Many German students struggle with the numerous grammar rules that exist, but not all of them are difficult. This is why I wanted to provide a quick overview of three grammatical structures that students commonly have difficulty with. If you can master these, you will be one step closer to speaking German like a native. The underlying rules are not very hard to understand, so you can quickly improve your German just by reading this article.
Once you have finished, you should then concentrate on correctly using these three structures in your lessons, as well as asking your teacher to pay close attention and correct you. With practice, you will learn to automatically use them correctly and you won’t have to think about the rules anymore. Try focusing on improving one at a time so you can make more directed progress. If you try to fix everything all at once, you will not be successful.
Thus, I suggest that you study each one of these grammar points until you understand the main principles, and then do some excercises. These will help you directly build a foundation in your head so that you can use them properly in the future. Afterwards, you will mostly be able to learn just by speaking in German. The more you use these structures correctly, the more likely you will never forget their use, and it will just feel right to say the sentence in the correct manner. So, let’s begin.
Infinitv and zu
The attachment zu is used to provide additional information or to complete the main idea of a sentence. In most cases, the use is similar to English with a few exceptions.
In the case of most verbs, zu is just placed before the infinitive.
Structure: Main sentence (+ object) + zu + infinitive verb
- Ich versuche Deutsch zu sprechen. I am trying to speak German.
- Der Text ist schwer zu lesen. The text is hard to read.
Verbs containing a prefix
If the verb has a prefix, the attachment zu is included between the prefix and the main part of the verb.
Structure: Main sentence (+ object) + prefix-zu-verb
- Ich hatte keine Zeit ihn kennenzulernen. I didn't have time to get to know him.
Often, the (zu + infinitive) structure is introduced using one of these three prepositions:
- um (in order)
- anstatt (instead)
- ohne (without)
Um is used when you want to express the purpose of an action. In English, the word um could be replaced with "in order," although it is not always necessary for the sentence to make sense in English.
- Ich lerne Deutsch, um in Deutschland zu studieren. I am learning German in order to study in Germany.
- Ich höre Musik, um mich zu entspannen. I listen to music in order to relax.
In the case of anstatt and ohne, both require the following construction:
Structure: main sentence + anstatt/ohne (+ object) + zu + infinitive.
- Anstatt: Ich schreibe dir eine SMS, anstatt dich anzurufen. I’ll send you an SMS instead of calling you.
- Ohne: Es ist unmöglich Deutsch zu lernen, ohne zu sprechen. It is impossible to learn German without speaking.
Using "when" in German: Wann, Wenn and Als
Wann is only used for questions and indirect questions, which are actually statements of fact.
Direct question: Wann gehst du in den Park? When are you going to the park?
Indirect question: Er weiß noch nicht, wann er nach Hause kommt. He doesn't know when he will come home yet.
If you are describing something that did not happen in the past or happened several times in the past, then you must use Wenn.
Future: Ich werde Astronaut sein, wenn ich das Studium beende. I will be an Astronaut when I finish my studies.
Present: Wenn ich Deutsch lerne, bin ich sehr glücklich. When I am learning German, I am very happy.
Several times in the past: Wenn wir zur Schule gingen, war ich immer müde. When we went to school, I was always tired.
Als is used for single events in the past or periods that can be described as a single event. If a sentence is not in the past tense, you cannot use als.
Single event: Als sie mich anrief, war ich nicht zuhause. When she called me, I wasn’t home.
Period of time described as an event: Als ich in Deutschland war, habe ich viel gegessen. When I was in Germany, I ate a lot.
You can figure out when to use wenn instead of als in the past by trying to replace it with the word “whenever” in English. If you can, you must use wenn, being that this indicates that several events are being described.
Here is a quick exercise to practice using Als / Wenn / Wann.
Using “if" in German: Wenn and Ob
Wenn can be used in conditional sentences to describe a condition that will cause another event. In English, it can be replaced with "in case."
- Wenn ich das Spiel gewinne, freue ich mich. If I win the game, I’ll be happy.
- Wenn du möchtest, können wir ein Bier trinken. If you want to, we can drink a beer.
Ob is also used in conditional sentences, but in this case the condition does not cause a second event. It is only used for questions and indirect questions. In English, it can be translated as “whether.”
Question: Kannst du mir sagen, ob er Deutsch spricht? Can you tell me if he speaks German?
Indirect question: Ich will wissen, ob er schon angekommen ist. I want to know if he has arrived yet.
You can also answer a question with an indirect question.
- Weißt du, ob mein Bruder da ist?
- Ich weiß nicht, ob dein Bruder da ist.
In regular conversation though, you usually just answer with Ja or Nein, only including the indirect question if you want to make clear which question you are answering.
- Nein. Ich weiß nicht, ob dein Bruder da ist.
Here is another exercise you can try.
German grammar rules don't always have to be very complex; they can be simplified, which can greatly help you understand them as a student. You should always try to simplify the rules. Sometimes you can even leave out some rare cases that are not that common, especially in the beginning. It can be much more useful for you to first understand, learn and apply the basic grammar rules, and then afterwards, concentrate on learning the exceptions. I really hope that this article was helpful for you, and I would really appreciate it if you could comment on and “like” it below.
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