1. Objectives

In this unit, in the context of simple sentences that only involve the nominative and accusative cases, you will learn how to:

  • Identify the case, number and gender of nouns, pronouns, definite articles, and indefinite articles.
  • Identify the subject, verb, and object.
  • Decide whether a sentence is a statement, a yes/no question, or a question-word question.
  • Select the appropriate English verb tense to use to translate various German present-tense and simple-past verb tense usages.
Last revised on September 10, 2014.

2. Nouns

Unlike English nouns, all German nouns are capitalized. This is very useful as you learn to read German. You can easily identify the nouns in these two sentences:

Der Mann hat einen Bruder und eine Schwester, aber keine Eltern mehr. Die Frau hat keine Schwestern und keine Brüder, aber zwei Tanten.

Of course, the first words of each sentence are also capitalized. Der and Die are articles, not nouns.

Last revised on October 6, 2014.

3. Noun Gender and the Nominative Case

German nouns have gender, i.e., they are masculine, feminine or neuter, but memorizing the gender of every noun is not particularly important for reading German. What is of significance is that the definite articles (the words for “the”) differ according to gender and undergo changes according to the role the word plays in a sentence. (More on this later.)

For example, in the nominative case (used when nouns are sentence subjects), the articles are:

Masculine: der Tisch (the table)
Feminine: die Feder (the feather, quill pen)
Neuter: das Bett (the bed)

It is recommended that, as you learn the nouns you choose to memorize, you learn each noun with its definite article, because there are only a few cases when you can determine what the gender is by simply looking at the noun. Some of these exceptions are:

a)   Nouns that end in chen or lein are neuter. These suffixes denote diminutives, e.g. das Städtchen (little town).

b)   Humans and animals that are obviously male or female usually have the equivalent gender. For example,

der Mann (the man die Frau (the woman)
der Bulle (the bull) die Kuh (the cow)
der Vater (the father) die Mutter (the mother)

c)   All nouns that end in ei, –heit, –ie, –in, –keit, –schaft, –tät, –ung are feminine. For example:

die Bäckerei (bakery)
die Tragödie (tragedy)
die Gesundheit (health)
die Lehrerin (woman teacher)
die Freundlichkeit (friendliness)
die Landschaft (landscape)
die Zeitung (the newspaper)
die Universität (university)

Last revised on September 12, 2014.

4. Noun Plurals

The most important thing to learn about German noun plurals is that, unlike in English, how a noun is spelled is neither an easy nor a reliable way to tell whether it is singular or plural. Instead you will need to rely on other reading cues introduced over the first four units of this textbook.

In English, noun plurals are generally formed by adding –s or –es, but there are some exceptions such as men, geese, oxen, children, fish, and deer where respectively we have: changed a stem vowel; added –en; added -ren; or – as in the last two examples – where we have made no change at all. Whereas in German, very few nouns form their plurals with an –s. Those that do are usually borrowed foreign words such as Hotel, Auto, Restaurant; these have plural forms ending with –s: zwei Hotels.

German nouns use a very wide range of plural forms, much wider than the range of the English "exceptions" given above. And what’s more fundamentally disturbing to our English habit of relying on noun spellings is the fact that German nouns change their spelling for more reasons than just their singular or plural status. (You’ll learn about other reasons for noun spelling changes in upcoming units). So the bottom line for readers of German is that you cannot simply rely on a noun’s spelling. Instead you must learn to pay attention to the context of the noun, for example the particular form of the noun’s article, whether a verb is conjugated for a singular or plural subject, etc. By Unit 4 of this course you will have learned all the possible clues you can look for to determine whether a noun is singular or plural. You will also discover that it is faster and easier to "read" the surrounding articles and word endings that modify a noun (since there are only a handful of articles and endings to learn) than it is to consult your dictionary for every single noun to check what the noun’s spelling might be telling you. Use your dictionary for this purpose only as a last resort, because that is the source most likely to mislead you.

However, it is important to gradually become familiar with the types of German spelling changes that happen to plural nouns so that you can look up nouns in your dictionary, where nouns are listed only under their singular spelling. German-English dictionaries conventionally display two spelling variants or endings for every noun: the first is typically the genitive-case spelling (more about that in Unit 2), and the second is the plural spelling. Consult your dictionary to check its formatting conventions.

Compare:

der Mann (man) die Männer (men)
die Frau (woman) die Frauen (women)
das Ergebnis (result) die Ergebnisse (results)

Note: The definite article in the plural (nominative case) is die, regardless of the gender of the noun.

