Verbal Secrets

Shhhhhh. Keep this under your hat. Some German verbs are living a lie, hiding a terrible Geheimnis.

This is a lesson from the VHS. Some verbs objectify a little oddly for our tastes as native English speakers. Saying “*Ich helfe dich” would earn you an urgent stage-whisper from the instructor: “Psscht! Was ist das Geheimnis von helfen?!1

For some of these verbs, you can sort of see a reason for another object in the English translation’s use of a preposition. For others, there is just no discernible reason for these verbs to force their objects into case-drag.2

German English
helfen + Dativ to help
danken + Dativ to thank
entsprechen + Dativ to correspond to
folgen + Dativ to follow
bedürfen + Genitiv to require (have need of)
gedenken + Genitiv to commemorate (someone)

Entsprechen and bedürfen are two that come to mind as somewhat understandable, since they correspond to common English equivalent expressions having need of a preposition to get the meaning across properly.

See what I did there?

You couldn’t, in good conscience, say “*Your software solution corresponds exactly my expectations.” “To correspond” in English requires an extra preposition before its object. That’s your clue that its German equivalent might be one of those Dative-forcing verbs.

Bedürfen is even trickier, because

  1. it’s got a modal verb snuck in there, so you’ve got the atypical conjugation of dürfen to worry about, and
  2. it’s fancy. You probably could just use some form of brauchen, which is gloriously mundane in every possible way, including its treatment of objects, or in some contexts verlangen, which is very nearly equally boring.

When I thank you for having read this far, who is the subject? I am, of course. Who is the object? You are. There are no other parties involved — just you and me.3 What’s the action here? The thanking. The action is acting directly upon…[drumroll please]…you. So why the hell doesn’t “you” behave like a direct object (Accusative) here? That’s the Dativ-Geheimnis of danken. Kannst Du mir folgen?

  1. Oddly, the German subtle attention-getter is not “Pßt!” []
  2. It puts the Genitive on its skin OR ELSE IT GETS die Hose AGAIN. []
  3. Or are we you and I? That’s another post. []


The CH combination gets heavy rotation in German. It might be why German has a reputation among foreign speakers for sounding “harsher” than other languages — though this foreign speaker does not share that impression.

Maybe a closer look will help smooth over the rough edges.

Like ‘k’ as in Cham or Chiemsee

  • Chlor
  • Cholera
  • Cholesterin
  • Chor
  • Christ
  • chronologisch

If you live in the regions near Cham or Chiemsee, you are likely to hear local natives also say Chemie and China (and all the derivations) as if they were spelled with an initial ‘k.’

Like ‘sch’ as in those eingedeutschten French imports

  • Chance
  • Chef

Like ‘tsch’ as in “Cheeceburger”1

Not to be confused with ‘j’ as in ‘Joyce.’ (a boss of mine once thought the word for Wahl was “joice,” which underscored his (and the typical) failure to voice the ‘j’ consonant in English.

All these appear to be import words.

  • Checkliste
  • Chile
  • Chili
  • Chipsatz

Like ‘ch’ as in your old dial-up modem

Does this exist word-initially in German? We don’t think so (prove us wrong in the comments, please!). Yiddish, on the other hand — now that is a language with some chutzpah. Remember that sound2; we’ll sneak it in the backdoor of other syllables.

Like ‘ch’ as in ‘this food is too hot to eat’3

This sound might be the hardest one for non-natives to emulate. We can’t think of a “real” occurrence of this sound in English — can you? But rest assured: you can make this sound. For example, when that pizza comes out of the oven and it smells so wonderful that you pop in a bite in, and burn the hell out of the inside of your mouth. If you don’t have a cool beverage to slow the melting of your hard palate, you suck air in over it. Do that in reverse, and you have mastered this form of the German ‘ch.’

  • Chemie
  • Chile
  • China
  • Chirurg

I’ve never heard a native pronunication of the South American country as anything but “tschi-le,” but claims it’s so.4

What about when not word- or consonant-initial?

  • following ‘softening’ vowels
    • ä: Gespräch, Schwäche, Fläche, mächtig5
    • e: Blech, sechzehn, sechzig6, sprechen, Verbrechen
    • i: Kichererbsen
    • ö: Löcher
    • ü: Bücher, Gerüche
    • y: Psychologie, Strychnin
  • following ‘hardening’ vowels
    • a: ach!, Macht
    • o: Loch
    • u: Buch, Tagesanbruch, Geruch, Bucht
  • as a syllable-separator, the CHS combination is treated like an ‘X’ after both ‘hardening’ and ‘softening’ vowels:
    • die Achse, die Achsel
    • der Ochse
    • das Wachs, das Wachstum
    • wechseln
    • wichsen7

Note how the ‘ch’ pronunciation changes on some nouns along with their vowel shifts from singular to plural!

