1. Objectives

In this unit, in the context of simple sentences that involve all four German cases, you will learn how to:

  • Identify and translate der-words and ein-words.
  • Decide whether a conjugated verb is in present tense or simple-past tense, and use its endings to predict what the corresponding subject must be.
  • Locate the infinitive form of a verb in a dictionary given only its simple-past, conjugated form.
  • Translate compound nouns, including when they appear in hyphenated lists of related nouns.
  • Translate German number formats.
Last revised on September 10, 2014.

2. Der– words

These are the words that function like the definite article in that they share the same endings with articles. The stems of these words are:

dies- this
jen- that
jed- every / each
manch- (many a) (plural = some, many)
solch- such, so, those, etc. Consult your dictionary.
welch- which / what
all- all

Using dies– as our example der-word, our chart looks as follows (compare with the chart of definite articles in Unit 2):

Masculine Feminine Neuter Plural
Nominative dieser diese dieses diese
Accusative diesen diese dieses diese
Dative diesem dieser diesem diesen
Genitive dieses
dieser dieses

Points to remember:

  1. Der– words share the same endings as the definite article.
  2. All– will only appear in plural usages.
  3. Dies– and jen– when used alone can mean “the latter” and “the former” respectively. Example:

    Die Eltern meiner Frau heißen Johann und Margarete. Diese ist 62 Jahre alt, jener 65 Jahre alt.
    The parents of my wife are named Johann and Margarete. The latter is 62 years old, the former 65 years old.

    Note that your cue for this special meaning is that diese and jener in the second sentence do not "belong to" – or modify – a noun. They are standing alone. Normally you expect a noun (possibly with that noun’s other modifiers) to follow any der-word.

Last revised on July 3, 2015.

3. Ein– words (including possessive pronouns)

These are the words similar to the indefinite article in the way they take or do not take endings. They are:

mein my
dein your (singular and familiar)
sein his / its
ihr her / its / their
unser our
euer your (plural and familiar)
Ihr your (formal)
kein not a, no, not any

Using mein as our example ein-word our chart looks as follows (compare with the indefinite article chart in Unit 2):

Masculine Feminine Neuter Plural
Nominative mein meine mein meine
Accusative meinen meine mein meine
Dative meinem meiner meinem meinen
Genitive meines
meiner meines

Points to remember:

  1. Ein– words with no endings are always either nominative singular or accusative singular.
  2. The ending –em on both ein– words and der– words is unique to dative singular.
  3. The ending –es with the noun adding an –s or –es is unique to genitive singular.
  4. When euer has an ending, the stem changes to eur-. Examples:

    Euer Kind bekommt gute Noten.
    Your child gets good grades.

    Eure Freunde kommen bald.
    Your friends are coming soon.

  5. Because German nouns are gendered, pronouns referring to them are also gendered. Review Unit 1, section 5, note "b)" and keep in mind that sein/ihr references might best be translated as "its."

Take the memorization advice from Unit 2 and expand your memorization task to include possessive pronouns. You should be noticing that the possessive pronouns, too, fit the general German spelling patterns for gender, case, and number distinctions.

Last revised on July 3, 2015.

4. Simple Past Tense of Verbs

Keep in mind that English’s past-tense complexity leaves you with a choice of various English ways to translate German’s straightforward past tense. Given ich hatte, you will need to consider context in order to choose from: “I had,” “I was having,” or “I did have.” In any case, German past tense always indicates that the action or status is completed and done.

Regular Verbs

Most English verbs form their past tense by adding the suffix –ed (example: played), and German regular verbs behave similarly, by adding the suffix –t– (or, when pronounceability requires it, –et-). However, unlike English verbs, which lose their person/number verb suffixes in past tense (example: I played, she played) German verbs do carry person/number suffixes: They are simply appended to the past-tense suffix. Compare the person/number suffixes you already learned in Unit 2 on p. 12, and note the similarities between those present-tense endings and these past-tense endings. Thus, using spielen (to play) and warten (to wait) as our examples:

Person Singular Plural
1st ich spielte (I played) wir spielten
2nd du spieltest ihr spieltet
3rd er/sie/es spielte sie/Sie spielten
Person Singular Plural
1st ich wartete wir warteten
2nd du wartetest ihr wartetet
3rd er/sie/es wartete sie/Sie warteten


  1. The third person singular past tense is the same as the first person singular.
  2. Watch out for potential confusion between present-tense and past-tense forms of regular verbs. Consider:

    Wartest du? (Are you waiting?)
    Wartetest du? (Did you wait?)

