Verwirrendes Deutsch #1

Where to go from here - Headless businessman with question markHave been pretty quiet on the blog front lately. Don’t ask… but am planning to change this soon. One of my students, Lia Konstantinova, gave me a proper kick up the behind about this and even decided to contribute to my site by writing the first part of a series of possible blog posts about issues that generally confuse German language learners.

So without further ado, here is Number One of “Verwirrendes Deutsch” (Confusing German)

 


Deutsch ist verwirrend! …Nicht wirklich #1

1. All alcoholic beverages are of male gender.
Except for beer – das Bier

der Wein
der Wodka
das Bier

Example:
Zuerst kommt der Wein, dann der Whiskey, danach der Wodka und dazu noch ein Bier… bääh…

2. Lernen vs. Studieren
Lernen – we learn something at school, while studieren – we learn something in the university.

Example:
Friedrich hat sehr gut in der Schule gelernt.
An der Uni dagegen hat er eher schlecht studiert.

3. Passen vs. Passieren
2 more verbs that are being mixed up quite often.
Passieren – to happen, while passento suit, to fit.

Example:
“So was ist mir noch nie passiert!” sagte Hilde
“Mein Lieblingskleid passt mir nicht mehr!”

4. Car brands
All car brands are of male gender in German.

Example:
Günter hat einen alten Opel. Dieter dagegen fährt einen neuen BMW.
Der Mercedes gehört Erich.

What is the difference between “wie” and “als”?

comparisonsIn English we speak about things that are as big as something else but bigger than.

In German we use the term “als” (that unfortunately looks suspiciously like as…as) for the latter case, i.e. when things are

kleiner als = smaller than

schneller als = faster than

Please notice that for the comparative form we just add an “-er” regardless of how long the adjective is. For longer adjectives of two syllables or more English often uses the more … than format but German is a bit more consistent in its approach here

interessanter als = more interesting than

We would never speak of something being “mehr interessant als”! Beware of this as this is a common mistake for people learning German coming from an English language background.

When things are on an even scale we use the format “so [adjective] wie” or alternatively “genauso [adjective] wie”

so teuer wie = as expensive as

so erfolgreich wie = as successful as

so schön wie = as beautiful as

genauso gut wie = as good as

Mind you, listen closely and you’ll notice that there are actually a good number of Germans who mistakenly say stuff along the lines of: “Das Buch war viel interessanter wie der Film” or even: “Das Buch war viel interessanter als wie der Film”.

Just because even native speakers may occasionally mess up in that department should not stop you from using the forms correctly. So if you discuss a book and its cinematic adaptation you will properly say:

Das Buch war viel interessanter als der Film. The book was more interesting than the film.

Or:

Der Film war (genau)so interessant wie das Buch. The film was just as interesting as the book.

For Pete’s sake….

danger

Ah, those nasty prepositions……

Did you ever want to translate “for” but weren’t too sure whether to use the German “für” or “vor”….. just to discover the answer was neither but something completely different?

The trouble with this one is that sometimes “for” does indeed translate as “für” (or indeed “vor”) but often it doesn’t. A whole booklet could be written just about the pitfalls of translating prepositions in general but “for” in particular stands out as one of the chief offenders. With the limited amount of space we have available here, just a few words of advice.

As a general rule of thumb: Anytime you need to translate “for”, make sure you take a quick mental step back to ensure that you really pick the correct translation in this case.

In a lot of instances the term is used in connection with time:

I’ve been waiting here for the last ten minutes.

In this situation we first of all use “seit” in German and instead of the English perfect tense we use the German present tense:

Ich warte hier seit zehn Minuten.

“Seit” is used to mark the beginning of an event and therefore roughly translates as “since”. Some other examples:

Seit Weihnachten rauche ich nicht mehr. (I haven’t smoked since Christmas.)

Seit 1995 lebe ich in Irland. (I’ve been living in Ireland since 1995.)

On top of the choice of words, it is also very easy to confuse the tenses. Remember: the German perfect tense is used predominently in spoken language to express a past that is dead and gone.

Ich habe letztes Jahr mein Abitur gemacht. (I passed my Abitur/Leaving Cert last year.)

The English perfect tense on the other hand refers to something that started in the past but is continuing into the present: In the example above, the speaker started waiting ten minutes ago and continued to wait until now. And for that we use the present tense in German.