What CH-permutations stump you in German, and how have you risen to the challenge?

  1. Can you really blame them for being confused about when to vocalize those sibilants? Sure you can. []
  2. or a less moisture-laden version of it []
  3. a.k.a., “pissy kittycat” []
  4. Übrigens: their pronunciation audio quality is the best we’ve heard so far among online multimedia German language sites. Most others make it difficult to distinguish consonants — great job DWDS! []
  5. Ooh, twice in one word, in some pronunciations of -ig anyways. []
  6. Ibid. []
  7. It means ‘to polish.’ Filthy. []

Intransigent Intransitives

Do you feel like a Depp when you get your past tense verbs wrong? If you’re lucky, your colleagues will gently correct you.

ich: “Du hast mich aus den Gedanken *gereißt!”1

sie: (sheepishly, as if it were her fault) “Gerissen.”

I am thankful for those colleagues who have the courage to suggest a correction. I hate needing one, but I hate that less than finding out I needed one, but didn’t get it.

Often you can predict whether a verb is going to respect your linguistic norms and behave like a good little part of speech, or thumb its nose at the establishment and exhibit free-spirited irregularity. It’s the transitive verbs who go along to get along, reliably obeying the rules of weak preterite and past participle patterns. Intransitives are much more likely to form irregular past tense forms.

…was heißt das noch mal?

If the verb takes an object, it’s transitive. If you can formulate a sentence with a subject and a predicate without an object, then that verb is intransitive.2


Transitive Intransitive
Cookies bring joy. Cookies rock!

In English, at least, it can be pretty fast and loose. “Eat” can be both transitive and intransitive, depending on usage.3

Transitive Intransitive
Wanna eat this cookie? Well, I already ate, but…sure.

Schieß los!

Got it? Let’s apply it to German. The good news is that there are pairs of verbs that have related meanings, and similar sounds. If you can spot which one in each pair is transitive or intransitive, you will be able to remember which of them is irregular in the past tense. And maybe even formulate your sentence to use the easier of the two, if you need to.

Transitive Intransitive
senken sinken
Der Kapitän hat das Schiff ins Meer gesenkt.
Der Kapitän senkte das Schiff ins Meer.
Das Schiff ist ins Meer gesunken.
Das Schiff sank ins Meer.
setzen sitzen
Ich habe mich auf die Couch gesetzt.
Ich setzte mich auf die Couch.
Ich bin auf der Couch gesessen.
Ich saß auf der Couch.
hängen hängen
Das Mädchen hat seine Jacke aufgehängt.
Das Mädchen hängte seine Jacke auf.
Das Bild hat an der Wand gehangen.
Das Bild hing an der Wand.

How about super-subversive hängen up there!? One could argue its mild-mannered transitive version has an evil intransitive twin. Picture a goatee on it when you’re using it without an object.

The transitive half of each of these pairs very submissively follows the rules for weak verbs:

Preterite Past Perfect
stem + te haben (prefix) + ge + stem + t
hängte auf
hat gesenkt
habe gesetzt
hat aufgehängt

Super easy, just like you remember from your first semester at the VHS.

But those rabble-rousing intransitives, who think they can do it all on their own without needing to objectify anything to get their point across, are flaunting their irregularities.

Preterite Past Perfect
stem-change + ? (haben|sein) ge + yet-another-stem-change + en
ist gesunken
bin gesessen
hat gehangen

Noch was…

Notice anything else going on here? In two examples above, the auxiliary verb for the intransitive verb in the past perfect tense is sein. Of course, that’s optional or maybe contextual for sitzen. Does the meaning change between “Ich habe auf der Couch gesessen.” and “Ich bin auf der Couch gesessen.”?

Maybe. I get the impression the “haben” version conveys more of the feeling like I’ve been on the couch at some point in the past, and maybe, by doing so, voided die Garantie. However, the sein variant seems to imply more of a duration of the sitting, like “first I got out of bed, then I fixed a bowl of Weetabix, and then I sat on the couch for a while, waiting for the rest of me to wake up.”4 This could be a clue into the mysteries of verbs and their fickle choices of past perfect auxiliaries. But that’s another post.

