For Pete’s sake….


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.

Pass the marmalade!

Strictly speaking this not a classic case of False Friends as sometimes die Marmelade does indeed translate as marmalade.

But sometimes it doesn’t, thereby allowing us a an interesting look into how the language we speak may help us to perceive and categorise the world around us in different ways. (And into how law makers are trying their utmost to regulate centuries old linguistical traditions.)

See, in English the term marmalade refers to gelled breakfast fruit conserves made out of citrus fruits. For non-citrus fruit conserves the term jam is used, e.g. “strawberry jam”.

In German we generally don’t care about the type of fruit in those spreads but whether or not they have chunky bits in them. The ones with chunky bits we call “die Konfitüre”, the ones without “die Marmelade”.

That means we can equally talk about “Erdbeermarmelade” as well as “Erdbeerkonfitüre” or “Orangenmarmelade” as well as “Orangenkonfitüre”, all just depending on whether there are visible bits of strawberries or oranges left in them.

At least in everyday speech.

In recent years EU regulators have passed some decrees that officially outlaw the term “die Marmelade” for all but citrus fruits and instead favour the use of “die Konfitüre” at least for items prepared for export. Linguistically, however, this has not caught on and small traders selling locally in Germany are also still allowed to keep using the traditional terminology.

And there are lots of those small traders. “Marmelade” in all shapes or forms is an incredibly popular item of food in Germany and lots of families prepare their own during the season or purchase from a local market stall.

Etymologically both “marmalade” and “Marmelade” derive from the Portuguese word “marmelo” for the quince fruit which ironically is NOT a citrus fruit.

Robbing bankers, stolen meanings

Bertold BrechtI recently came across this quote by Bertold Brecht from his Dreigroschenoper (The Threepenny Opera):

„Bankraub ist eine Unternehmung von Dilettanten. Wahre Profis gründen eine Bank.“

In the light of recent global events I thought it quite succinct given that this was written 85 years ago.

As I wanted to share it with my social network I looked for the proper, commonly accepted English translation online and discovered those two versions:

“It is easier to rob by setting up a bank than by holding up a bank clerk.”

“What is robbing a bank compared with founding a bank?”

Can you spot the differences?

I leave it for the readers of this blog to explore these versions more in depth but just some pointers:

  • The gist (bankers are criminals) remains in all three versions but what is unexplored in the English versions is that both bankers and bank robbers are considered “professionals” involved in a venture (“Unternehmung”).
  • The German version doesn’t mention anything about the apparent ease. The unstated implication focuses instead more on the larger return gathered from those two ventures.
  • Bank clerk? What bank clerk?

It is clear that if you really want to expand your horizon and learn about a country’s culture it is imperative to become familiar with its language. All too often nuances are lost in translation, never mind the fact the some works simply have never been translated.

Poetry still remains virtually untranslatable and one of these days I will need to pen a blog post about the subtleties in Rammstein lyrics.

For now though I’d encourage you to try and explore as much of German literary texts and quotes as you can given your current language skills. And if you’re sitting on the fence with taking up lessons, what’s holding you back? A whole new world is waiting to be discovered by you.

New Beginners Courses to start in Carrigaline Community School

German Courses in Carrigaline Community School

I will again be hosting a 10-week German Beginners course in the Carrigaline Community School (CCS) Monday evenings from September 26 on. More details can be found here. Enrollments will begin this Monday (August 29) and there is also a special Enrolment Night on September 14 between 7 – 8 p.m.

A minimum number of students (usually around 8 ) is required before the course can proceed so if you have interest please register in due time to make sure the course can go ahead.

If you have any questions about this course, please don’t hesitate to let me know.

Some of my favourite German words

The following are examples of some of my favourite German words. They prove how playfully you can use the language and how much fun you can have with it. You may not necessarily find these examples in your dictionary (or even taught in other courses) but they all make perfectly good sense and are used more or less frequently by native German speakers.


Could it be that I am indecisive?

Maybe, maybe not.

But I definitely love “Jein”, a mix of of “Ja” and “Nein” that means just that: “Yes and No”. It is often used when being confroted with a question that requires a Yes/No response but isn’t all that clear cut.

“Bist du ein Rod Stewart Fan?”
“Jein. Ich mag seine frühen Alben, aber hasse seine neuen Sachen.”

“Jein” does not mean “perhaps” (=vielleicht) but can best be translated with “yes, but….” or “no, but….”

In other words the closest thing the English language has for it is this:

Speaking ironically you can also answer a query “mit einem klaren und entschiedenen Jein!” (And they say Germans don’t have a sense of humour.)

Can’t say I know of any other language that created a word of its own for this kind of situation.

It’s a simple but handy word that is easy to remember, comes in useful but is rarely ever used by students of the German language.

I still remember the first time one of my students used it in a conversation with me. So proud……..


Another artificial word similar to “jein”, this time combining the two words “verbessern” (to improve) and “schlimm” (bad). It is used to describe when someone intends to improve something (a service, a product) but by doing so actually makes it worse.

“Yahoo hat seinen Service mal wieder verschlimmbessert.”

jemanden schöntrinken

The previous words were playful but popular examples of original German words. This one on the other hand is a bit more obscure and not often used. In actual fact the first time I came across it was in discussion with an English German-language university tutor who made me aware of it.

I fell in love with it from then on in.

It means “to drink someone beautiful” and describes the phenomenon of seeing the beauty of one’s drinking partners enhanced with every drink one takes or “to put on your beer goggles”. Not that I ever needed to use that word but, yes, one can see how it can come in handy every once in a while.

Much more popular is another German construct that is used quite regularly: “etwas schönreden” i.e. to make an awful situation sound much better, in other words: to use a euphemism.

“Der Präsident hat die Situation mal wieder schöngeredet.”

What are some of your favourite German words or phrases?

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.


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” ==>
After “DER”-words
-e -e -e -en
-en -e -e -en
-en -en -en -en
-en -en -en -en
After “EIN”-words
-er -e -es -en
-en -e -es -en
-en -en -en -en
-en -en -en -en
-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. 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.


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.

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.