Foreign Service Institute German Basic Course

Unit 3: Part 2

Notes on Grammar

A. Introduction to Units 3 - 9

I. Noun Modifiers
1. The four words 'good', 'these', 'suitcases', and 'two' can only be put together in one way so as to make of them a single phrase: 'these two good suitcases'. This is also true of the German equivalents of these words: they can only appear as diese zwei guten Koffer.

2. The phrase diese zwei guten Koffer is composed of a NOUN (Koffer) and three different kinds of Noun Modifiers: a SPECIFIER (diese), a NUMERAL (zwei), and an ADJECTIVE (guten).

3. Outline Classification of Noun Modifiers

  • SPECIFIERS: der-TYPE or ein-TYPE

4. A three-fold treatment of German noun-modifiers is forced upon us by the facts of the German language, since these three groups of words exhibit different formal patterns - that is, different patterns of endings.

a. The formal pattern of the NUMERALS is very simple: the numbers from zwei 'two' on up never have any endings. (Fractions and numbers like 'fourth‘ and 'seventh' will be dealt with later.)

b. The formal patterns of the ADJECTIVES will be treated in Units 6 - 9. Adjectives are descriptive words (red, white, blue, tall, dark, handsome) which have superlative and comparative forms (reddest, whitest, taller, darker).

c. The formal patterns of the SPECIFIERS compel us to divide them into two sub-classes: the der-TYPE SPECIFIERS (specifiers which have the same pattern of endings as der 'the') and the ein-TYPE SPECIFIERS (specifiers which have the same pattern of endings as ein 'a'.) The formal patterns of the two subgroups are alike for the most part, but there are a couple of differences, so we are forced to deal with them separately.

B. der-Type Specifiers: der, dieser, welcher

I. Forms

Er kennt ihn. He knows him.
Der Ober kennt den Portier. The walter knows the doorman.
Der Portier kennt den Ober. The doorman knows the waiter.

1. In German, not only the pronouns, but also the words for 'the' and all other Specifiers have Nominative, Accusative, and Dative forms. This is entirely different from English, where the word "the" has no form but "the."

Der Ratskeller soll sehr berühmt sein.
Wir suchen den Dom.
Neben dem Dom ist die Universität.
Das Museum ist am Markt.
Wir suchen das Museum.
Neben dem Museum ist das Stadttheater.
Die Stadt ist nicht weit von hier.
Wir suchen die Stadt.
Das Rathaus ist in der Stadt.
Die Koffer sind da drüben.
Wir suchen die Koffer.
Das ist in den Koffern.
The Ratskeller is supposed to be very famous.
We're looking for the cathedral.
Next to the cathedral is the university.
The museum is at the market place.
We're looking for the museum.
Next to the museum is the municipal theater.
Ihg city's not far from here.
We're looking for the city.
The town hall is in the city.
The suitcases are over there.
We're looking for the suitcases.
That's in the suitcases.

2. By abstracting from these sentences the underscored forms, we can set up the following table of the various forms of the German word for 'the':

  before der-Nouns before das-Nouns before die-Nouns before Plural Nouns
NOMINATIVE der das die die
ACCUSATIVE den das die die
DATIVE dem dem der den (-n)

3. Note: The symbol (-n) signifies that the noun itself, in the DATIVE PLURAL form, adds an -n, if the noun's general plural form does not already end in -n: Nominative Plural die Koffer, Dative Plural den Koffern.

4. Here are similar tables of the forms of dieser 'this' and welcher ‘which‘ with der-nouns, das-nouns, die-nouns and plural nouns and with the pronouns which replace them, as noted in Unit 2.

Nominative dieser Koffer
welcher Koffer
dieses Hotel
welches Hotel
diese Bank
welche Bank
diese Zigarren
welche Zigarren
Accusative diesen Koffer
welchen Koffer
dieses Hotel
welches Hotel
diese Bank
welche Bank
diese Zigarren
welche Zigarren
Dative diesem Koffer
welchem Koffer
diesem Hotel
welchem Hotel
dieser Bank
welcher Bank
diesen Zigarren
welchen Zigarren

5. In Unit 1 your attention was directed to the correspondence of the final sounds in the pairs der-er, das-es, die-sie, and die-sie. If we now make more extensive comparisons of the same sort --das-es-dieses-welches and den-ihn-diesen-welchen-- we begin to see that a relatively simple pattern underlies the profusion of forms. It can be summed up in the following PATTERN CHART:

Nominative R S E E
Accusative N S E E
Dative M M R N (-n)

6. Important Note: Pattern Charts are not to be used in the classroom. They are presented for two reasons only: to call to your attention the fact that there is a pattern for whatever part of the language may be concerned, and to display that pattern as clearly and simply as possible. Study the chart at home if you find it helpful, but do not try to use it in class. Your purpose is to learn to speak German, not to learn to look it up in a book.