Did I just write “ten minutes ago”?

If we were to translate this expression we would use “vor”:

Ich habe Maria vor zehn Minuten gesehen. (I saw Maria ten minutes ago – German perfect tense! – but now she is gone.)

In English we also use “for” to describe the length of time something took, e.g. “I lived in Germany for three years.”

In that instance we would generally translate this as “[length of time] lang”.

Ich habe drei Jahre lang in Deutschland gewohnt.

We also use “vor” when we mean “in front of” with regards to locations.

Das Auto steht vor dem Haus. (The car is in front of the house.)

There are also lots of other expressions where we use either “vor” or “für” in German but do not use “for” in English (e.g.“vor etwas Angst haben” – to be afraid of something) so caution must always prevail whenever any of these prepositions are coming out of the woodworks.

Irish Leaving Certs (German) – Last minute points of focus

It is Irish Leaving Cert time. The German exams are due on Friday. Good luck to all of you attending.

Here are a last few areas to focus on, typical errors that often pop up and that can make a difference between one score and the other.

Prior to the exam:

Make sure you are familiar at least with the 500 most common German words.

During the exam:

Pay special attention to the following areas. Use the entire time available to you for your exam. If you’re finished before the time, review your answers and again focus especially on the following:

1.Capitalise all nouns!
2.Use the perfect (=past) tense when you describe events that happened in the past. This feels like stating the obvious but you’d be surprised how many times people use the present tense for describing the past.
3.You can, however, use the present tense to describe what you’ll do in the future. Im Sommer fahre ich in den Urlaub.
4.Remember the differences between als, wenn and wann. All translate as the English “when” but als is used for past events (Als ich 10 Jahre alt war, war ich in Spanien.); wenn for future or regularly occuring events (Immer wenn ich Durst habe, trinke ich Wasser. Wenn ich wieder in Cork bin, besuche ich meine Eltern.); wann is only ever used in questions (Wann kommst du?)
5.Remember the word order. Generally the subject in a main sentence comes first followed by the verb. Ich fahre morgen nach Dublin. If you put anything else in the front the verb still remains at second place: Morgen fahre ich nach Dublin. (Not: Morgen ich fahre nach Dublin.)
6.If you’re in loss for a word, don’t beat yourself up over it but try and come up with alternatives that may also describe it. Brand names can often come in handy! “Ich brauche Panadol.” if you happened to forget that “die Tablette” is German for “tablet”. It’s better to write something rather than nothing.
7.Re-read the German exam texts properly to make sure you have really understood them correctly.

If you’re stuck:

Don’t just sit there with your head looking at the ceiling. Write. Anything. At all. If you have to: Doodle. It is scientifically proven that the movement of your pen will likely stir memories as a lot of the time you learned the language by writing it down.

Yes, some of these tips feel like stating the bleeding obvious but they often make a huge difference for the overall exam score. So take them to heart. Trust me: You’ll be kicking yourself black and blue if you end up making any of those errors.

Good luck! And have a blast at the weekend.

The (slightly) easier way to learn German adjective endings

Learning the right endings for German adjectives is probably one of the most difficult challenges in tackling the language.

Why?

Well, if you need to learn e.g. the cases of German nouns you need to know which of the four cases you have to use and then choose the right form depending on whether the noun is masculine, feminine or neuter and if we have a singular or plural form.

That means you have to come to terms with 4x3x2=24 possible case forms. Quite a lot, eh?

When it comes to adjectives you have to consider all those options plus three more as the endings differ whether you are dealing with a definite, an indefinite or no article at all. So all of a sudden you have 72 possible endings. As it doesn’t really matter in the plural forms what gender the noun is (we come to that later) the list can be reduced to “just” 48 endings but – Wow! – that’s still quite a handful to learn.

All possible endings are reproduced in many a text book and all over the internet. Here is one from here:

“TYPE” ==>
Case
PERSON
Nominative
Accusative
Dative
Genitive
After “DER”-words
M F N PL
-e -e -e -en
-en -e -e -en
-en -en -en -en
-en -en -en -en
After “EIN”-words
M F N PL
-er -e -es -en
-en -e -es -en
-en -en -en -en
-en -en -en -en
Unpreceded
M F N PL
-er -e -es -e
-en -e -es -e
-em -er -em -en
-en -er -en -er

For generations students of the German language have memorised these forms by rote. Nothing wrong with that. It works but can be quite time consuming. It also results in that strange phenomenon of looking absent mindedly at the ceiling halfway through a conversation and silently mouthing the endings chart until the correct ending is reached.