    Let’s examine wartetest: First you can recognize the ending –est as the person/number marker, since it matches the subject du. That leaves you with a stem of wartet-. Your dictionary will tell you that there is no such infinitive-form verb as warteten, and there is such a word as warten, so therefore the root of this word must be wart-, and the et suffix must be a past-tense marker.

Irregular Verbs

These verbs form their simple past tense by undergoing a vowel change just as “swim” and “give” do in English (swam, gave). The changes are always indicated in the list of irregular verbs in your dictionary. With a few exceptions, these verbs all share the same pattern of endings. Let us use schwimmen (to swim) as our typical example:

Person Singular Plural
1st ich schwamm wir schwammen
2nd du schwammst ihr schwammt
3rd er/sie/es schwamm sie/Sie schwammen

Note: Both the first and third person singular past tense forms of irregular verbs have no endings.

Exceptions to the Rule

There are a few common verbs in German that do not follow the general rule in the formation of their simple past forms. These are listed in the list of irregular verbs, because they have a change of vowel in the past tenses. Some common examples are:

Infinitive Past Tense 3rd Person Singular
brennen (to burn) brannte
bringen (to bring) brachte
denken (to think) dachte
senden (to send) sandte
wenden (to turn) wandte
wissen (to know a fact) wußte
kennen (to know a person/object) kannte

Finally, note that “simple past” is called “preterite” in some grammar reference works.

Last revised on January 2, 2018.

5. Verbal Prefixes and Compound Nouns

Word Formation

These sections of the textbook help improve your speed during the skimming phase of reading and gradually build vocabulary.

Verbs with Prefixes

As you encounter verbs in German texts, they will of course usually be in a conjugated form, rather than their infinitive form, which is the form you need in order to find the verb in your dictionary. Now that you have learned about both regular and irregular verbs, and furthermore those in two different tenses, you have become quite dependent on the "irregular verb" or "strong verb" chart in your dictionary. In particular, keep in mind that you will need to recognize the root verb within a verb.

For example, when you encounter a verb form such as verbrachte, you won’t find that in your dictionary. Instead, you must recognize that ver- is a prefix and that -brachte is the part you can find in your irregular verb chart, which in turn will tell you that it is the simple-past, 3rd-person, singular, form of the verb bringen. Then you know to look for the infinitive form verbringen in your dictionary to find out what it means.

The most common verbal prefixes are be-, ent-, and ver-.

Compound Nouns

As shown in the introduction, German has a propensity to form compound nouns such as Unterseeboot (submarine) and Arbeitsmethode (work method). Not all compound nouns are listed in dictionaries. Hence it is useful to understand how such nouns are formed and how we might best translate them.

Often a compound noun has an s after the first component. This shows possession as in Arbeitsmethode (method of work, or work method) and Entwicklungszentrum (development center). The last component of a compound noun is usually the key word with the preceding component(s) being modifiers (descriptors) of the last as in Unterseeboot (undersea boat = submarine).

Sometimes the occurrence of consonants next to one another which would be difficult to pronounce will indicate the dividing point between the components as in Computerbauer (computer builder) and Teststrecke (testing ground), i.e., rb and tst respectively.

The gender of compound nouns is always determined by the last component. Thus, Teststrecke is die Teststrecke because Strecke is feminine.

Look at the following compounds and by using your dictionary and the guidelines above determine their component parts and their meanings.

  1. Durchrostung
  2. Fahrstil
  3. Flugmanager
  4. Grundmodell
  5. Kernkraftwerk
  6. Kommunikationssystem
  7. Sicherheitsfunktion
  8. Staubproblem
  9. Vorstandschef
  10. Weltraumtechnologie
  11. Weltunternehmen
  12. Zeitungsanzeigen

Finally, since compound nouns are so common in German, you will often see compound nouns that are related printed in a hyphenated, abbreviated form, such as:

Der Windsturm verursachte Dach-, Auto- und Baumschäden.
The wind storm caused damage to roofs, cars, and trees.

Weltraumraketen und -satelliten benutzen diese Technologie.
Space rockets and space satellites use this technology.

Last revised on February 20, 2018.

6. Number Formats

It is very important to remember a few small but crucial differences between printed numbers in German and English. Compare:

German English
12.000 12,000
10,354% 10.354%
1 353 432 1,353,432
SF 5.000,– 5,000.00 Swiss franc
€235.500,34 €235,500.34
1,3 Millionen 1.3 million
3 Milliarden 3 billion
2 Billionen 2 trillion

See the Reference section for more information about numbers and measurements in German.

Last revised on August 29, 2018.