Don’t assume from these few examples that all intransitive verbs prefer sein, or those preferring sein as their auxiliary must be irregular in the past tense. While true for some, even many, it’s certainly not for all. Consider reisen. It’s an intransitive sein-verb, but it’s perfectly regular in the past tenses: ich reise — ich reiste — ich bin gereist

Nevertheless, all transitive verbs are haben- verbs in the past perfect tense. This seems to hold true even for those intransitive sein verbs you can sort of force to grudgingly accept a direct object and therefore become transitive, like fahren. Ich habe das Auto zur Werkstatt gefahren feels wrong after you spend hours beating fahren and sein into your brain. But it’s like those ultra-fashiony people who can pull off a black turtleneck and brown corduroy pants.5 It’s not wrong if you know what you’re doing.

Some more of those transitive/intransitive pairs:

Transitive Intransitive
Infinitive Preterite Perfect Infinitive Preterite Perfect
stellen stellte gestellt stehen stand gestanden

Stellen6 can mean “to stand,” as in Bitte stellen Sie die Lampe in die Ecke auf. The verb transfers its standing action from the 2nd person to the lamp. Ergo, transitive usage. By contrast, in Wo steht Dein Fahrrad? the bike is keeping all the standing action for itself, and is one of those annoying drastically irregular past-tense stem changers — a vowel change is not enough for this rebel; it even messes with the consonants in the stem.

Transitive Intransitive
Infinitive Preterite Perfect Infinitive Preterite Perfect
erschrecken erschreckte erschreckt erschrecken erschrak erschrocken

Another evil twin type! The transitive version is the complacent regular verb, letting itself be conjugated quietly according to custom. The intransitive one breaks the rules. Extra trickiness here include a present tense stem-changing (but only for the intransitive version!), and that the reflexive pronoun doesn’t serve to make the verb transitive, as in Ich habe mich über die Temperaturen im Winter erschrocken, but Die Temperaturen im Winter haben mich erschreckt.

Think of it perhaps this way: being scared is intransitive — you can do that by yourself — but scaring definitely requires a scarer and a scaree.

Aber wen interessiert’s?

Obviously you care, since you’ve read this far. Only Sacha Baron Cohen tries to sound like BORДT, which is what happens when you use transitive verbs but forget their direct objects. (“Yes, I like.”) Knowing that there are such pairs, and that you can count on the transitive one to follow the rules, might help you sound a little less like a caricature and more like a native.

  1. I got reisen and reißen confused. []
  2. Obviously there are exceptions, especially for poetic license and colloquialisms. It’s just a rule of thumb. []
  3. The big kids on the grammar school playground call such verbs “ambitransitive.“ []
  4. That’s how I roll in the a.m. []
  5. Germans do this effortlessly. []
  6. hinstellen, abstellen, auffstellen, etc. []

E I E I…Oh.

When I started at the local U.S. subsidiary HQ of a big German electronics conglomerate, I was amazed at how many local native English speakers could say the name of our company without flinching (hint: rhymes with “Beemans”), but were always unsure how to pronounce transplanted-from-Germany names if they contained an EI or IE vowel combination.

It’s really not hard in German. But given the

I before E, except under plenty of totally arbitrary circumstances

maxim many of us learned while trying to master the English spelling of achieve and receive and believe and onomatopoeia, perhaps you can’t blame the native anglophones for being a little wackelig about the sounds E and I make when used together in other languages, too.

It breaks down like this: for any EI or IE or AI combination, as in


  • Ei
  • Reis
  • Gleis
  • Preis
  • Maisel’s Weiße

  • Diebstahl
  • Miete
  • Prien am Chiemsee
  • wieder
  • zufrieden

  • Kaiser
  • Main
  • Maisel’s Weiße
  • Waisenkind

All you have to do is say the English name of the second vowel.

Wait… What?

It’s true. For any German word, this rule holds true. All bets are off on imported words, or words like Familie, where the I and the E are forming different syllables.

OK, but what about the Y combinations, smart guy?

Please recall that in many languages (at least two come to mind), a Y is nothing but a Greek I (por ejemplo, “i griega” en el español). So that’s why all the many ways to write the name

  • Maier
  • Mayer
  • Meier
  • Meyer

result in the same pronunciation. Treat those Y’s like I’s, and the rule holds true again — as well as the caveats. Pronounce the AY in Haarspray like the English word spray (but not the Haar, natch!). Oddly enough, we have heard “okay” pronounced in German by Germans in informal situations as “okai” (rhymes with “eye”) when indicating a resolution to an open question or acknowledging that a process has reached its logical conclusion (at least for the present). Not sure what that’s about.

