Dynamotion help me Howard

A Foundation Course in Reading German

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

  • Identify the case, number and gender of nouns, pronouns, definite articles, indefinite articles, and question words.
  • Identify and translate genitive-case noun chains.
  • Identify and translate dative-case objects.
  • Use present-tense verb forms to identify whether the corresponding subject must be first, second, or third person, and singular or plural.
  • Translate sentences that use there is or man.
  • Translate nouns that are formed from adjectives.
Last revised on September 10, 2014.

Whereas English has only tiny traces of three noun cases (nominative, objective, and possessive - link opens in new window), German is thoroughly dependent on four noun cases. Beyond nominative and accusative, which were covered in Unit 1, we now add the genitive and dative cases.

Genitive

Genitive case signals a relationship of possession or "belonging to." An example translation of this case into English might be from das Buch des Mannes to "the man’s book" or "the book of the man." In English, possession is usually shown by either an ending (apostrophe + s) or with the preposition "of." In German, the genitive case is primarily recognized from article forms and sometimes from noun endings.

MasculineFeminineNeuter
definite articlethe book of manit
(the man’s book)
the book the Mrs
(the woman’s book)
the book of girls
(the girl’s book)
indefinite articlethe bookit manit
(a man’s book)
the bookhe Mrs
(a woman’s book)
the bookit girls
(a girl’s book)
Plural
definite articlethe books the Women
(the women’s books)
indefinite articlethe books nohe Women
(no women’s books)

Grade:

  1. The noun in the genitive case follows the noun which it modifies.
  2. des and one are useful forms to remember because they are completely unique to the singular genitive case and are thus helpful as starting points to figure out the grammatical structure of a sentence.
  3. Masculine and neuter nouns change forms in the genitive case (when singular). The noun endings -s or -it are added (-s for polysyllabic nouns, -it for monosyllabic).
  4. Proper nouns have an added -s ending to indicate genitive case (example: Germanys Chancellor), but if the proper noun already ends in s, then you will see no change in spelling. Apostrophes are not used in German.

Genitive noun chains

In formal or scientific German you will sometimes encounter chains of genitive-case noun phrases which are straightforward to read, but can be awkward to translate into smooth English. For example:

the books of the university professors
(the books of the women professors of the university)

Use sentence diagramming to help you keep the relationships straight when working with long genitive noun chains:

main noun: the books
modified by: the professors
modified by: the university

Dative

Dative case is used for the indirect object of sentences and with certain prepositions (prepositions are covered in Unit 5). First review the concept of “indirect object” in English. An example is: "The woman (subject) gives the man (indirect object) the book (direct object)." Here we can see that English relies on the order of those two nouns to signal which noun is the direct vs. indirect object. Or consider: “The woman gives the book to the man,” in which English relies on the preposition “to” to signal that the man is getting the book, not the book getting the man!

In German, word order is much more flexible. You need to be able to distinguish which phrases are in dative case and which are in accusative case, because this - rather than word order or prepositions as in English - is often what communicates the meaning of the sentence to the reader. Case distinctions can in fact communicate a variety of meanings, as you will learn throughout this course.

MasculineFeminineNeuter
definitethe manthe Mrsthe girl
indefiniteaem manahe Mrsaem girl
Plural
definitethe Menn
indefinitenoen Menn

Some sample sentences:

MasculineThe woman gives the man the book.
The woman gives the book to the man.
(or :) The woman gives the man the book.
FeminineThe man gives the woman the book.
NeuterThe woman gives the girl the book.
PluralThe women give the men the books.

Don’t forget the word-order rules from Unit 1. The first example sentence above may also appear in the following forms, but will still have the exact same meaning, although a subtle emphasis is slightly different in each sentence.

The woman gives the book to the man.
The woman gives the book to the man.

Think of this as German taking advantage of the expressive freedom granted by the use of cases and endings, a freedom we don’t have in English.

Points to remember:

  1. the and one (i.e., the -m ending) are unique to dative singular, and are thus useful anchors when reading a sentence.
  2. Dative plural always adds an -n to the plural form of the noun if one does not already exist, e.g., den Männern (dative n) but the women
  3. Many singular nouns appear sometimes with an optional -e ending in the dative case only. Examples: the state, home, basically
  4. When grammar and real-world sense are insufficient to clarify which parts of a sentence are nominative or accusative, you can assume that the subject of the sentence will be the one positioned closer to the verb than the object or indirect object. See for example the first example of the pair above, "The man gives ...."

Memorization

Now is a good time to begin memorizing the article forms for all four cases, three genders, and plural. You will find that it's much, much simpler to memorize the meanings of the handful of different articles than to learn to recognize the multiple unique forms (plural, genitive, etc.) of every noun in the German language. By Unit 4 you will have finished learning about all the types of word endings associated with the four noun cases, three genders, and singular / plural status. Article forms and word endings give you essential information about a German sentence even before you recognize what individual words mean. Section 3 of this unit gives you a handy chart. As soon as you have these internalized, you'll start saving yourself a lot of dictionary time and mental work.

