Up to now we've only covered intransitive verbs because that allowed us to concentrate on the nominative case. But most verbs in German are more complicated and need a second noun to function. In this section we'll cover verbs where the second noun is in the accusative case. Since the accusative case is difficult to demonstrate without such verbs, we're going to have to do the two together.
In English there are three cases, subject, object, and possessive. The main difference in English in terms of word choice is with pronouns: I, me, mine; we, us, ours; he, him, his. German has four cases, but while there may be overlap between a certain English case and a certain German case, you must keep in mind that none of them is exactly the same as any of the English cases. For this reason, we're going to avoid using any of the same names for cases between the two languages. We've already introduced the nominative case, which is the case used for the subject of a sentence. This makes it similar to the subject case in English, but the nominative case has other uses in German so it's not the same.
If a verbs needs only a subject, for example "sleep" as in "I sleep," then it's called intransitive. In English, if a verbs needs a subject and one object, for example "love" in "I love you," then the verb is called transitive. But with the more complex case system in German, this simple definition would be misleading. So we're going call a German verb transitive only if it requires a subject and another noun in the accusative case. As you might guess, the thing performing the action is usually the subject and the thing being acted upon is the accusative noun. For example in Ich liebe dich, ― "I love you," ich ― "I" am loving and dich ― "you" (in the accusative case) are the one being loved. This makes the accusative case similar to the object case in English, but there are many situations where the two are used differently. It's better to just remember which case to use based on each situation than to try to draw analogies between German and English cases.
Forming the accusative caseEdit
Forming the accusative case is usually straightforward since there isn't much difference between it and the nominative. Pronouns are the exceptions to this, as in English as mentioned above. We've covered five types of words so far, but verbs and adverbs are independent of case so they don't have nominative or accusative forms. That leaves the remaining three.
The accusative pronounsEdit
The accusative case for pronouns is summarized in the following table.
The only pronouns that pass unscathed through this transition are sie, Sie, and es. Of the rest, the -ch ending is used as often as not, and some are relatively obvious cognates with the object pronouns in English:
- mich ― "me"
- uns ― "us"
- ihn ― "him"
Let's put this to work in sentences involving the transitive verb lieben ― "to love" and sehen ― "to see":
- Ich liebe dich. ― "I love you."
- Du liebst mich. ― "You love me."
- Er liebt sie. ― "He loves her."
- Sie liebt ihn. ― "She loves him."
- Wir sehen euch. ― "We see you (plural)."
- Ihr seht uns. ― "You (plural) see us."
- Sie sehen ihn. ― "They see him."
In nearly every case you can tell the subject from the accusative object, so the word order can be more flexible. The subject normally goes before the verb in a statement, but as long you keep the verb in it's V2 position you can put the accusative object first, shifting emphasis to it rather than the subject. Questions using the V1 plan should have the subject right after the verb, so the word order is less flexible. For example:
- Liebst du mich? / Nein, Naomi liebe ich. ― "Do you love me?" / "No, it's Naomi that I love."
You may recall that we've seen sehen before as an intransitive verb. This is often the case; a verb may have both a transitive meaning and an intransitive meaning. Sometimes the meanings differ and sometimes they are so similar that the difference isn't worth mentioning. As in English, when a transitive verb is used without an object it usually means that part is left unsaid or it's just a possibility. For example:
- Ich liebe. ― "I love (someone)" or "I (can) love."
The accusative articlesEdit
In the accusative case, the definite articles are:
- den – "the" (with masculine nouns)
- die – "the" (with feminine nouns)
- das – "the" (with neuter nouns)
- die - "the" (with plural nouns, of any gender)
and the indefinite articles are:
- einen – "a(n)" (with masculine nouns)
- eine – "a(n)" (with feminine nouns)
- ein – "a(n)" (with neuter nouns)
- (nothing) - (nothing) (with plural nouns)
The only difference between this and the nominative case is for the masculine gender (bold) and both changes involve an -n.
- Sie seht den Hund. ― "She sees the dog."
- Ich liebe einen Mann. ― "I love a man."
In the vast majority of cases the accusative case of a noun is the same as the nominative case, and this is entirely true for plural nouns. But you may recall we mentioned a troublesome group of masculine nouns which use the -(e)n ending for plurals. Some, but not all, between the -(e)n ending for plurals, and the -n ending on the articles, get carried away and add an -n to the accusative singular. Most of these either end with -e in the nominative, or they refer to people. For example:
- ein Name – "a name"
- Ich sehe einen Namen. – "I see a name."
- der Kunde – "the customer"
- Ich sehe den Kunden. – "I see the customer."
- ein Student – "a (male) student"
- Ich liebe einen Studenten. – "I love a student."