7. Remember also that substitution of nouns and pronouns operates horizontally on the chart. For example, from the Accusative-form line:

Ich sehe den Bahnhof und das Rathaus und die Bank und die Koffer.

8. There are half a dozen more der-type specifiers, all of which exhibit the pattern of Chart 1 above. They are of less frequent occurrence than the three here introduced, and will be pointed out to you as they turn up in later units.

II. Uses

1. Der means 'the' when unstressed, but means 'that' when stressed. Without a noun it means 'that one', and is often followed by da "there."

Wir können den Polizisten fragen. We can ask the policeman.
Wir können den Polizisten dort fragen. We can ask that policeman there.
Wir können den da fragen. We can ask that one there.

2. Dieser is used primarily for contrastive purposes. It doesn't just mean 'close to me' as the English this does, but rather 'the one I'm indicating now as opposed to that other one'.

Ich habe dieses Glas, er hat das da. I have this glass; he has that one.
Ich fahre mit diesem Omnibus nicht mit dem da. I'm going on this bus, not that (other) one.

3. When there is no contrast, but only a pointing indication, the pointing-word das is equivalent to both this and that.

Das ist die Strasse. This is the street.
Das ist die Strasse. That's the street.

4. Welcher is used primarily in questions. When used without a noun, it means 'which one?'.

Welchen Polizisten können wir fragen? Which policeman can we ask?
Mit welchem spricht er?” Which one is he talking to?

5. Whenever one of the der-type specifiers is used without a noun, the form of the specifier is exactly the same as if the noun were there.

Ich spreche mit dem. I'm talking to that man.
Ich spreche mit dieser. I'm talking to this woman (not to that other one).
Mit welchem sprechen Sie? Which one (man) are you talking to?

Note: The stressed der-type specifier has a definite pointing implication. The conventions of polite behavior set certain limitations on the pointing gesture, particularly as applied to persons. In general the same limitations are observed in the use of the der-type specifier without a noun. There are certainly situations where both the pointing gesture and the stressed der-type specifier are not only appropriate but necessary, as in giving directions for instance. However, indiscriminate use is avoided.

C. Nouns

I. We have noted that German distinguishes der-nouns, das-nouns and die-nouns and furthermore Nominative forms, Accusative forms and Dative forms. The distinctions occur in the pronouns and in the specifiers.

II. Some German NOUNS also show distinctions in form.

Herr Becker trifft Herrn und Frau Allen in München. Mr. Becker meets Mr. and Mrs. Allen in Munich.
Dort ist der Polizist. There's the policeman.
Ich will den Polizisten dort mal fragen. I'll just ask the policeman there.

Four nouns which we have encountered up to this point have distinctive Nominative and non-Nominative forms. They are listed below for reference:

Nominative der Herr der Diplomat der Beamte der Polizist
Accusative den Herrn den Diplomaten den Beamten den Polizisten
Dative dem Herrn dem Diplomaten dem Beamten dem Polizisten

D. Prepositional Phrases

I. Dative Prepositions

Ich spreche mit ihn.
Ich spreche mit den Portier.
Ich spreche mit der Frau.
Ich spreche mit den Eltern von Herrn Keller.
Sie können auch mit der Strassenbahn fahren.
I‘m talking to him.
I'm talking to the doorman.
I'm talking to the woman.
I'm talking to the parents of Mr. Keller.
You can go on the streetcar too.

1. Like pronouns, specifiers which follow mit are in the Dative form. We can refer to mit and other prepositions which are always followed by Dative forms as DATIVE PREPOSITIONS.

Bei der Passkontrolle und beim Zoll.
Rechts von Dom ist das Museum.
Ich gehe zu der Bank in der Bahnhofstrasse.
Wollen wir zum Ratskeller fahren?
At the passport inspection and at the customs office.
To the right of the cathedral is the nnuseum.
I'm going to the bank on ' Bahnhofstrasse' .
Shall we drive to the 'Ratskeller‘ ?

2. The prepositions bei, von and zu are also Dative Preposltions. Notice the following contractions:

bei dem often becomes beim
von dem often becomes vom
zu dem often becomes zum
zu der often becomes zur

3. The preposition gegenüber is sometimes followed and sometimes preceded by the specifier in the Dative form. It is generally preceded by the pronoun and by the specifier standing alone without a noun. It often occurs together with the preposition von.

Gegenüber vom Hotel. Across from the hotel.
Es steht dem Dom gegenüber. It‘s opposite the cathedral.
Mir gegenüber. Across from me.
Dem gegenüber. Across from that.

