German/Grammar/Basic terminology

Basic terminology edit

It will be helpful to start with an overview of grammatical terminology for those who may be unfamiliar with it. We don't expect anyone to memorize everything here at once, so we will revisit and elaborate on these concepts when they are covered in the corresponding sections.

Grammar concerns the way words, the basic units of meaning, are organized and combined to form sentences, which convey entire thoughts or messages. We'll model sentence structure as a hierarchy with four levels, with words at the bottom and entire sentences at the top, then clauses at the next level down, then phrases down to individual words. Of course you can go further up in the hierarchy, Paragraph, Section, Chapter, etc., or further down, Morpheme, Syllable, Phoneme, etc., but grammar is mostly only concerned with the levels between word and sentence.

Words edit

What counts as a word is not as simple a question as you might think. First, as we mentioned in the introduction, German often combines words together to form compounds, sometimes for a single use so the result would not appear in dictionaries.

As an example, consider Schwachstelle. This is a compound of schwach, which means "weak", and Stelle, which means "location" or "place". (We'll talk about German's unusual capitalization rules in a bit.) Together they mean "weak point", "weak spot", or "vulnerability". While English leaves both "weak point" and "weak spot" as separate words, German combines them into a single compound word. The single word, "vulnerability", does describe the idea, but note how much easier the German word is to understand once you know how German has put the pieces together. Any German speaking child could tell you what a Schwachstelle might be, but understanding "vulnerability" requires some education.

On the other hand, as we'll see in the section on prefixed verbs, some German words can break apart and the individual pieces can wind up in different parts of the sentence. We'll consider these separated pieces as belonging to the same actual word, since they form a single unit of meaning, whether the word has separate parts or not.

You might think we're being a bit vague about the concept of a word in German. But it seems to be a feature of any natural language that linguistic concepts have edge cases which may or may not fit depending on your point of view. English is no exception, but we won't go into that here because we're focusing on German in this book.

Word types edit

At each level of our hierarchy there will be ways of classifying what may appear at that level. For words, there are two broad classes, content words and function words. Content words carry most of the actual meaning of a sentence; they tell you what action is taking place, what is doing it, what is being affected, and how, where or when it is happening. Some content words in English are "jump", "bubble", "green" and "clumsily". Content words account for the vast majority of words in a language and are usually longer than function words.

Meanwhile, function words are the glue that helps you to make sense of the relationships between the content words. They also include words to refer people or things that don't need to mentioned by name. Although there are fewer function words, they include most of the frequently used words. Some function words in English are "the", "and", "to" and "she".

There are edge cases where it may be hard to decide whether a word is a function word or a content word, which is an example of what we were saying above: There are always edge cases.

Content words edit

  • Verbs: Verbs generally describe some action, for example "jump", "chew", "see". They can can also describe inaction or that something has a certain property, for example "remain", "exist", "be".
  • Nouns: Nouns refer to people, things, sometimes abstract concepts, for example "fox", "bubble", "romance", "time". Proper nouns refer to a single person or thing, while common nouns refer to a type or class. For example "man" is a common noun, but "Socrates" is a proper noun. Most proper names are proper nouns, but multi-word phrases, such as "Great Britain" and "New York", are only considered proper names, while single words such as "Germany" and "Boston" are considered both proper names and proper nouns.
When used in a sentence, nouns are determined to be singular if only one is being talked about, or plural if there are more than one.
While English and other European languages capitalize proper nouns, German is unusual in that it capitalizes all nouns.
  • Adjectives, adverbs and other modifiers: In general, a modifier is a word that is used to describe something else in the sentence. If the modifier is used to describe a noun then it's called an adjective, for example a fox might be described as "quick" and "brown", making "quick" and "brown" adjectives. If the modifier is used to describe a verb, as in how, where or when the action took place, then it's called an adverb, for example "quickly", "here" and "now". Adverbs can also describe the entire sentence, for example "sadly" in "Sadly, the accident had no survivors." In English the distinction between adjective and adverb is fairly clear because there is little overlap between the two; a fox is "quick" but it jumps "quickly". In German the distinction is less clear because most adjectives can also act as adverbs; for example the German schnell can mean either "quick" or "quickly" depending on how it's used. In this book we'll use adjective for a word that modifies a noun, adverb for a word that modifies a verb or an entire sentence, and the generic term modifier for a word that modifies some other part of speech. For example we'll call "strangely" in "You look strangely familiar," an adjective modifier because it modifies the adjective "familiar". Normally it would be called an adverb because of the "-ly" suffix, but this distinction doesn't apply to German.