One which doesn't add the -n in the accusative is:
- der See – "the lake"
- Ich sehe den See. – "I see the lake"
Now that we have multiple elements in the sentence to play around with, issues of word order are becoming more important. Native German speakers, because they have been exposed to thousands if not millions of sentences, have an intuitive feel for which word orders sound natural, which sound strained, and which just sound wrong. The rest of us, unless we want to spend a significant portion of our lives listening to people speaking German and trying figure out the correct order by trial and error, have grammar as a tool to streamline the process. Once you know the rules, and hear them used by native speakers, they will hopefully become intuitive to you as well without having to go through the tiresome trial and error stage.
There are two general rules of thumb which serve as general principles, though when you get into the details of specific rules there are exceptions. The first rule of thumb is that the topic of the sentence comes first; this isn't always the subject. For example if you're telling someone what your plan is for the day, the topic would be Heute – "today" and you'd start the sentence with that instead of Ich. The second rule of thumb is that new information, and more specific information, comes later in the sentence than previously known or general information. Each sentence tells a little story and you want to put the most important parts either at the beginning or the end so the listener will remember them. These rules of thumb are hardly specific though, and sometimes there are rules that create exceptions. So regard the rules of thumb as themes, to help make sense of and remember the rules, and help break ties when the rules don't cover everything, but not but be used in place of them.
For now, we'll list, in order of priority, the rules that must be applied. Some of this is review, and we'll keep expanding on this as we cover more complex sentences. Setting out what we'll need so far and adding to it later will make a more easily digestible meal than bringing out everything at once.
- (Top priority) Verb placement: In German, the verb is the sun and all the other parts of the sentence are merely planets revolving around it. Some grammars use other models, which may work better for some languages, but in German it seems to work better if you think of the verb as the center of everything. So putting the verb in the correct position for the type of sentence is most important. For the sentence types we've done so far that means V2 position for statements, and V1 position for yes/no questions. For example, in English you would be correct to say "I now see you." This word order is impossible in German though because the verb is not in the second position. To translate it you must either move the adverb to the front, as in Jetzt sehe ich dich, or move it out of the way entirely, as in Ich sehe dich jetzt.
- (High priority) Subject placement: Since the subject is most closely connected with the verb, it likes to be as near to it as possible. So in those instances where the subject does not go in front of the verb, it must come immediately after. In yes/no questions this rule forces the subject to come right after the verb, for example Siehst du mich jetzt? – "Do you see me now?" Note that in English, putting the subject anywhere after the verb is not really an option.
- (Medium-high priority) Pronoun placement: Pronouns other than the subject fall under the heading of previously known information, and so the natural place for them to go is after the verb but before the remaining elements of the sentence. This is what pushes the adverb jetzt to the end of the sentence in the previous two examples.
The next is less strict and may be considered a guideline or even just a suggestion.
- Adverb placement: German has decreed that not all adverbs or adverbial phrases are created equal, and when more than one occupies a sentence they are ordered by type. The standard order is when-why-how-where. In German these coincidentally fall in alphabetical order wann-warum-wie-wo. Adverbs of time appear especially early since they come before accusative objects as long as that wouldn't violate the pronoun placement rule. For example:
- Siehst du jetzt den Hund?
- Ich sehe jetzt den Hund.
- While it's customary for adverbs of time to appear early the sentence, the order of the remaining adverbs when there are more than one is more susceptible to change. At this point, the rule of thumb about important information coming later starts to kick in and context begins to play a more important role than syntax. So while
- Der Junge arbeitet jetzt hart hier. – "The boy works hard here now"
- is the "natural" word order, but
- Der Junge arbeitet jetzt hier hart.
- isn't wrong and just gives more emphasis to the "working hard" compared to the "working here".
- Nouns with an indefinite article, since they are being introduced for the first time, can follow other adverbs as well:
- Ich sehe dort einen Hund. – "I see a dog there."
- Ich sehe den Hund dort. – "I see the dog there."
Some common transitive verbsEdit
- brauchen – "to need"
- Ich brauche einen Urlaub. - "I need a vacation."
- drücken – "to push"
- Er drückt den Knopf. - "He's pushing the button."
- essen – "to eat"
- Das Kind isst den Apfel. - "The child is eating an apple."
- Note that essen is a stem changing verb. The du form is simply du isst.
- Normally essen is used for people while fressen is used for animals.
- fühlen – "to feel" (a thing)
- Ich fühle den Wind. - "I feel the wind."
- genießen – "to enjoy"
- Sie genießt das Restaurant. - "She's enjoying the restaurant."
- halten – "to hold"
- Der König hält ein Schwert. - "The king is holding a sword."
- A stem changing verb.
- holen – "to get, to fetch"
- Ich hole einen Kugelschreiber. - "I'll get a pen."
- German uses the present tense here since the event is about to happen.
- lieben ― "to love"
- werfen – "to throw"
- Der Mann wirft Steine. - "The man is throwing stones."
- A stem changing verb.
- tragen – "to carry, to wear"
- Ich trage eine Hose. - "I'm wearing pants."
- German uses the singular for this article of clothing.
- sehen ― "to see"