Grammar Jargon

This section aims at explaining the grammar terminology and to clarify the concept behind the linguistic terms. These concepts are most of the time surprisingly simple, their names however make them seem as if they are some ancient Greek or Latin voodoo. Try to read the article on Finnish grammar on Wikipedia if you want to know what I mean.
Don’t get me wrong, linguistic terminology is an indispensable tool to describe and compare languages. For the average language learner though they might be counterproductive. Grammar Jargon sure is a language of its own and  you are already busy learning another.

In this section we will talk about in a lingo that everyone can understand. The focus will be on the stuff you need for German, but lots of the concepts are universally applicable. So sit back, relax and disclose the secrets of grammar jargon.

What the heck are cases?

This article shines some light on the idea of cases in general. It doesn’t talk about cases in a specific language too much but rather gives an overview of how cases can and do work all around the world. We’ll look at what they do, how they do it and we could do do dodge ’em.


What the heck is “to conjugate”

Conjugation is one of the things you are confronted with in any language class… unless you learn Swedish. It is pretty simple and the term might sound familiar to you but maybe you can’t quite put your finger on what exactly it means. So if you need an update on that… check out the link above.


What the heck are prepositions

The term is thrown around a lot in language courses and you need them everyday in German and English… and they cause a lot of trouble for language learners. Misuse of prepositions is one of the biggest source of error in German and it is by far the most confusing… get a case wrong … well ok. But get a preposition wrong and it might alter meaning.
This article won’t solve all these problems but it will explain, what prepositions do, how to recognize them, compare German and English ones and answers the question whether prepositions are necessary at all :).


What the heck does “transitive” and “intransitive” mean?

This opinionated post takes a look at the terms transitive and intransitive. We’ll see what it means and if it is really necessary to use these words…



coming up at some point:

– What the heck is a complement

54 responses to “Grammar Jargon

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  1. Can you PLEASE explain the concept of dative and accusative? Though I get the general use of them, I don’t get how one of them is sometimes used.

  2. Wilde Erdbeere

    Please, please, do it, Emanuel!!!!

  3. Thank you for your blog. You exemplify the generosity that Clay Shirkey calls the cognitive surplus.

    In the above you wrote “This opinionated post takes a lot at the terms transitive and intransitive.” Could this contain a typographical error? Perhaps you ment “This opinionated post takes a look at the terms transitive and intransitive.”

    • Thanks for making me aware of :

      1) that book of Clay Shirkey… I have heard about his first book but I didn’t really pay much attention so far.
      2) that mistake I made … I definitely meant “look”
      … my mind read what it wanted to read there

      Thank you for your comment, which, by the way, is indeed one of the most polite, well mannered comments I have ever seen :)

    • In the above you wrote “Perhaps you ment”. Could this contain a typographical error? Perhaps you *meant* “Perhaps you meant”?

      :P I couldn’t resist! Oh, and this blog is GREAT! Thank you!

  4. I am studying A-level German and I think your blog is amazing!!! Really useful! I’ve been trying to find out how to use ‘however’ in a sentence, but need to know whether word order changes etc etc. Any chance of an explanation?
    From Rob

  5. Hello, i really need some help. I am studying German a-level in the UK and need to know how to use ‘however’ in a sentence. So, does word order change etc etc… any chance of an explanation?

  6. I really want to learn about Partizipialkonstruktionen and how to sound more sophisticated! When will it be out?

  7. How would you translate immergleich and gleichmäßig?

    • Gleichmässig – evenly, steady(ily), smooth… in physical terms is a purely periodic event, with a possible amplitude of 0 (no change at all).
      Immergleich is not a word as far as I know… do you have an example for that?

  8. It’s in Mit der Geschwindigkeit des Somers, by Julia Schoch. I translated it as enduring or steadfast or persistent. It refers to an image fixed in the narrator’s brain of a dead sister. . . Gleichmäßig was actually easy — refers to plastic bags, shimmering in the rain.