Function words edit

  • Pronouns: Pronouns replace nouns when the person or thing being referred to is clear with little or no explanation. Examples in English include "he", "mine", "everyone".
  • Determiners: Most nouns can't appear on their own in a sentence, but have to be introduced by another word. For example you can't just say "Fox jumped." The word "fox" requires another word such a "the", "my", "that" to go with it in a sentence, for example "That fox jumped." The words that fulfill this role are called determiners. Some nouns, such a plural nouns and proper nouns, don't require determiners. There are also common nouns, usually referring to a substance or material, which don't require a determiner even in the singular; these are called uncountable nouns. For example you can say "I like bread." Since "bread" is uncountable, it doesn't require a determiner. An article is a special type of determiner which does little but fulfill the role of a determiner. Articles in English are "the" and "a(n)". Other determiners convey information as well, for example "my fox" refers to not just any fox, but to one that you own.
Closely related to determiners are cardinal numbers, since they are also placed in front of nouns.
  • Conjunctions: These are used to connect different related ideas in a sentence into a meaningful whole. An example is the word "and" in "The fox was quick and the dog was lazy." There are two different ideas mentioned in the sentence, one about the fox and one about the dog. But when connected by "and" they join to form a single sentence. Other examples of conjunctions in English are "because", "but" and "while".
  • Prepositions: Prepositions are used to connect a word or phrase to the rest of the sentence, providing additional meaning. An example is the word "over" in "The fox jumped over the lazy dog." The sentence "The fox jumped" is fine in terms of grammar, but it misses the whole point about where the fox jumped. But we can't just add "the lazy dog" by itself, at least without changing the meaning; the "over" connects the dog with the jumping and tells you how they are related.
  • Particles: It seems every language has a collection of odd little words that are difficult to classify, and most of them end up being called particles more by default than because they meet some definition that everyone agrees with. Neither English nor German have many of them; particles in English include "yes" and "no".

Phrases edit

At the next level in the hierarchy are phrases. These consist of one or more words that form a functional unit. It will become more clear what this means, but one characteristic is that phrases of the same type may be substituted for each other without breaking the rules of grammar. For example, "Paul", "my husband" and "he" are all examples of the phrase type associated with nouns, and the sentences:

  • "Paul is handsome."
  • "My husband is handsome."
  • "He is handsome."

are equally grammatically correct.

In non-grammatical language, a phrase is just any string of words, especially if they are frequently used together, for example "agree to disagree". In linguistics, the term fixed phrase is used to describe such a frequently used string when the meaning depends on the exact wording, even to the point that it contains words that are rarely seen elsewhere. "Nook and cranny" is an example of a fixed phrase; the word "nook" isn't all that common on its own, and it's rare to mention a "cranny" without a "nook".

