Having taught the German language for over 20 years, there are some mistakes that I correct in almost every lesson. In this post, I’m going to discuss the most common grammatical errors and tell you how to avoid them.
No. 1 - The position of the verbs in a German sentence
By far the most common mistake that students make is that they do not place the verbs in the right place. In German main clauses, the conjugated verb needs to be second and the main verb, if there is one, goes to the end. In subordinate clauses, all verbs go to the end of the clause with the conjugated verb going last. In other words, the verbs in main and subordinate clauses are normally as far apart from each other as possible, provided students start with the main clause. While students learn the theory of German word order early on and usually get it right in writing, when they speak they do not concentrate enough on where to put the verbs.
The first tip I have is to choose the verbs before you start speaking and then construct the rest of the sentence around them. This is easier said than done in the heat of the moment, but just takes practice and means that students need to speak more slowly than they might initially have done. However, accuracy is more important than pace in speaking. The second is to begin, wherever possible and unless an emphasis on other words (such as adverbs of time or location) is absolutely required, with the subject. When students don’t, it’s very tempting to keep the subject second and to see the word in first position as separated off from the rest of the sentence like in English and the Romance languages.
e.g. Today, I have my German lesson.
INCORRECT: Heute, ich habe meinen Deutschunterricht.
CORRECT: Heute habe ich meinen Deutschunterricht.
This is, of course, not just relevant for the conjugated verb but also for the main verb. Consider, for instance, the perfekt tense. If you don’t anticipate which verb goes last and whether it’s a change of location or change of state verb, you cannot get the haben/sein distinction right.
The third tip is to visualise where the verbs need to go and to highlight them when writing a text or editing your draft. The more you write, the easier it will be for you to get the word order right- first in written German and then in speaking.
The fourth tip is to almost always begin with the main clause before going into the subordinate clause. When you don’t, you face the situation often referred to as “verb, verb”. E.g.
EASIER: Ich mache mehr Fehler, wenn ich mit Nebensätzen beginne.
HARDER: Wenn ich mit Nebensätzen beginne, mache ich mehr Fehler.
The fifth advice is to pause when choosing the subordinate clause conjunctions and to give you enough time to anticipate the verbs which you need to send to the end. While this slows you down again, with practice you will get better and faster at it.
No. 2 subject and verb don’t agree
A related issue to the above is that subject and verb often don’t agree because students haven’t chosen their verb early enough or they simply got confused. They want to talk about themselves but don’t conjugate the verb at all or their subject is plural but their verb is in the singular etc.
As I said above, start with the subject wherever possible so that you get subject and verb out of the way, as it were, before you delve into the rest of the sentence.
No. 3 verb is in the wrong tense
Think about the context of what you’re trying to say. Are you talking about what happened last week or do you want to tell a friend about your recent holiday? Then use the perfekt tense in German and be consistent. Are you discussing plans for next year? Then use the future tense in German. You get the picture. Context is everything. So learn the tenses properly, including the conditional tense in German (Konjunktiv 2), and the passive voice in German.
No. 4 confusion of articles
With the exception of the genitive case, which is disconnected from the verb, all other cases in German are grammatically dependent on the verb. Obviously, subject (Nominative) and verb need to agree. The direct object (Akkusativ) has the action of the verb being done to it, the indirect object (Dat) is the recipient of the Akkusativ and thus of the action done by the verb.
So my tip is to first consider what kind of verb you have chosen in your sentence. Is it a verb whose action could be done to or for someone? If so, you normally have a dative and an accusative in your sentence. If not, it’s just an accusative.
ich kaufe meiner Mutter Blumen
common verb with both cases are geben, schicken, schenken, erklären, erzählen,
Sie fragt ihren Lehrer, ob er das Thema nochmal erklären kann.
Verbs with accusative: kennen, möchten (and other modal verbs), sehen, haben.
N.B. dative only verbs like helfen, gefallen, gut gehen need to be memorised and regarded as exceptions.
No. 5 gender confusions
Obviously, it’s very difficult to learn the gender of German nouns, particularly when no rule applies and you just need to learn them. However, getting the genders mixed up is less damning a mistake than students tend to assume- and much less so than making errors 1 to 4.
Don’t get discouraged when you make one, two or all of the above mistakes frequently. Initially at least, all of my students do too. It’s all a matter of practice.
You might also be interested in my Ultimate Guide to Learning German. Check it out to learn how to learn German fast.
On our German language blog "Auf Deutsch bitte!", we give you our top 5 tips on how to improve your German, the best German songs to learn German fast, and you will find posts on many topics in German grammar- from adjective endings in German, the four German cases, how to negate a German sentence and where to place nicht to German word order. We also review the language apps Duolingo, Memrise, Babbel, and Busuu, and compare the most popular online dictionaries Linguee, dict.cc, dict.leo and Collins. So check out our blog and let us know what you think. Find out more about our German lessons and daytime, evening,and weekend German courses here.