There must be an easier way to learn those endings.

And there is.

Apronus.com published a list of Three Simple Rules. As it stands right now the site only lists those rules without any comment. (I seem to recall that a previous version of that site had some more info.) As much as I love those charts, especially for beginners or even intermediates they require quite a bit of head scratching before they’re fully understood. And it doesn’t help that those lists start with the most difficult and complex scenario (strong declension) and then work their way through to easier examples.

In order to make it easier for students to properly study these rules I suggest the following approach.

Holger’s patented 5 step programme to learning German adjectives

Before we start a word about this study approach. The best way to study these steps is by doing so one step at a time. Try and fully comprehend and practise the steps before going on to the next. So before trying to digest Step #2 make sure you have spent time using Step #1 and are fully aware of it. Then wash, rinse, repeat and move on to the next step. The first three steps are fairly straight forward, the last two a bit more complex.

Step 1

German adjectives with a definite article only ever have the endings -e or -en.

Got that? Pretty simple, isn’t it. Of course this rule doesn’t yet tell you when to use the -e or -en ending but at least you now know that the next time you say something like “Ich traue dem altem Mann nicht” you better give yourself a little slap on the wrist as you just used an -em ending when you damn well know by now that this ending doesn’t exist for adjectives with definite articles. (For the record the correct form is: Ich traue dem alten Mann nicht.= I don’t trust the old man.)

At this stage don’t worry too much about the correct use of the endings -e and -en and just accept that no other endings should be used in this case. Once you understood this rule and practised with it, move on to the next step where we will give an explanation when to actually use which of those endings.

Step 2

With definite articles the -e is used in the Nominative (singular) and in all singular forms where the article “looks” like the Nominative.

Just to clarify: When does the definite article “look” like the Nominative? In the Accusative for the feminine (die) and neuter (das) forms where the articles don’t change. They remain “die” or “das”. (In contrast the masculine “der” changes to a “den” in the Accusative.) In all other instances the definite articles change and require the adjective ending -en. And yes, the -en is also automatically used in all plural forms.

So: If it’s the Nominative (singular) or looks like it, it’s an -e. In all other cases an -en.

Examples:

Der alte Mann schaut auf das Meer. (The old man looks at the sea.)
This is a Nominative form, hence the -e.
Die Frau kauft das elegante Kleid. (The woman buys the elegant dress.)
This is an Accusative form (das) where the Nominative and Accusative “look” identical, hence the -e.
Kennst du den frechen Jungen? (Do you know the naughty boy?)
“den” doesn’t look like the Nominative, hence the -en
Ich spreche mit der netten Lehrerin. (I am talking with the nice [female] teacher.)
The feminine form “die” has changed to a “der”, therefore it is not identical with the Nominative and is -en.
Mercedes baut die besten Autos. (Mercedes builds the best cars.)
This is a plural form so no need to even think about the case. It is by default an -en

Got it?

Congratulations! You have just mastered all the adjective endings for definite articles. You can now move on to the next step.

And for the record: These two steps are represented in the following diagram from my initial source:

Table 2.1

Weak declension singular

SG. Masculinum Feminum Neutrum
Nominativ der Wein die Wurst das Bier
der kalte Wein die kalte Wurst das kalte Bier
Genitiv des Weines der Wurst des Biers
des kalten Weines der kalten Wurst des kalten Biers
Dativ dem Wein der Wurst dem Bier
dem kalten Wein der kalten Wurst dem kalten Bier
Akkusativ den Wein die Wurst das Bier
den kalten Wein die kalte Wurst das kalte Bier

Table 2.2

Weak declension plural

PL. Masculinum Feminum Neutrum
Nominativ die kalten Weine die kalten Würste die kalten Biere
Genitiv der kalten Weine der kalten Würste der kalten Biere
Dativ den kalten Weinen den kalten Würsten den kalten Bieren
Akkusativ die kalten Weine die kalten Würste die kalten Biere

Step 3

With indefinite articles (incl. all forms of kein, mein, dein etc) the ending is -en in exactly the cases where we also have an -en with definite articles (see Rule #2).