Phrase types edit

  • Verb complex: A verb complex describes the action taking place. You may also see "verb phrase" and "predicate" used for this concept. Many verb complexes consist of a single verb, but more interesting possibilities exist as well. German, like English, often expresses shades of meaning by combining several verbs, and in that case the entire combination is called a verb complex. An example in English is "would have liked seeing" in "I would have liked seeing her." The main verb is "see", but the additional verbs give you additional information about the circumstances, such as that the "seeing" did not actually take place. Some other examples:
    • help
    • did help
    • would have helped
    • must have wanted to help
are all verb complexes.
English tends to keep its verb complexes in a single connected piece, but this is not always the case. For example the verb complex in "I want Sheila to see this," consists of "want" and "(to) see". German tends to split up verb complexes more than English. Because of this tendency to split into pieces, we call them verb complexes here instead of verb phrases.
  • Noun phrase: A noun phrase represents an actual person or thing being talked about in a sentence, for example "the man", "my husband", "Paul" and "a red balloon". A noun phrase can consist of:
  • a pronoun
  • a proper noun
  • a common noun, with a determiner if present
  • an adjective followed by a common noun, with a determiner if present
  • more complex combinations
Some examples:
  • I
  • Kevin
  • the dog
  • the brown dog over there
Almost all sentences include a special noun phrase called the subject. The subject is the "doer" of the action that the sentence describes. Other noun phrases are called objects.
  • Adverbial phrases: This category includes phrases that function like adverbs in a sentence and provide additional information about the action not contained in the verb complex or the noun phrases. This includes adverbs and most prepositional phrases, where a prepositional phrase is a preposition followed by a noun phrase. Information included in an adverbial phrase might include the when, how, and where of the action that takes place. Some examples:
  • quickly
  • in the library
  • in a library full of musty, moldering, old books
are adverbial phrases.
  • Predicates: A predicate (at least in this book) is a description of something and is used with certain verbs. The function of these verbs is to link a noun with a predicate. For example, in "The dog is lazy", "lazy" is a description and the verb "is" links "the dog" with this description. (The word "predicate" can have several meanings in grammar depending on the author; as we mentioned above it's also used to mean a verb complex.) Several word and phrase types can be predicates:
  • Adjectives as in "Paul is angry."
  • Adverbs as in "Paul is here."
  • Noun phrases as in "Paul is my husband."

Clauses edit

Clauses are the level of the hierarchy just below the sentence itself, in fact many sentences consist of a single clause. A clause consists of a single thought or action. A sentence, then, is composed of one or more related clauses, joined to make a meaningful whole. A sentence with a single clause is called a simple sentence. Clauses are typically joined together by conjunctions, though that isn't the only way it's done.

Clause and sentence types edit

There are several sentence types and each type has it's own variation on the rules of grammar. The most common sentence type is a statement, which simply provides information. Other types include questions, asking for information, and imperatives, meaning requests, instructions and commands. In English you can often tell the difference between types using word order, for example: "He is the doctor," and "Is he the doctor?" use the same words, but you can tell one is a statement and one is a question because of the word order. Punctuation in writing, and intonation in speech provide other clues. Certain words usually appear in questions rather than statements, for example "who" in "Who is the doctor?" Another possible difference is that words can take different forms according to sentence type, for example using "be" instead of "are" in "You be careful," tells you that the sentence is an imperative instead of a statement, as in "You are careful."

Clauses within a sentence have different types as well. The main division is between independent clauses, which can stand by themselves as their own sentences, and dependent clauses which are considered part of another clause. For example, "It's summertime and the living is easy," has two independent clauses, "It's summertime," and "The living is easy." On other hand "Because it's summertime," is not a complete sentence on it's own; at best it's an answer to question like "Why are the fish jumping?" The difference between dependent and independent clause may seem rather abstract for English speakers because there is little grammatical difference between the two. It's important to understand the difference in German though since there are significant differences in word order between the different types.

In some cases a clause may be contained within a phrase, which is supposed to be lower on the hierarchy. For example

  • "my lazy, good-for-nothing cousin-in-law who never worked a day in his life when he could mooch off of one of his relatives"

is noun phrase which contains a couple of clauses within it, and this would seem to contradict the hierarchy given above. But the hierarchy is more of a recursive structure than a strict hierarchy. This greatly increases the power and flexibility of the language, but also creates the possibility of phrases becoming arbitrarily long. (An example of this is the Monty Python skit "Njorl's Saga", where the opening line actually threatens to continue indefinitely.[note 1])

Inflection, declension and conjugation edit

As we mentioned in the introduction, words sometimes undergo changes according to their function in the sentence and the meaning of the sentence itself. These different versions of a word are called inflections and inflecting a word is the process of determining which inflection to use in a given situation. For most word types in German, inflected words have a stem or root that usually remains unchanged, and different endings are added according to the situation. The pattern of inflection is determined by the type of word in question. Since the inflection of verbs has a different character than that of words of other types, we say verbs are conjugated while other types of words are declined.