    • Hmmm… you definitely got the broad sense of it but all the words you suggested (steadfast, enduring, persistent) have this notion of stamina to them which “immer gleich” (I would spell it as 2 words) doesn’t have. It literally expresses that there is no change whatsoever but it has this subtle notion of boring and dull to it. So “steadfast” would add some sort of energy that isn’t there…. at least that’s my opinion.

    • Oh and I forgot… gleichmässig in context of shimmering plastic bags? That doesn’t seem like a good choice of words to me as my visual image of a wet plastic bag reflecting light is somewhat chaotic which “Gleichmässig” is the exact opposite of… but I guess that’s poetic license :D

  9. But I’m always willing to consider other possibilities and will take your note under advisement. Thanks!

  10. Context is EVERYthing, and I appreciate this insight more than I can say. Thanks!

  11. finally I can say that my 8 years of Latin are useful. Cases come from latin, like much of the German structure. I might need 3 days to remember a word I never heard about but it took me 10 minutes to understand the whole German structure of a sentence ;)

    • That is awesome. Latin to the rescue :D… I think that Latin grammar is actually harder than German because they have both… cases AND conjugation tables … so German must really be a walk in a park. If it wasn’t for the words that is :)

  12. I read your lesson on the da words and it was very helpful. Although, could you please clarify dadurch? Specifically with it real ring to modalsätze dadurch…dass and indem, I am confused on the sentence structure of the dadurch dass satz and in which situations one would use dadurch…dass versus indem.

    • I’ll elaborate a bit although you might know most of that anyway :)…. just for completion
      so “dadurch” means “through that” and that can refer to a tunnel but also to the abstract meaning of “durch” which is “by means of”…. it is similar in English I think

      – He achieved through hard work.
      – Er hat das durch harte Arbeit erreicht.

      Now, there isn’t really a dadurch dass Satz… there is a dadurch dass construction. What I mean is that “dadurch” and “dass” are not part of the same clause. The “dass” introduces a minor sentence within the major one and the “dadurch” points to the minor sentence.

      – Dadurch, dass ich gelernt habe, habe ich die Prüfung bestanden.

      I could take this apart and say:

      – Ich habe gelernt. Dadurch habe ich die Prüfung bestanden.

      So the “dadurch” points at the means and those can be in a “dass” Satz or elsewhere.
      “Indem” is different in that regard as it is an intro-word like “dass” too. So “indem” creates a minor sentence that answers to the question “how/by what means”

      – Indem ich gelernt habe, habe ich die Prüfung bestanden.

      So grammatically they are quite different but the meaning is pretty similar.
      I think in many situations you can exchange one for the other and I find it hard to pin point a difference. Maybe the “dadurch” version is has a little more of a “perfective” character… it doesn’t sound as well with ongoing things.

      – Dadurch, dass ich konstant 120 fahre, spare ich viel Benzin.

      – Indem ich konstant 120 fahre,….

      I’d prefer the second version. Maybe “indem” is a little more like “by doing” and “dadurch,dass…” a little more like “through doing” … but that’s just guessing and might be wrong :)
      Hope that helps

  13. *relating to…

  14. Hi Emanuel,
    my name is Vasile and I would like to ask you to explain the diathesis in german. I could find it somewhere else on the internet, but I really like the way you name things so please be so good and shed some light over it. Here I found for the first time that german has multiple diathesis and i didn’t get what the fork the Aktiv, Aktiv refl. Akk., Aktiv refl. Dat., Vorgangspassiv and ZUSTANDSPASSIV means. Save us master!!! :)

    • Ha… I actually have never heard of the word diathesis before :)… my research (Wikipedia) has led me to believe it has something to do with passive voice. It also took me a second to understand the site you linked to but then I got it… it is a really really confusing way to show conjugation actually… I mean… whatever case comes after it and whether or not the verb is used reflexively has NOTHING to do with the form of the verb. So you need precisely one conjugation table… indicative. (past tense and conditional apart). So.. here’s what they mean.. I’ll use a different verb .. one that has ALL the “forms”… “geben”


      – Ich gebe dir (dat) etwas (acc).
      – I give you something.