II. Accusative Prepositions

Gehen Sie hier durch den Park. Go through the park here.

1. A few prepositions are always and invariably followed by Accusative forms. We will refer to these prepositions as ACCUSATIVE PREPOSITIONS. The only one we've come across so far is durch.

2. Contraction: durch das often becomes durchs

III. Two-way Prepositions

Es ist an der Ecke Kaiser- und Schubertstrasse.
Gehen Sie an die Ecke Kaiser- und Schubertstrasse.
EI ist auf der Strasse.
Er geht auf die Strasse.
Er ist im Hotel.
Er geht ins Hotel.
It (the consulate) is on the corner of Kaiser and Schubert Street.
Go to the corner of Kaiser and Schubert Street.
He's in ("on") the street.
He's going into ("onto") the street.
He's in the hotel.
He's going into the hotel.


1. The prepositions an, auf, and in are followed by either a Dative form or an Accusative form, with the following difference in meanings: After a Two-way Preposition

(1) a Dative form tells where some one or something is to be found:
Er ist auf der Strasse. He is to be found upon the street; that's where he is located.

(2) an Accusative form tells where some one or something (now in motion) is going to end up.
Er geht auf die Strasse. He is walking, and when he has finished walking he wlll be upon the street.

IV. We have now encountered nearly half the prepositions which are of common occurrence in German. The following summary lists them by categories.

1. Accusative Prepositions
durch 'through' (always followed by Accusative forms)

2. Dative Prepositions
aus 'out of, from'
bei 'at'
mit 'with' (always followed by Dative forms)
nach 'toward, to'
von 'from, of'
zu 'to'
gegenüber 'opposite, across from' (always preceded or followed by Dative forms)

3. Two-way Prepositions
an 'to'
auf 'onto'
in 'into' (followed by Accusative forms)
neben 'up next to'
an 'at, on'
auf 'upon' (followed by Dative forms)
neben 'next to, beside'

V. Special Pronoun Form with Prepositions

Links davon ist das Rathaus.
Daneben ist ein grosser Parkplatz.
Ich fahre oft mit ihm nach Hause.
Ich spreche oft englisch mit ihr.
To the left of it is to hall.
Right next to it is a big parking lot.
I often ride home with him.
I often speak English with her.

When a pronoun in a prepositional phrase refers to a human being, the regular pronoun forms are used; but when a pronoun in a prepositional phrase refers to an inanimate object, the form da- is used for all pronouns. It is put in front of the preposition, and in the writing system is made part of a single word with the preposition (daneben, davon). If the preposition begins with vowel, the pronoun form is dar- (darauf, daran, daraus).

E. Verbs

I. Two verbs have occurred in Unit 3 which are similar to the four irregular verbs dürfen, können, müssen and wollen, which have already been encountered. They are sollen 'to be supposed to' and wissen 'to know (a fact)'. These six verbs occur very frequently in German, and together with one other verb (mögen), occurring very infrequently in the Present, make up the complete list of verbs following this particular irregular pattern. For reference purposes all seven verbs are reproduced below:

ich/er-form darf kann mag muss soll will weiß
wir-form dürfen können mögen müssen sollen wollen wissen

II. There are two other new irregular verbs in this Unit:

  stop keep
ich-form halte behalte
er-form hält behält
wir-form halten behalten

F. Word Order

I. In Unit 2 we observed that the second part of VERB PHRASES, the INFINITIVE form of the verb, occurs at the end of the sentence:

Ich kann es Ihnen hier auf dem Stadtplan zeigen. I can show it to you here on the map of the city.

The other part of Verb Phrases, the verb form that has the personal ending, is seen to occur at or near the beginning of the sentence. It is called the FINITE verb form.

II. Observe the position of the FINITE verb form in the following sentences:

a) Sie kommt heute nicht.
b) Das Museum ist am Markt.
c) Das weiss ich leider nicht.
d) Dort ist der Portier.
e) In zehn Minuten sind Sie da.
f) Wo ist die Strassenbahnhaltestelle?
She's not coming today.
The museum is on the market place.
I'm sorry I don't know that.
There's the doorman.
You'll be there in ten minutes.
Where is the streetcar stop?

You will note that the FINITE verb form is always the SECOND ELEMENT of the sentence in the above examples. It can be preceded by: a) a pronoun; b) a noun and its specifier; c) a specifier or pointing word; d) an adverb indicating the time, location or manner in which something occurs or exists; e) a preposition and its object; f) a question word.

III. In QUESTIONS without question words and in COMMANDS the FINITE verb form is the FIRST ELEMENT.

Fährt denn kein Omnibus dahin? Isn't there a bus that goes there?
Gehen Sie hier durch den Park. Go through the park here.

← Back to Part 1 or Go on to Part 3 →

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