Last revised on June 2, 2017.

5. The Verbs Haben and Sein

The verbs sein (to be) and haben (to have) are two of the most common verbs in German and therefore you must memorize their forms. Sein and haben are the infinitive forms of the verbs. "Infinitive forms" are important to know since dictionaries list verbs in that form.

Present Tense Forms

The verb sein is highly irregular in its forms, just as is its English counterpart “to be.” In the present tense it is conjugated as follows:

Singular

ich bin (I am)
du bist (you are)
er ist (he is)
sie ist (she is)
es ist (it is)

Plural

wir sind (we are)
ihr seid (you are)
sie sind (they are)
Sie sind (you are)

Note:

  1. du and ihr are the informal pronouns for “you” and are used only with family and friends. Sie (always capitalized) is the formal “you” and is used for both the singular and plural meanings of formal “you.” Be sure to clarify in your translation that you understood which “you” meaning was conveyed in the German original in terms of both number and social level.
  2. Unlike English, which always uses the pronoun “it” for objects that are not equivalent to people, in German the third person singular pronouns, er, sie and es, are also used to refer to masculine, feminine, or neuter nouns. For example: der Tisch (table) would be referred to as er, or die Wand (wall) as sie.
  3. It is helpful to remember that ist is always singular. And sind is always plural, although remember that the pronoun Sie can refer to one or more people. These rules let you quickly identify whether the subject of the sentence is singular or plural, simply by looking at the verb conjugation.

In the present tense, the verb haben is conjugated as follows:

Singular

ich habe (I have)
du hast (you have)
er hat (he has)
sie hat (she has)
es hat (it has)

Plural

wir haben (we have)
ihr habt (you have)
sie haben (they have)
Sie haben (you have)

Note: Verb forms ending in –en are always plural (although Sie sometimes refers to a single person). This applies for all verbs except sein, so it is useful to memorize this right away.

Simple Past Forms

sein (to be)

Singular

ich war (was)
du warst
er war
sie war
es war

Plural

wir waren (were)
ihr wart
sie waren

Sie waren

haben (to have)

Singular

ich hatte (had)
du hattest
er hatte
sie hatte
es hatte

Plural

wir hatten
ihr hattet
sie hatten
Sie hatten

Last revised on January 13, 2015.

6. Understanding Present Tense

Translating the German present tense is not always straightforward, because in English we express present tense in a variety of subtly different ways. Let’s take the sentence, “Das Kind hat eine Krankheit,” as our example. In English this may be translated in three different ways, depending on the larger context of the statement: “The child has an illness,” “The child does have an illness,” or “The child is having an illness.” As you progress to translating sentences with more context provided, be sure to keep in mind that English present tense is more complicated than German, and thus you should consider which of the English options is the most suitable for each particular sentence.

Furthermore, in a German present-tense sentence, time information might be provided that calls for a different English verb tense in your translation. For example:

Das Kind hat ab morgen Fieber.
The child will have a fever starting tomorrow.

Das Kind hat seit gestern Fieber.
The child has had a fever since yesterday.

The additional time information “ab morgen” (starting tomorrow) or “seit gestern” (since yesterday) is the key to deciding whether a form of English present tense, English future tense, or English present-perfect tense is the appropriate translation of the German present-tense verb.

German present tense never conveys a past, completed event. Therefore English past tense is never a translation option for German present tense. Note that in the second example above, which calls for English present-perfect tense, the child still has a fever in the present moment.

Last revised on August 24, 2017.

7. The Accusative Case of Nouns

The concept of cases such as nominative and accusative, etc. is actually familiar to English speakers, although many are often not conscious of it. Note, for example, how our nominative pronouns “he” and “she” change to “him” and “her” when they are used in the accusative case. If you would like more explanation of the concept of cases (or other grammatical concepts), it often helps students to review English grammar using any English grammar reference book.

In German, just as in English, the accusative case is used primarily for the direct objects of sentences. For example, in “They hit the ball,” the direct object is “the ball.” The German definite article changes in accusative case only for those direct objects which are masculine, as the following chart indicates:

Case Masculine Feminine Neuter Plural
Nominative
(subject)
der die das die
Accusative
(direct object)
den die das die

Our sentence in German then is: Sie schlagen den Ball (They hit the ball). In vocabulary lists you will often see that Ball is listed as der Ball, which is its nominative-case singular form.