What’s the big deal if you get IE and EI mixed up in practice? Probably nothing. But if you don’t know the difference between Spieß and Speis, schießen und scheißen, then you’ll sound pretty silly. Especially if you goof up scheißen.


The letter ‘z’ seems to freak out native English speaking learners of German. Many develop an impression that it’s different and foreign and hard and therefore give up on it quickly. But mispronunciation of a common consonant is one of those clues a native speaker will pick up on immediately that you perhaps need them to switch to English on your behalf. Even if that’s not true.

Giving up early on the ‘z’ is a shame. The sound itself is one that we native English speakers use frequently — just not word-initially, like it can occur in German.

  • zart
  • Zaun
  • Zeitung
  • Zentrum
  • ziemlich
  • Zigaretten
  • Zopf
  • Zug

Here’s where you use it in English:

  • Betsy
  • CATS
  • Datsun
  • Fujitsu
  • Gatsby
  • Huntsville
  • Massachusetts
  • Pittsburgh
  • Potsdam
  • Scotsmen
  • Trotsky
  • Watson
  • Yeltsin

…just to name a few proper nouns. A few of those seem Russian in origin (Trotsky, Yeltsin) — maybe the acceptable pronunciation of Czar (though we prefer Tsar) has wrought havoc on Americans’ confidence in pronunciation of German word-initial Z sounds.

And, if you’ve ever beatboxed the intro to the very awesome Take The Money and Run by the Steve Miller Band, you’re rocking the German Z as an initial consonant without even thinking about it on those two punctuating cymbal hits (it happens at 3 seconds and 6 seconds in this clip, if GEMA will let you watch it). Bop around the house or on your way to the bus a few days and you’ll be ready to apply that sound to the front of all those German words starting with Z.

By the way, that German Z is sometimes supplanted by a C in old-timey writings: Centrum instead of Zentrumfor the Innenstadt. The sound is the same in those cases, but not in the hundredth part of the Euro currency: that is a Cent, pronounced the same as in English.

Just because it’s alphabetically the last letter doesn’t mean you can slack off on that sound. It’s relegated the ‘y’ on the German keyboard down to Left Pinkyville for good reason. Give it the respect it deserves, and you’ll get more, too.

Neuter is Cuter

German, for whatever weird reason, thinks anything is cuter, nicer, hinreißender if its gender has been removed. (Let’s not get all Freudian about this, okay? Keep in mind that the words have gender, not the objects they represent. 1 Well, sometimes. Argh.)

If you’re going to get cutesy on something in German, you do that by adding a suffix and an umlaut where possible (or not, just to be trotzig, particularly in southern dialects), and, um, neutering it. Exactly which suffix you’ll use might depend on the region.

-lein, -la, -le, -erl
Meh. Aww!
das Paket das Päckchen, Packerl
der Kuchen das Küchlein, Küchle
der Mann das Männchen
das Weib2 das Weibchen
die Frau das Fräulein2
die(?) Mad3 das Mädchen
die Katze, der Kater das Kätzchen
der Kanin das Kaninchen4
das Buch das Büchlein
der Hahn das Hähnchen
der Moment das Momentchen
die Kanne das Kännchen
das Stück das Stückchen, Stückerl

So what about the word for “boy”? One might rightfully expect a diminutive das word for boy, following the same pattern. There is one, but it doesn’t seem contemporary: Bübchen. If there is a more commonly-used neuter, diminutive word for male children, please let us know about it in the comments.

Getting the gender wrong on stuff is frustrating, but it happens, and it’s pretty much never fatal. But on diminutives, you don’t have to. The rule is very reliable: Neuter is cuter.

  1. Thanks, Geekmadel. []
  2. Tread carefully here, gents. It’s perfectly OK to describe a female animal as a Weibchen (or a male one as a Männchen). But don’t use Weib without considering its implications, into which we shall not delve. You pretty much don’t hear Fräulein anymore, either. The only two times I’ve ever heard the natives use it:
    1. My host father used it against his ten-year-old daughter who was having a diabetic freak-out in the early 1990s.
    2. A senior citizen couple used it to attract the attention of the young waitress last year in a Biergarten, and they obviously meant nothing negative by it.