Figures of speech edit

People don't always follow the rules set out in grammar, especially in conversation. This is because people have a habit of eliminating words that aren't needed to convey meaning, and have an equal capacity to fill in missing pieces when they receive these incomplete messages. For example if you see someone stamping the ground and blowing into their hands, a single word "Cold?" will be instantly understood as "Are you cold?" By itself, the single word "cold" is not a question or even a sentence, so using it as a question is technically incorrect in terms of grammar. But these partial sentences occur all the time when people talk to each other, and no one seems to notice that people are not actually speaking the way they're supposed to. One of the challenges of learning a language is that filling in missing information like this not really something you can learn from a book; it takes practice and familiarity with the patterns of a language. All that can done in a grammar is to tell you what a sentence should look like when all the pieces are filled in; it would be impractical to try to describe every way that words can be left out and how to restore what's missing when they are.

Similarly, most common words have multiple meanings, and sorting out which meaning is intended in a given sentence is also a matter of practice and being familiar with common patterns. In general there are many cases where the result of translating a sentence word for word can result a confusing mess instead of a sensible sentence. In general, the term "figure of speech" is used when the words in a sentence are not in the usual order according to grammar, or mean something other that what you might expect from a dictionary. Idioms, in which a specific phrase means something very different from its literal meaning, fall into this category.

  1. The saga begins: "Erik Njorl, son of Frothgar, leaves his home to seek Hangar the Elder at the home of Thorvald Nlodvisson, the son of Gudleif, half brother of Thorgier, the priest of Ljosa water, who took to wife Thurunn, the mother of Thorkel Braggart, the slayer of Cudround the powerful, who knew Howal, son of Geernon, son of Erik from Valdalesc, son of Arval Gristlebeard, son of Harken, who killed Bjortguaard in Sochnadale in Norway over Cudreed, daughter of Thorkel Long, the son of Kettle-Trout, the half son of Harviyoun Half-troll, father of Ingbare the Brave, who with Isenbert of Gottenberg the daughter of Hangbard the Fierce ..."


  Introduction and overviewBasic terminology  Personal pronouns, formal and informal you, introduction to gender  Intransitive verbs, verb conjugation, present tense  Adverbs, V2 word order, Negation of verbs, Sentence adverbs  Stem-changing verbs, Weak vs. Strong verbs  Polar questions, V1 word order, Pre- and postamblesNoun genderNoun pluralsNoun phrases, ArticlesTransitive verbs, Accusative case, word orderPronomial possessives, Possessive determiners, Possessive pronouns, Negation with keinIrregular verbs, Past-like present verbsUninflected adjectives, Predicate phrases, Copulative verbsInterrogatives, der wordsFuture tense, The sentence bracketDitransitive verbs, Dative caseCoordinating conjunctions, Ellipses, Adverbial conjunctions, Multipart conjunctionsPrepositions with accusative and dative, Prepositional verbsPrefixed verbs, Separable verbs, Separable and inseparable prefixesImperatives, The imperative mood, The impersonal imperativeImpersonal verbs, Impersonal pronouns, the Point-of-view dativeDative prepositionsPossessives and the genitive caseModal auxiliary verbs, Compound verbs, Modal adverbsDemonstrativesThe simple past tenseReflexive pronouns and reflexive verbsSubordinating conjunctionsDeclining adjectives

  Adjectives and Adverbs  Alphabet  Cases  Nouns  Prepositions and Postpositions  Pronouns  Sentences  Verbs

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