Couldn’t be simpler. If you have an -en in Rule #2 you also have an -en with the indefinite articles.

Examples:
Ich spreche mit einer netten Lehrerin. (I speak with a nice [female] teacher.)
Fiat baut keine guten Autos. (Fiat doesn’t build good cars.)
In both of these examples we have similar situations to Step #2 but instead of a definite article we now used an indefinite article.

Again, take as long as you need to fully understand and practise this rule. Only then move on to the next one.

Step 4

Here’s where it starts getting trickier though by now you have already mastered the majority of the forms and the finish line is near.

Most of the adjective endings for indefinite articles have been covered in Step #3. What is left are the three Nominative endings and the feminine and neuter Accusative forms. In other words examples such as these:

Das ist ein alter Mann.
Das ist eine junge Frau.
Das ist ein kleines Kind.
Ich sehe eine junge Frau.
Ich sehe ein kleines Kind.

So why is it “ein alter Mann” but “ein kleines Kind” or “eine junge Frau”?

The best way to help you memorise these endings is to take a step back and remember what the definite articles in this case would have looked like:

der Mann, die Frau, das Kind

Do you notice the similarities (in bold) between those definite articles and the correct adjective ending?

Or to make it more obvious:
dER Mann => ein altER Mann
diE Frau => eine jungE Frau
daS Kind => ein kleinES Kind

So if unsure about the ending, just try and remember what the definite article would look like and choose an ending that reminds you of it.

Steps #3 and 4 are represented in diagram 3.1. (Until you’ve mastered Step 5 only look at the second lines that actually feature an indefinite article.)

Step 5

I hope you’re still with me. So far you have learned the adjective endings for all the definite and indefinite articles in four steps. We now come to the last scenario: Adjective endings when we do not have any article at all, e.g. Ich mag roten Wein.

These endings are the trickiest but the good news is that in reality these scenarios are also the rarest to come across in practical German. The endings you are already familiar with for the definite and indefinite articles are by far more common in everyday speech than the endings in this final step. So the easier the adjective rule the more often you’ll come across it in real life.

The rule of thumb for these is similar to what you already learned in Step #4. In other words, if unsure about what the correct ending needs to be, remember what the definite article in question would look like and then take a similar ending:

der => -er
die => -e
das => -es
den => -en
dem => -em
des => -en

But hold on! What is this I see?
des => -en

This refers effectively to the masculine and neuter forms of the Genitive (singular) and yes, all our rules of thumb are thrown across board. There is no visible relation between the definite article and the ending. You just gotta remember that the Genitive is an exception that needs to be learned separately. It also is a form that you are only ever going to use in the rarest of circumstances so you really don’t need to waste too much time focusing on it. In the big scheme of things knowing the first couple of steps properly is far more important than mastering this last piece of the puzzle.

So here you are: You have worked your way through three relatively simple and two slightly trickier rules and by now have mastered what was initially a very complex and daunting aspect of the German grammar. Rather than learn 72 (or at least 48) different endings you only have to remember a set of five rules. So give yourself a very well deserved pad on the back.

N.B. While I was writing this I came across this article that also takes a similar approach to mine for the learning of the adjective endings and is well worth reading.

Mir geht’s gut

If only I had a Euro for every time I asked “Wie geht’s dir?” (or even “Wie geht’s, wie steht’s?”) and received one of the following replies: Ich bin gut. Ich gehe gut. Or even worse: Ich geht’s gut.

In German we generally don’t say “I’m fine, thanks” but “Me goes well”. Does it make sense? Probably not, so just accept it as it is and remember that the proper replies are in the Dativ e.g.

Es geht mir gut.
Mir geht’s gut.
Mir geht es gut.
Danke, mir geht’s super.
Meinem Bruder geht es gut.
Meiner Schwester geht es gar nicht gut.
Meinen Eltern geht es schlecht.

Forming the German plural

QUESTION (received through my Facebook page):

“Well….I have a lot of problems with plurals, specially with those that don’t change (der Fahrer, die Fahrer) and those that change in a weird way (der Saal, die Säle)…and with the singular Tantrum (der Glanz)…since I’m assuming I’ll have to learn them by heart, it would be great to have a list (I am working on my own already, but if I can take advantage of the work of someone else…well, gerne!”