Last revised on August 29, 2014.

8. The Indefinite Article ein

The German word for “a,” “an,” or “one” is ein, and like the definite article, the various endings it takes can help you identify case, gender, and number of the following noun phrase. Thus, taking the examples Tisch, Feder and Bett, we have in the nominative and accusative cases:

Masculine Feminine Neuter Plural
Nominative ein Tisch eine Feder ein Bett keine Tische
Accusative einen Tisch eine Feder ein Bett keine Federn

There is no plural of ein, obviously, but to use kein- (“no”, “not a”) shows us that the -e ending on indefinite articles can indicate either a plural or feminine status. For example: keine Betten (no beds).

Last revised on September 24, 2015.

9. Word Order

The various forms of the articles, both definite and indefinite, are important indicators of the function a noun plays in a given sentence. Consider that in English we use only one form for all cases (“a”, “an”, “the”). This allows German to have a more flexible word order (syntax) than English. In English we usually begin sentences with the subject, e.g. “The dog has the ball,” and that English word-order rule is necessary for us to understand that “the dog” is the subject and “the ball” is what is being hit.

However, in German, there is no expectation at all that the subject must come first (although it often does). These two German sentences share the same meaning:

Der Hund hat den Ball.
Den Ball hat der Hund.

The reader (and listener) does notice the word order, but first pays attention to the articles in order to understand the sentence. In this case the article der for Mann indicates that der Mann must be the subject, and likewise the article den for Ball indicates that den Ball must be the direct object. Changing the word order in English fundamentally changes the meaning, but not so in German.

Take another example: “Erst die Frau, dann den Mann beißt der böse Hund.” If you ignore the case signals given to you by the definite articles and rely on standard English word order, then you come up with the amusingly ridiculous meaning: “First the woman, then the man bites the bad dog.” In fact the sentence means “The bad dog bites the woman first, then the man.”

Side note: A subtle difference in emphasis is expressed between the two variants of the first example above:

Der Hund hat den Ball.
The dog has the ball. [without a particular emphasis]

Den Ball hat der Hund.
The ball is what the dog has.
[or:] The dog has the ball.
[or:] The dog has this ball.

Any of those four translations could be acceptable for the above two German sentences, given no further context, but once you begin working with longer passages that provide more context, your sensitivity to differences like this can help you make better sense of a text.

Verb in Second Position

In German, the main verb in a statement is always in second position, no matter how we begin the sentence: Morgen früh lande ich in Frankfurt (Tomorrow morning I will land in Frankfurt).

This absolute rule becomes a very powerful tool for you once you begin encountering longer sentences. Practice the skill of marking up German sentences you encounter to recognize 1) the part before the verb, which therefore must be a single unit of meaning, 2) the verb, which – also usefully for you – will always be a verb form appropriately conjugated to match the sentence subject, and 3) the part after the verb, which may include several units of meaning.

Yes / No Questions

Yes / no questions always begin with the verb:

Sind Sie gesund? (Are you healthy?)

Remember that sometimes English uses the verb “do”:

Hat er Fieber? (Does he have a fever?)
Hatte er Fieber? (Did he have a fever?)

English also complicates matters by using “do” to negate simple statements and questions. German’s straightforward “Haben Sie keine Schuhe?” is expressed in English as “Do you not have any shoes?” or “Don’t you have any shoes?” or “Do you have no shoes?”

Last revised on June 27, 2017.

10. Question Words

Important question words are wer – who, wen – whom (accusative) and was – what. More on such pronouns will come in the next unit. Note that some books refer to question words as “interrogative pronouns.”

Examples:

Wer kennt den Hund? Who knows this dog?
Wen beißt der Hund? Whom is the dog biting?
Was weiß ich? What do I know?
Last revised on September 4, 2014.

11. Common Abbreviations

For reading German, it is useful to remember the following common abbreviations: z.B. = zum Beispiel (for example); usw. or usf. = und so weiter and und so fort (et cetera); d.h. = das heißt (in other words / that means); bzw. = beziehungsweise (respectively / that is to say).


Now that you have studied two of the noun cases (nominative and accusative), noun plurals, the present and past tenses of sein and haben, and German word order, you are ready to apply these skills by translating simple sentences.

A good practice opportunity is to play the Unit 1 Syntax Untangler activity at this point. (Link opens in new window.)
Last revised on October 7, 2014.