The genitive case in German is dying, or so they say. While it is true that the so-called second case in German is disappearing from everyday language, it is still very much in use in newspapers, books and the academic world. Besides, using the genitive is often much shorter than the constructions used to replace it. Alas, there is more to it than a simple declension table. But if you have reached an intermediate level of German, you can master the genitive case with some practice.
- What is the genitive in German and why do you need it?
- Genitive -s
- Genitive declension table
- How to use the genitive
- How to avoid the genitive
What is the genitive in German and why do you need it?
The genitive case in German is also known as the second case because, in the declension tables, it comes second after the nominative (first case). It is followed by the dative (third case) and accusative (fourth case). We can use question words to identify cases within a sentence. The question word pointing to the genitive is wessen (whose). Let’s look at some genitive case German examples to see how that works:
“Julias Hund ist weiß.” – Julia’s dog is white.
“Wessen Hund ist weiß?” – Whose dog is white?
“Julias Hund.” – Julia’s dog.
“Die Katze meiner Nachbarin ist schwarz.” – My neighbor’s cat is black.
“Wessen Katze ist schwarz?” – Whose cat is black?
“Die Katze meiner Nachbarin.” – My neighbor’s cat.
In the examples above, the genitive explains the relationship of possession: The humans own the pets. More generally speaking, the genitive is used to indicate belonging. This can take the form of possession, but it can also indicate a cause (“Der Duft der Rosen war überall.” – The smell of the roses was everywhere.), a part (“Ein Teil der Orangen war verdorben.” – Part/some of the oranges had gone bad.) or many other aspects of how two things belong together. You can always find these genitive cases by asking wessen (whose). Additionally, you can identify the genitive case easily by its endings.
Now that you know what the genitive in German is, let’s learn how to form it.
To build the correct form of the German genitive, you only need to remember these rules:
- Masculine and neutral singular nouns take an -s or -es at the end of the word.
“Das Buch des Autors verkaufte sich gut.”
The author’s book sold well.
“Der Drache eines kleinen Kindes flog davon.”
A small child’s kite flew away.
- Masculine and neutral singular nouns that end with -s, -ss, -ß, -x or -z, take –es.
“Diese Seite des Marktplatzes war leer.”
This side of the market square was empty.
- Neutral singular nouns ending with –nis take –ses.
“Die Noten des Zeugnisses waren schlecht.”
The grades of the report card were low.
- Female singular nouns take no genitive ending.
“Das Haar der Frau war braun.”
The woman’s hair was brown.
- Proper names take an -s. If they end with -s, the apostrophe indicates the genitive.
“Lisas Mantel war grün.”
Lisa’s coat was green.
“Hans‘ Mantel war blau.”
Hans’ coat was blue.
As you can see in these genitive case German examples, in most cases there will be an article in front of the noun in the genitive case. This definite or indefinite article has to take the genitive case, too. The same goes for negative articles and possessive articles. Learning the declension of articles and nouns in the genitive case with a German genitive table is best.
German genitive declension table
|definite article||des Mannes||der Frau||des Kindes||der Tiere|
|indefinite article||eines Mannes||einer Frau||eines Kindes||Tiere|
|negative article||keines Mannes||keiner Frau||keines Kindes||keiner Tiere|
|possessive article||meines Mannes||deiner Frau||seines Kindes||unserer Tiere|
Note: The declension of the possessive article follows the same pattern for ihr- (her), sein- (its), eur(e)- (your), ihr- (their), Ihr- (formal you).
Note 2: If you add an adjective to describe the noun in the genitive, it has to take the genitive, too.
Die Katze meines neuen Nachbarn war alt.
My new neighbor’s cat was old.
We explained the declension of adjectives in our article about German adjective declension.
How to use the genitive
Now that you know how to form the genitive, it is time to look at how to use it. The genitive can be used to indicate belonging between two nouns, but can also be required by certain adjectives, verbs and prepositions. It also shows up in some expressions of time.
Genitive with nouns
To specify the relationships between two nouns, the genitive can be used as an attribute that usually follows the noun it belongs to:
“Das Auto meines Vaters war neu.”
My father’s car was new.
“Der Hund der Nachbarn war alt”.
The neighbor’s dog was old.
If the owner is identified by its name, it can go before the other noun:
“Lisas Auto war neu.”
Lisa’s car was new.