ANSWER:

That is a great question!

Whereas in English we generally just add an -s to the noun to form the plural (though try explaining to a German pupil learning English why it is “children” not “childs”!) German has about a dozen different ways to form the plural and in a lot of cases there is no proper rule for that that’ll cover all the forms. Instead you have more general rules of thumb that’ll cover a large number or some of the cases.

The good news is that you’re in good company. Even well educated Germans at some stage in their lives will come across a plural form they need help with. Just the other day a German Twitter buddy asked what the plural of “Plenum” is. It is “Plenen” though the original Latin plural form “Plena” apparently is also acceptable.

The moment you start learning German you are confronted with plural forms. You cannot form a sentence without using a noun so from Day 1 you need to find a way to learn the relevant plural forms. Given the large number of possible forms, it is best to simply memorise the right one any time you learn a new noun. So rather than just to learn: “das Fahrrad”, learn “das Fahrrad, die Fahrräder”. There really is no quick fix or short cut. (Sorry.)

Especially if you’re at an early stage in your studies, trying to understand possible rules is just going to confuse you unnecessarily. After all most Germans aren’t aware of those rules themselves and as children they also learned the plural forms one by one by trial and error. You could actually go through your whole German studies without ever needing to know the rules but if you have reached a level of expertise where you may want to learn a bit more about those forms, this is what you could do next.

First of all drop over to About.com to see a list of all the possible plural endings to get you started and give you a quick overview.

Unfortunately on those pages there is little in regards to theory so for this go to this Vistawide German page. They provide some additional info with regards to some of those forms.

Read through them all and specifically focus on the likelihoods mentioned in the text. Celebrate rules such as

“All feminine nouns ending in -ei, -heit, -keit, -schaft, -ung have the plural suffix or -en. Feminine nouns ending in -in add -nen in the plural form. These never add an umlaut.”

as they apply to all the nouns in question.

If you read that

“Approximately 89% of masculine words, 74% of neuter words, and 25% of feminine words have the plural form -e or -¨e.”

then you know that when in doubt you could make a well informed guess with the masculine words (and possibly also the neutral ones) but that the odds are against this ending for the feminine nouns.

Needless to say those rules will help you when you have some time to think about the answer e.g. when you’re writing an essay. Of course, when you’re in the middle of a heated discussion you won’t have time to stop and analyse what possible prefix may make whatever plural form necessary or what the odds are that a specfic noun has an -e as their plural but as an extra bit of info to help you choose the right forms these rules can be quite helpful once you are past the Beginner stage.

So let’s look at your individual queries:

der Fahrer – die Fahrer

This falls under the category of
“Nearly all masculine and neuter nouns that end in -er, -en, -el, -chen, -lein & collective neuter nouns beginning with Ge- have plurals that are identical to their singular forms or that simply add an umlaut.”
“der Fahrer” is masculine and with an -er ending. Hence the form doesn’t change in the plural. Mind you: As the text indicates there are a few exceptions such “der Bauer – die Bauern” but when in doubt rely on the fact that the odds are stacked heavily in your favour that nothing changes for the vast majority of those nouns.

der Saal – die Säle

This belongs to
“Approximately 89% of masculine words, 74% of neuter words, and 25% of feminine words have the plural form -e or -¨e. Feminine nouns with the plural -e always take the umlaut. Masculine nouns often take the umlaut, but not always. Neuter nouns that have the plural -e rarely take the umlaut.”
So this is masculine meaning that it has a high likelihood of a) an -e plural ending and b) adding an Umlaut. If you were just speaking the word out aloud you’d have come up with the right solution just from this rule alone.
What is special about this though is that one of the vowels drops and we don’t write “die Sääle”. Generally we just don’t have two Umlaute in a row so this you just need to remember on an individual basis. Again, you are in excellent company about this. There are numerous threads about this on the Internet – one is here – from German natives wondering about this particular form as well.

der Glanz (the gloss, the shine)

You are right: this as well as some other words do not even have a plural form. Other examples are:
die Milch, die Erziehung, das Publikum, das Obst, das Gemüse, die Ruhe, die Stille.
These are by and large collective nouns or abstract terms where it just wouldn’t “feel” right to use the plural and in a lot (but not all) of the cases the English translation would also not carry a plural.