      Now, I can replace both objects with a self reference… I can be the receiver … that would be what they call “active, reflexive, dative”… so it is self referential and the subject is also the indirect object.

      – Ich gebe mir etwas.
      – I give something to myself.

      Or I can be the thing being given, the direct object… that’s what they call “active, accusative, reflexive”

      – Ich gebe mich meiner Freunding.
      – I give myself to my girlfriend.

      Now, in theory I can also take on both roles… so I can give myself to myself. I don’t know what that means but grammatically it is totally fine. That would be “active, reflexive, dative, accusative” but it is missing there which proves that the distinction they are making is arbitrary.
      Now… I have to speak about passive yet, so I’ll be short but the “Zustandspassive” describes a state, reaches through a passive activity, the “Vorgangspassiv” describes the reaching of that state.

      – Das Bild wird gemalt.
      – The picture is being painted.

      – Das Bild ist gemalt.
      – The picture is painted.

      Those two do overlap in past tense though and there is ongoing debate about whether or not there is a difference (there is but kinda blurry). Now, I can of course also construct a Vorgangspassive with a reflexive

      – Ich wurde von mir angerufen.

      But they don’t list those because… well the list is arbitrary. You need to think of it as separate things… passive vs active, self referential vs non self referential and dative vs. accusative. The are rules for each of these pairs but as you combine them they are just the sum of their parts.
      Hope that makes a little sense… I think you should read my post on “reflexive” as well as the one on “werden”… those will clear up a lot I think:

      Let me know if that helped :)

      • It helped very much, thank you. An interesting thing I found now searching on wikipedia and namely here where is said that you can form the vorgangpassiv with verbs bekommen and even with kriegen. I think though that those are not widely used. Thank you again!

        • Well… about that… based on that logic any verb that makes you the receiver of something is a sort of passive.

          – I get a book.

          I mean, you’re not doing anything here. Same here

          – I get a haircut.

          or here:

          – I got fired.

          And there we are in passive land. This is just as passive as

          – I have been fired.

          You’re basically doing the same as before… you’re receiving, only that now you’re receiving activity which is called passive. They are really really close sometimes though:

          – Ich habe eine Email bekommen. (active)
          – Ich habe eine Email geschickt bekommen. (supposed “Ersatzpassiv”)

          I mean… there is no difference in meaning
          The passive-ness is kind of in these verbs (bekommen, kriegen, get) by default. I don’t know about other languages but in German an English it is very much the same. Only the usage is different. So just because you can use the get-passive in English doesn’t mean that “bekommen” will work in German… probably not actually.

          Now, I think the get-“passive” is way more wide spread than the “bekommen”-passive… me personally I don’t think I use it at all. Kriegen and bekommen have other side uses but I have a WOTD on those coming up so I ain’t gonna say no more :)

  15. I looked around, but I don’t see anything about Konjunktiv II (real/irreal/gegenwar/vergangenheit….blah). Do you have something on that I am missing? If not, it would be awesome if you did. :) You have a great way of explaining things, so maybe you have a trick for remembering it. To me, these sound like the same thing:

    – Ich wäre gern in deises Konzert gegangen, wenn es noch Karten gegeben hätte.

    – Ich würde gern in dieses Konzert gehen, wenn es noch Karten geben würde.

    My German tutor keeps explaining the subtle difference, but it just won’t stick in my brain!

    Thanks for all your helpful German knowledge!

  16. I want to go back to passive land for a second…I was told, and perhaps told incorrectly, that a first-person or second-person pronoun cannot be used in a passive sentence. I mean when someone says ich werde von etwas verbrannt (I’m being burned by something) that cannot be used as a passive but one can say das Haus wird verbrannt (the house is being burned). Só my question is, is it technically passive a pronoun is in the nominative (subject), or does good ol’ regular vorgangspassive only apply to 3. person objects?

