Many people, including German native-speakers themselves, believe that German is a difficult language to learn because of its complex grammar. But for a language, having precise grammar rules is not all that bad after all. That is, most of the German grammar rules are very logical and often related to grammar rules found in many other European languages. If you learn to apply these rules correctly, you will soon be able to speak reasonably good German. Below is a brief overview of the most important specifics of German grammar from the perspective of an English (native) speaker.
German Grammar Basics in Brief
Articles and Grammatical Gender
German uses two indefinite articles “ein” and “eine” which stand for “a” or “an” in English and three definite articles “der”, “die” and “das” that correspond to the English “the”. These articles tell you whether a noun associated with the article is masculine, feminine or neuter as all nouns in German have a grammatical gender (but this is not the same as biological gender). For example, a man in German is “ein Mann”, or “der Mann” if definite article is used, which tells you the noun is masculine whereas a woman is “eine Frau” or “die Frau” and, therefore, feminine. However, in most cases, there are no signals to indicate which gender a noun belongs to and you will need to learn the gender of each noun by heart.
Cases and Declension
The German language uses four cases. They are reflected in the declension of the aforementioned articles and certain adjectival pronouns as these change to show the case of the nouns they modify (however, the German noun itself does not change much to signal its case). For example, “ein” and “eine” can also appear as “einer”, “eines” or “einem”, while “der”, “die” and “das” can be transformed into “dem”, “den” and “des”. Although there are exact grammatical rules for this, you will need to know the grammatical gender of a noun to apply the rules correctly.
The plural form of many nouns can differ significantly from its singular form and in most cases there are no exact rules to help you with that. You will have to learn the plural form of most German nouns by heart.
Formal and Informal German
The English “you” has two forms in German – “du” and “Sie” in singular and “ihr” and “Sie” in plural. This is important when conjugating verbs that follow these pronouns and there are precise grammatical rules for it.
German word-order is not the same as English, although there are a lot of similarities. The biggest difference is that in German the verb is always placed at the end of subordinate clauses. Also, the prepositional part of compound separable verbs, e.g., “auf” in the German verb “aufstehen” (meaning stand up in English), comes at the end of the clause.
German, like English, has grammatical irregularities or exceptions. One such example is irregular verbs which are often the same in German and English (e.g., sing, bring, drink). Fortunately, these exceptions tend to follow set patterns but a certain amount of pure memorization is required.
Free German Grammar Exercises and Reference Books
There is no shortage of free online resources that teach German grammar. Below we present a list of those that specifically address grammar issues (please note that most German courses listed in other sections of this website are also dealing with grammar):
- Lingolia is a website that primarily focuses on helping its visitors to cope with the complexities of German grammar. Exercises at the end of each chapter will reveal whether you understand the rules. However, this resource is also a good alternative for all those who wish to enhance their German vocabulary.
- German-Grammar.de is an internet handbook of German grammar. Explanations are very clear and all are in English. Paradoxically, this site, which is dedicated to German grammar, is also an ideal tool for training pronunciation because of its excellent sound quality.
- German Grammar Trainer from Deutschakademie offers free grammatical exercises, audio-lessons and a downloadable application for mobile phones. Their courses and exercises are suitable for all levels of German learners (A1-C1) and all instructions and explanations are given in English. There are currently 22,000 exercises from 70 German grammar textbooks that are accessible through this website for free.
- German ToLearnFree is a a growing collection of more than two thousand free German exercises focusing primarily on developing German grammar skills, though there are also some vocabulary building exercises. These materials have been provided for free by different users, therefore, some may have instructions in other languages than English (e.g. French). You can evaluate your answers online as unregistered user but to save your learning progress you will need to register (it is free).
- Deutsch.info enables visitors free access to the grammar section of their site but you will need to register to get access to their courses and media library. Registrations are free. The grammar section is comprehensive but not too overwhelming to discourage you. You will find there all the basics you need to know.
- Travlang is a perfect reference for anyone who wants to learn or brush up on their German grammar. The website may seem a bit archaic but the most basic grammar rules are not changing that often after all.
- Language-Easy.org is a complete guide to German grammar for levels A1-C1. In addition to explaining the grammar topics, it also contains dozens of free interactive grammar exercises. The dark-blue buttons typically lead to interactive exercises or to subpages from which you can access interactive exercises. Often, you can access the exercises only from subcategory pages and not from the main categories.
- Dartmouth College has a comprehensive overview of German grammar compiled by the now retired professor of German language emeritus Bruce Duncan. You can use this online resource as a free reference whenever needed or use it as a textbook to learn German grammar. Thanks to the clear explanations you are guaranteed to master German grammar with ease. The main categories include nouns and pronouns, verb tenses, moods and voices, word order and modifiers.
- German for English Speakers is a good introduction to German language and particularly to German grammar. This resource also provides very useful tips on German pronunciation and spelling.
- German.net allows you to test and practice your German grammar skills for free. Most exercises consist in either filling the missing words in a sentence or choosing the correct missing word (multiple choice test). There are plenty of exercises to practice all aspects of German grammar. All instructions are in English. If you want to keep a record of your learning progress, you will need to register (registration is free).
- Verbito is an online application that will conjugate any German verb you type in to the “Eingabe” box.
Alternatively, if you prefer paper textbooks, you may be interested in these PDFs for practicing German grammar that you can download for free.
Do not let grammar to discourage you from learning German. It is not too difficult, especially if you are a native speaker of another European language. Once you start, you will soon realize that the basic rules of German grammar are relatively simple. A quick-learner can probably memorize them in a couple of days. However, it will take practice and discipline to apply them in speech.