“Elsas Hund war alt.”
Elsa’s dog was old.
Genitive with adjectives
Some adjectives require the genitive case. Some examples are:
“Er war des Lernens müde.”
He was tired of learning.
“Er machte sich des Diebstahls verdächtig.”
He was suspected of theft.
würdig (worthy of):
“Er war seines alten Namens würdig.”
He was worthy of his old name.
bewusst (aware of):
“Er war sich seiner Verantwortung bewusst.”
He was aware of his responsibility.
These adjectives with genitive sound somewhat old-fashioned in German. In everyday life, even natives will try to find a way around them: “Er wurde des Diebstahls verdächtigt.” (He was suspected of theft) instead of “Er machte sich des Diebstahls verdächtig.”
Genitive with verbs
Some verbs take an object in the genitive case. Examples are:
entbehren (to lack):
“Er entbehrte jeder Selbstdisziplin.”
He lacked all self-discipline.
bedürfen (to need):
“Sie bedarf der Hilfe.”
She needs help.
sich schämen (to be ashamed of)
“Wir schämten uns unserer Verwandten.”
We were ashamed of our relatives.
sich freuen (to enjoy)
“Er freute sich seiner Freiheit.”
He enjoyed his freedom.
Again, these verbs with a genitive object are only to be found in old books. Most people would use a construction closer to the English translation, for example: “Sie braucht Hilfe” instead of “Sie bedarf der Hilfe” for “She needs help.”
Genitive with prepositions
Many German prepositions go with the genitive, for example:
“Trotz seiner Krankheit kam er zur Arbeit.”
Despite being ill, he came to work.”
“Während der Ferien werde ich gar nichts tun.”
During the holidays I will do nothing at all.”
“Abseits ausgetretener Pfade kann man so manche Überraschung finden.”
Off the beaten track you can find a surprise or two.
dank (thanks to):
“Dank seiner Hilfe geht es mir jetzt gut.”
Thanks to his help I am well now.
In everyday German, the genitive with these prepositions is more and more replaced by other cases such as the dative. You will hear “Während den Ferien werde ich gar nichts tun.” a lot more than “Während der Ferien”. In general, natives try to avoid the genitive in most cases.
Genitive with time expressions
Some expressions that point to an indefinite time require the genitive. Examples are:
eines Tages (one day)
zu Zeiten der (at the times of)
zeitlebens (all one’s life)
How to avoid the genitive
The genitive is slowly dying, mostly replaced by the dative. The phenomenon has even inspired author Bastian Sick to a series of six books called “Der Dativ ist dem Genitiv sein Tod.”
von + dative
Funny enough, the title shows exactly how this is happening. It should actually read “Der Dativ ist der Tod des Genitivs.” Simply replacing the genitive through a dative is not as common as the book might have us think, though. While it is frequently done in some dialects, more often Germans will use von + dative to go in place of the genitive. The English language has set the example:
“Das Ende des Buches war überraschend” (gentiive)
“Das Ende von dem Buch war überraschend.” (dative)
The end of the book was a surprise.
Another frequently used and easy way to replace the genitive is to change the word order. The former genitive takes the position of the subject, which means you can simply use the nominative. The belonging is indicated by a possessive determiner:
“Der Schwanz meiner schwarzen Katze war weiß.”
“The tail of my black cat was white.”
“Meine schwarze Katze hatte einen weißen Schwanz.”
My black cat had a white tail.
The genitive case in German: dying but not dead
The genitive case in German indicates belonging. It can be used as an attribute to a noun, with verbs, adjectives and prepositions or in expressions of time. When in doubt if you should use the genitive or not, ask with wessen (whose) and look out for the genitive -s. Forming the genitive of a noun is not that difficult, but you have to remember that articles, possessive articles and adjectives have to take the genitive, too. At the end of the day, it all comes down to memorizing declensions.
Sandra lives in Istanbul, together with her kids, cat and dog. As a historian she thrives exploring this ancient city with her two- and four-legged loved ones. Together, they also love to go on adventures through all of Turkey and its neighboring countries. The perfect opportunity to put all the language learning into practice. If she’s not on the road, Sandra is busy putting her experiences into writing as a freelance copywriter for the travel industry and everything related to language, culture and family. Her particular interest lies in providing information on animal welfare with her website contentrundumstier.de.