinction, refer to our blog poston the topic.
We are allowed to travel.
Wir dürfen reisen.
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.
The superlative is the highest form in a comparison. Both English and german use the ending -st to form it.
Klein- am kleinsten
See word order below.
While transitive verbs require an accusative object as the receiver of the action, intransitive verbs do not. Put simply,
sentences with a transitive verbs would be incomplete and ungrammatical without an accusative object, whereas intransitive verbs wouldn't. Intransitive verbs typically go with the dative or genitive case.
An example of a transitive verb would be "kaufen" (to buy), which only makes grammatical sense if accompanied by an accusative object (see direct object and case).
e.g. Ich kaufe ein Auto.
By contrast, an intransitive verb such as "helfen" does not go with the dative case as it happens to be a dative-only verb.
e.g. Sie hilft dem Mann.
Temporal main or subordinate clause or adverbs of time.
Zuerst regnete es, dann kam ein Gewitter
At first, it rained and then there was a thunderstorm.
Als es regnete, ging er nach Hause.
When it rained, he went home.
Er geht morgens zur Arbeit.
He goes to work in the mornings.
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. The German language has six tenses.
I will travel to Greece this summer.
Ich werde diesen Sommer nach Griechenland reisen.
A mark used over a vowel to indicate a difference in pronunciation. The three Umlaute in German are ä, ö, and ü. They are letters in their own right.
Verbs represent the action in a sentence, done by and agreeing with the subject. See conjugation. There are three types of verbs: main verbs, auxiliary verbs, and modal verbs.
Main verbs express an action.
Auxiliary verbs represent the tense (see above) of the verb together with the main verb.
Modal verbs indicate the way or mood in which the action of the main verb is expressed. They express the subject's ability, capacity, likelihood, obligation, permission, suggestion etc. to perform the action.
The letters representing the vowel sound in German are a, e, i, o, u. Opposite of consonant.
Also known as regular verbs that keep the same root but change the endings according to who is speaking. See strong verbs above.
spielen (infinitive; root/stem ‘spiel‘)
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.
Questions that must be answered with yes or no. In German, yes/no questions begin with the conjugated verb. See my beginner guide to German word order.
When a noun is used without an article (see above). I answer the question when not to use an article in German elsewhere.
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.