Dative verbs

Some frequently used verbs whose objects always appear in the dative case are:

The boy answers the policeman with "Yes."
The boy answers the policeman with "Yes."

The child thanks his grandmother.
The child thanks its grandmother.

The woman does not believe the man.
The woman does not believe the man.

The flight attendant helps the passenger.
The woman flight attendant helps the male passenger.

The money belongs to the state.
The money belongs to the state.

literally "to be pleasing to," but often translated as "to like")

I really like Shakespeare's plays.
(informal context :) I really like Shakespeare’s plays.
(formal context :) I enjoy Shakespeare’s plays very much.

Familiarize yourself, by looking up the example verbs above, with how your dictionary indicates when verbs take a dative object. How can you tell which English translation you should use, and what special abbreviations does your dictionary use in these cases?

Common Nouns with Endings in the Singular

The singular forms of certain masculine nouns (such as Mensch, Student, Herr, Nachbar, Polizist, and Junge) will take an -n or an -en on the end in all cases but the nominative. These special nouns are sometimes called “n” nouns. Thus, for example, Student becomes Studenten in sentences such as I believe the student and This is the student's book. Because these singular nouns can be easily confused with their plural forms (which are often exactly the same: for example, the plural of der Student is die Studenten), you can see why your reading success is dependent on paying close attention to all the case markers on display in every sentence.

Last revised on December 21, 2017.

The following charts summarize the article forms and noun spelling changes across all four cases. What you need to memorize is the "range of meanings" of each article. For example: Whenever you encounter der, you need to know that you are dealing with either nominative masculine, dative feminine, genitive feminine, or genitive plural. This reading skill is sometimes going to be crucial for understanding the structure of German sentences.

Definite Article

MasculineFeminineNeuterPlural
Nominativethethethethe
Accusativethethethethe
Dativethethethethe + n
Genitivedes + s / esthedes + s / esthe

Indefinite Article

MasculineFeminineNeuterPlural
Nominativeaaano
Accusativeoneaano
Dativeoneoneonenone + n
Genitiveone + s / itoneone + s / itnone

Remember:

  1. that and an always indicate singular.
  2. des and one are unique to singular genitive.
  3. the other are unique to singular dative.
  4. die with nouns ending in -en is always plural.

Difference from English Usage

Universal statements

As you can see, German definite articles - in all their variety - carry a lot more information than does our one-size-fits-all, English "the." Accordingly, German uses definite articles more often than English does. This is particularly important for you to consider when a German sentence makes a universal statement. In English we signal a universal statement by avoiding "the" and / or using plural forms of nouns. German, however, often still needs the noun articles in order to clarify the sentence syntax. So it is up to you to interpret whether a statement is universal or not from the context and sense of the sentence.

The cat's tail is an indicator of the different moods of the cat.
The tail of a cat is an indicator of the various moods of a cat.
[or:] Tails of cats are indicators of the various moods of cats.

But freedom of opinion does not allow religions to be despised.
Freedom of thought does not, however, permit the disparagement of religions.

The second example is a quotation from an online discussion forum in Germany. Your own knowledge of English tells you that translating the first phrase as "The freedom of the thought" would be inappropriate (because it doesn't make sense, right?).

Informal person references

Similarly, German speakers may use definite articles with proper nouns or specific individuals (which we don’t do in English) in order to clarify sentence syntax. This usually occurs in more informal situations. For example:

No, Willi, that belongs to the mother.
No, Willi, that belongs to Mom (or: to your mother).

I owe the bruises here to Karl.
I owe these bruises here to Karl.

Respect the use of articles

The reverse is not true, however. You must always understand a German noun that has no article just as you would an English noun that has no article (like Religionen in the earlier example above).

Finally, do not over-apply this rule. When inclusion of the definite article in German does make sense to carry over in to your English translation, you must do that. Imagine if the German sentence had omitted the definite article: if that would give you a different meaning, then clearly you need to respect the fact that the German sentence chose to include the definite article.

Last revised on December 21, 2017.

As you begin memorizing the articles for the four German cases, it may help to simultaneously be memorizing the pronouns for the four cases, since articles and pronouns share some patterns of case and gender-specific spellings. It may all "make sense" as you begin to recognize the spelling patterns. Memorizing the articles and pronouns for the four cases, three genders, and plural is a tedious but necessary and relatively small-scale task for learning to read German.

You should be able to find complete charts of all the article and pronoun forms in a reference section within your German-English dictionary. Meanwhile, here is a pronoun chart:

NominativeAccusativeDative
SingularII.mememe
youyouyouyouto you
heNesshimhim / ithim
youshe / ityouher / ityou
ititit ithim
Pluralweweususus
youyouto youyouto you
youtheyyouthemthem
Sing./Pluralyouyouyouyouthem

Compare the article charts. Some example similarities to note which aid your memorization task: -m as in him is always dative singular,r as in her dative singular, -en as in them and you dative plural.

