7 major differences between English and German grammar
Published on September 2, 2020 / Updated on January 9, 2024
English and German are languages that both originate from the Germanic language family. Although they come from a similar place, they are still completely distinct languages with many core differences. If you’re planning to learn one or the other, here is a quick overview of grammar differences between English and German.
One of the first differences you’ll notice is that while English only uses the word “the” to describe nouns, German has three noun genders: der (masculine), die (feminine), and das (neutral). For example:
die Katze (cat)
das Pferd (horse)
der Hund (dog)
These noun genders are absolutely essential when learning German, because they change according to the rest of German grammar (more on this in the next section). The good news for English is that you always use the word “the”, as the concept of noun genders doesn’t exist.
Cases are another German grammar concept that doesn’t exist in English, otherwise known as: nominative, accusative, dative, and genitive. To give a quick summary of German cases:
|Subject does the action
|Die Frau lebt in Deutschland.
|The woman lives in Germany.
|Direct object receives the action
|Das Kind isst einen Apfel.
|The child eats an apple.
|Indirect object receives the action
|Ich schenke dir eine Blume.
|I give you a flower.
|Der Koffer des Mannes
|The man’s suitcase
When your sentence uses a noun, then you need to make sure you use both the correct gender and change it for the appropriate case. Here is a summary of noun genders per each case:
Points one and two on this list may in fact be the hardest part of learning German if you’re a native English speaker, because for each case and noun, you would only use the word “the”. But as a native English speaker who has learned German, I feel your pain, and it does get easier to recognise the differences over time.
Capitalisation rules have distinct differences in English and German, and it is extremely important to note when writing in either language.
In English, you need to capitalise:
In German, you need to capitalise:
While the German list looks shorter, you actually need to capitalise more words, because it covers all nouns. To give an example:
Das Pferd isst einen Apfel. (German)
The horse eats an apple. (English)
The nouns in these sentences are “horse” and “apple”, and you can see that in German they are capitalised, but in English they are lowercase.
If you’re learning German, you’ll soon learn that they’ve got a word for literally everything! While English only uses the term “you” to refer to a person, in German there is the option for “Sie” (formal) or “du” (informal). Du is the equivalent of calling someone by their first name and Sie is the same as Mr or Mrs, but in addition you use it with the actual personal pronoun.
Can you please help me?
Können Sie mir bitte helfen? (formal)
Kannst du mir bitte helfen? (informal)
The basic rule of thumb is that you use the “Sie” form with anyone you don’t know, when someone is further up the hierarchy (such as your manager), and in generally formal settings such as speaking with a doctor, lawyer, or politician. Sometimes it can get a bit confusing as to which one is correct, so the method I use is to start with “Sie” and then change to “du” if the person uses it with me or directly says it’s ok to use.
German has a few additional letters in their alphabet known as umlauts: ä, ö, and ü. There are similar pronunciation equivalents in English, but they’re not 100% accurate. For me, I did have to learn how to move my mouth slightly differently to pronounce umlauts, but as with everything in the language learning process, the more you practice the easier it gets!
As a former English teacher, I can confirm through many of my students that one of the most difficult parts of learning English is our obsession with silent letters and strange pronunciation. In German, pronunciation is pretty cut and dry: you see the word and that’s how it sounds. But not with English!
A few examples are:
This is only a sliver of the many examples that exist. My advice for English learners in this case is to listen to native speakers as much as possible, because then you’ll know how to pronounce the word. I can also admit though, that even native English speakers make pronunciation mistakes on tricky words with silent letters!
The last major element I’ll mention that’s different between German and English is verb placement. In English, a sentence with two verbs places both those verbs at the beginning. But in German, the first verb comes at the beginning, while the second goes at the end of the sentence. For example:
I want to bake a cake. (English)
Ich will einen Kuchen backen. (German)
Even for German verbs that have two parts (trennbare Verben), the second half of the verb still goes to the end.
Ich komme morgen an. (I will arrive tomorrow)
The verb here is “ankommen” but it splits into “kommen” and “an”. You can find a more comprehensive list of German trennbare Verben here.
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