Before I dive deeper into German grammar for this week's useful blog post, I want to take a minute to say "I know!" to all of you who think that German is a hard language to learn. Today's article is about to prove that you guys are not entirely wrong. Yes, the German language has some Tücken (twists).
But read on to discover how to get over each of these twists without ever worrying about them again.
Just like I did in our French Grammar Practice, I've selected 2 topics for German beginners and 1 twist for advanced learners. So there's something here for everyone.
Twist #1: sie is not Sie is not sie
The little words that can take the place of a noun or a name in language are called pronouns. They are placeholders that make it easier for us to communicate - just imagine how that previous sentence would work if I didn't have the words "they" and "us" for example! When you learn a foreign language, you start picking up its pronouns very early.
In German, this is particularly true as the verb doesn't do all that much by itself. The way pronouns are used is pretty similar to English, but here's the sting: 3 German pronouns look similar when they are not similar at all. I'm talking about the word sie, which you'll spot 3 times in the German pronoun table.
Many German learners are aware that Sie is the polite "you" in the German language, addressing a person from a point of distance or respect. It's corresponding to the French vous in this way. But if you think that's all you need to understand sie, it is time to take a look at the full verb table:
Sie pops up three times, but each time this word stands for a different person. There is more to it than just the polite "you".
There are three different kinds of sie
- It stands for the female 3rd person singular pronoun - that's "she" in English
Sie heißt Melanie. - Her name is Melanie.
Das ist meine Schwester. Sie kann auch Spanisch. - This is my sister. She speaks Spanish too.
- It stands for the 3rd person plural pronoun - that's "they" in English
Sie kommen aus Deutschland. - They are from Germany.
Das sind meine Geschwister. Sie können auch Spanisch. - Those are my siblings. They speak Spanish too.
- It stands for the polite "you" (grammatically that's also the 3rd person plural, kinda like addressing a royal "we")
Sie kommen aus Deutschland, Frau Krämer. - You are from Germany, Ms Krämer.
Wie heißen Sie? - What is your name?
How To Know The Difference
The first distinction is so easy to spot that I wouldn't even call it a "language hack". When you see Sie and the first letter is a capital letter, it's the polite you. Make sure you use it this way in your writing too.
If you're in a conversation (and you can't hear the capital letter), check out what the verb is doing.
When the verb ends in -t, you're looking at a "she".
When the verb ends in -en, it's most likely "they" or "you"...and then you have to figure out what the sentence is about and take other clues.
Twist #2: Prefixes are Everything
If you're going to learn one thing about German at an early stage, it's that the little things make all the difference. For example, take the concept of the separable verb. At the heart of it, you've got a verb like machen (to make, to do) or kommen (to come). Add a little prefix (usually 2-4 letters) to the verb, and suddenly you've twisted the meaning.
The good news here is that learning prefixes pays off a billion times over, as you'll be able to add them to pretty much any verb going to make yourself understood in spoken German. Prefixes split off when a verb is used in the sentence, so make sure you look out for them at the end of the sentence. So in other words, the final word in a sentence is very important in German. Sometimes it can twist the whole meaning.
Check out the following video from my German Grammar video Course for a detailed explanation.
Here are a few example sentences:
Wir kommen am Freitag. - We're coming on Friday.
Wir kommen am Freitag an. - We're arriving on Friday.
Ich komme heute. Er kommt am Freitag nach. - I'm coming today. He'll follow on Friday.
Wir fahren nach Berlin. Kommst du mit? - We're going to Berlin. Are you coming?
How many words can you spot that carry the prefix auf? When you think of it's generic meaning "up", how many meanings can you guess from the following list?
Let me know what your guesses are in the comments.
Twist 3: For Advanced Learners, werden becomes complex
The dictionary meaning of the German verb werden is "to become", plain and simple.
But watch out for two other ways that the verb is used. It teams up with another verb to build two advanced structures.
When werden works with another verb, the sentence structure is always:
Subject + werden + (any adverbs) + (any object) + the other verb
The other verb is what's really happening. If it stands in the infinitiv (that means it's not changed at all from how you find it in the dictionary), the sentence is in the future tense. For example, Ich werde etwas essen means "I will eat something". If it stands in the participle (this is that past tense form with ge-), then you're looking at the passive voice! For example, Etwas wird gegessen is not future tense at all
Ich werde nach Berlin fahren. - I will drive to Berlin.
Ich werde nach Berlin gefahren. - I'm being driven to Berlin.
Ich werde den Käse kaufen. - I will buy the cheese.
Der Käse wird gekauft. - The cheese is being bought.
Der Käse wird gekauft werden - (combining future and passiv) The cheese will be bought.
So whenever your form of werden pops up, pay attention and make sure that you don't end up confusing future and passive. They're pretty different.
How to Escape The Werden Trap
One easy tip to speak German without the pains of werden is to avoid using the future tense altogether. That's what native speakers do all the time, simply using the present tense together with words like morgen (tomorrow) or gleich (in a minute). It's so simple, it's practically Chinese grammar! (Someone once told me Chinese doesn't have conjugation. I was like "whoah"!)
Where To Look For More German Grammar Explanations
If you're studying German grammar in your first year, you will find answers to every grammar question in my video course Easy German Grammar for Beginners. It contains dozens of simple videos, quizzes and workbooks to help you become a confident speaker.
For advanced learners, the best grammar book I know is Deutsche Grammatik, supported by a great website and useful tables. It's helped me explain so many rules in clear terms, and was a support when I made the full video course.
Which Parts of German Grammar Do You Find Tricky?
Word order, verbs, cases...there's a lot to discover in German grammar. Has any of it tripped you up? Let me know in the comments!