Points to remember:

  1. Remember the tip from Unit 1, section 5: that German is very consistent about using the appropriate, gendered pronoun to refer to inanimate nouns, not just for people and animals. That's why all of the third person singular pronouns can mean “it” as well as “him” and “her”.
  2. Pronouns agree in gender and number with the noun to which they refer, and are therefore useful clues for understanding sentences and especially for shared references across multiple sentences. Let pronouns be an easy, reliable way for you to get case, gender, and number information.
Last revised on June 21, 2016.

"Regular" verbs are simply those which follow the most common pattern of conjugation. Some grammar books refer to these verbs as “weak” verbs. Thus, using to play as our model the present tense is formed as follows:

personSingularPlural
1stIgamee (I play)wegameen (we play)
2ndyougamest (you play)yougamet (you play)
3rdhe she itgamet (he / she / it plays)they / yougameen (they / you play)

For our purposes the third person singular and plural forms are the main ones. Thus, the ending -t indicates singular and the ending -en Plural.

Should the stem of the verb end in -t or -d, for example, to wait and to find, the stems of which are wart- and find-, then the verb is conjugated as follows:

personSingularPlural
1stIwaite/ findewewaiten/ finden
2ndyouwaitest/ findestyouwaitet/ findet
3rdhe she itwaitet/ findetthey / youwaiten/ finden

The only differences then are in the singular, second and third person, where an -e is added so that we can append the personal endings -st and -t.

Grade: The majority of verbs in German form their present tense in the way shown for our example play.

Remember that the German present tense can be translated variously: “he does play,” “he is playing,” “he plays,” or even - depending on time information given in context - “he will play,” “he has played, "Or" he has been playing. " Note that all of these translations still share the meaning that the action is taking place at the “present moment” (although that can be defined by a specific future time reference) - whether the action is ongoing, starting, finishing, or only momentary is what you need to interpret from context. In any case, German present tense never indicates a completed, past event.

Last revised on September 4, 2014.

Irregular verbs (also called “strong” verbs) change their root form as they are conjugated. For the most part, they form their present tense in exactly the same way as regular verbs. Thus “he swims” is he swims, “they swim” they swim.

Some irregular verbs, however, will undergo a change in the stem vowel in the present tense singular, second and third person, for example: du gibst (you give) and er gibt (he gives) are conjugations of geben (to give). The importance of this change to the reader of German is that you will have to recognize that the meaning of, for example, give, will be found under the dictionary entry for give. You should remember that there are four patterns of vowel changes in case you need to look up a verb in the dictionary:

Example verbs
infinitive> 3rd person sing.
Vowel change
give> givese> i
steal> stealse> ie
hold> holda> ä
run> runsouch

A list of the most common irregular verbs (strong verbs) is included in most dictionaries and grammar books. You do not have to memorize all the verb changes for reading purposes. The present tense singular, both second and third person, of these verbs will still carry the endings described above for weak verbs, ending in -st or -t.

There is one notable exception: the modal verbs, which are covered in Unit 10, and the verb Wissen (to know a fact). The latter is conjugated in the present tense as:

personSingularPlural
1stIWhiteweknowledge
2ndyouknowyouknow
3rdhe she itWhitethey / youknowledge
Last revised on July 13, 2015.

The genitive and dative forms of wer (who) are wessen (genitive: “whose”) and wem (dative: “to / for whom”). Examples:

Whose dog is that?
Whose dog is that?

Who does the dog belong to?
To whom does the dog belong?

Last revised on November 7, 2014.

there are

there is = "there is" other "there are." Example:

There are now two newspapers in Darmstadt.
There are now two newspapers in Darmstadt.

man

The pronoun man can be translated directly as “people,” “they,” and “one”.

They say it's raining.
They (people) say it is raining.

Sometimes it makes more sense in English to use an even more abstract way to translate man, by using English passive voice. For example:

In bad times, you cut your budget.
In bad times, budgets are reduced.

Keep in mind that the essential meaning of man is that the speaker cannot or does not want to specify a subject for the sentence’s main verb. The next two examples contrast a situation calling for direct translation with one requiring a more abstract translation:

How do you say “dog” in English?
How does one say “dog” in English?

It is said that Germans are on time.
It is said that Germans are punctual.

Last revised on September 2, 2014.

Word formation

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

Many adjectives, particularly those expressing abstract ideas, can be formed into neuter nouns according to the pattern which follows below. These adjectival nouns get modified by adverbs rather than by adjectives, in agreement with the normal relationship of adverbs to adjectives, including adverbial usages of words such as much (much) and nothing (nothing).

nothing goodnothing that (is / was) good
a lot of interesting things(much / a lot) that (is / was) interesting
little beautifullittle that (is / was) (beautiful / pretty / nice)
something newsomething that (is / was) new

The original adjectives, “good,” “interesting,” “beautiful,” and “new”, are capitalized and appear (for our current purposes) with an -it ending. By Unit 4 you’ll learn to recognize the other endings these adjectival nouns will get when they’re used in genitive and dative cases. Just remember that adjectival nouns are spelled - and take their own modifiers - as if they were modifying some (absent) neuter noun, but otherwise they function as that neuter noun.

Last revised on September 4, 2014.