    ´Danke im Voraus :)

    • Now that is just nonsense…

      – Ich werde [ bla bla ] angerufen.

      has 2.4 millions hits on Google :). If you can make passive of a verb, you can do it with all persons. Sometimes, the third person might be much more common… like for “verbrennen” or “schreiben”… because we usually do it to stuff but it’s just a matter of context:

      – Ich werde geschrieben.
      – I am being written. (makes no sense)

      – Ich werde mit einem “M” geschrieben.
      – My name is spelled with one “m” (perfect)

      Hope that helps :)

  17. Yup, knew I was right! Thanks for the confirmation!

  18. Just a though: why some of your blog entries that relate to this section (like what the heck are adverbs) are not here?
    Same for the online course; It’s a mistake or you didin’t want to do it at all?

    • Nah… it’s not on purpose… I am just a bit lazy when it comes to updating. The adverb-article is super new, but as for the online-course page I actually thought I had ’em all up there. If one is missing, let me know. That’d be great :)

  19. Is there one for when to use ‘bei’ or ‘in’ or ‘von’ or ‘zu’ or ‘mit’ or ‘fuer’ or………? I’m constantly lost and confused…

  20. Hi there,
    I am learning German in a German college and I really am struggling to get my head around vor zeit eninen eninen ect could you please help

    Best wishes
    Cat x

    • Well, I could try but you’d have to be a little more specific. Also… do you mean “einen”? I first read “Eminem” :D

    • on second thought, there is one advice I can give you right away… don’t worry about that “eine, einen, einem, den, dem , der” stuff too much. You won’t get it right anyway in the beginning so why waste your energy and get frustrated. Just be aware the stuff exists but just go for whatever comes to mind first in the beginning. Focus on using verbs and saying things in past tense. And then vocab. Most textbooks will rub cases in your face very early on but they’re really just fine tuning. Not getting into gear.

  21. I don’t understand how you know which preposition to use and where :/ help please?

    • Phew, that is a very very broad question and the (not very helpful) answer is “It depends”. It would be a small book to discuss everything and often it just is a certain way because it happened to be that, and there’s no logic behind it.

  22. Wow! This site’s really great

  23. I habe einen anderen Vorschlag – “What the heck is a ‘modal verb’?”. Warum gibts verschiedene Modalverben in verschiedenen Sprachen? Woran kommt es drauf?

    • Ja, das ist eine sehr gute Frage. Da habe ich auch schon dran gedacht. Das mache ich auf jeden Fall irgendwann mal :)
      Eine kleine Korrektur:

      – Woran kommt es drauf?

      Hier hast du die Präpositionen verwechselt :D. Der Infinitiv ist

      – ankommen auf etwas

      Du willst nach “etwas” fragen also

      – Auf was …

      oder besser

      – Worauf…

      Dann kommt das Verb dann der ganze Rest und dann die Vorsilbe (Präfix). Also:

      – Worauf kommt es an?

  24. Will you do a blog on explaining Dativ and Akkusativ AFTER a preposition? To round out the cases blog, which has that area left out? B…b…b…bitte?

    • I will but I’m afraid you’ll be fluent by then :). That’s the “talking about place” mini-series and first I have to finish the time mini-series. And I don’t have the energy for that right now because I’m also trying to finally finish my book. Tut mir leid… aber du findest bestimmt was gutes im Netz. Das Thema ist nicht so schwer zu erklären.

  25. Hey, very nice blog you have here. Thank you for your effort. But you could please explain how to use “bei” ? there are a lot of situations when germans use it in very different situations. Much appreaciate!

  26. Thank you very much for this great Blog. I find the way you explain in English the most useful. Your site has helped me quite a lot. I was wondering whether you had a detailed write up on dadurch, in dem and somit also ohne dass and ohne zu. I always struggle to use them in a sentence simply because I don’t know the difference! I would greatly appreciate it if you could post something on this. Vielen Dank im Voraus :)

    • I’ll add the things to the list. With “dadurch” and “indem” it’s mainly the function though. One fills a box the other introduces a sentence. So one (dadurch) works like “because of” and the other one like “because”… on a technical level, I mean… not meaning-wise.
      You cannot exchange them, even though they carry the same idea, just like you cannot use “because of” instead of “because”.
      Hope that helps at least bit!

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