    [] []

  3. Nobody says Mad anymore. It’s archaic. But I have heard a colleague who leans on his Fränkish roots in times of emotion use the word Madele as an epithet against a female colleague who was annoying him. And thus we have arrived at why the German word for “girl” is neuter, and not feminine as you might think. As such, this is perfectly correct: Das Mädchen isst sein Müsli. Sein? Really? Yes, really. The possessive pronoun for any neuter word in German is sein. []
  4. Couple things:
    1. We are not aware of a commonly-used non-diminiutive word for bunny, other than Hase (and that’s arguably not the word for bunny). German Wikipedia reports Kanin as an archaic term still in use among furriers. There are more terms, like Kanickel, Karnickel, Künglein, and Chinigl, but they all appear to have a diminutive tacked onto them and may also be obsolete anyway.
    2. Apart from, say Watership Down, show me any bunny who is not worthy of a cutifier.


False Friends

Ich habe mich blamiert by thinking blamieren meant the same thing as the English verb “to blame.” It looks just like it! Who could blame me? Perhaps no one, except I myself.

German English
Art type, style, method I have to remind German speakers misusing “art” that we’re probably not talking about Kunst.
bekommen to get (as in receive) It does not mean “to become” — that’s werden. However, there is an archaic link. Wann hat sie ihr Baby bekommen? is perfectly standard modern German, which reminds us of those biblical family relationships:
And Adam lived an hundred and thirty years, and begat a son in his own likeness, after his image; and called his name Seth…

“Begat” reminds us of Gattung, which means “genus,” so there’s another link to reproduction.

jmdn. blamieren to embarrass someone You’ll only have yourself to blame if you embarrass yourself by confusing blamieren and “to blame”!
sensibel sensitive It looks like sensible, but it’s totally not. If you mean “sensible,” you probably want vernünftig.
aktuell current, currently Looks a lot like “actual,” but “actual” should be expressed as tatsächlich, meaning “in actual fact.”
Mobbing / mobben Um…harassment? A local native explained to me that mobbing can sehr wohl be perpetrated by just one person. So perhaps Germany has completely cut the word loose from its supposed English origins.
das Handy mobile telephone, cellie Plenty of Germans now realize that this is not an English word and that native English speakers do not use it in that way. Still, in German, speaking with Germans, it is, well, handy.
eventuell maybe, perhaps See Damon’s comment below.

Beat these apparently easy connections between German and English out of your brain. They will entice you with their familiarity and then at best make you feel silly (um…ten years) later when you realize you’ve been doing it wrong, and at worst derail your otherwise confident, fluent conversation with local natives.

What are some false friends you’ve stumbled over?

Genitives and Switch-Hitting Prepositions

These two groups of prepositions might be harder for the native English speaker to learn because there’s pretty much no analog to any structure in English, or there just seems to be no rhyme or reason for when a preposition takes an accusative or dative object, or when it might get funky and place itself behind its object for Schisse und Gekicher, and whether going post-position like that changes the specified case of the object or not!

Wait… what?

The DOGFU and the Datives post mentioned this concept, so let’s not repeat it here. Read up, we’ll wait.

Neither of the lists on this page (or even most on this site) should be considered exhaustive; these are just my favorites.


outside of
along, as in entlang des Weges
correspondingly (but it’s Dative in the post-position form!)
for the sake of
inside of
according to
by the name of
in spite of, despite
for the purpose of

See how many of those are translatable into English with “of”? The Genitive case is to express possession, something we often do in English in one of two ways:

  1. with a possessive “‘s”
  2. using “of” in a prepositional phrase

Check out trotz up there. Two direct translations into English come to mind: in spite “of”, and “despite.” des is the German Genitiv definite article! Coincidence?

* Actually, entlang + Genitive is an adverbial phrase, but let’s not quibble.


These guys are situational. Sometimes you can sort of explain away a tendency to take a dative or an accusative object if there is goal-oriented motion expressed in the clause (that often calls for an accusative object), but other times, it’s apparently just determined by convention. Like when you’re talking about something: über die Grammatik reden. What good reason is there for über to make Grammatik its pseudo-direct object, as opposed to its pseudo-indirect object? Let us know in the comments when you find it, please.

on (date), to (when addressing something to someone), at (a fixed position, like am Hauptbahnhof)
to, onto, on top of
in, into
under, underneath
in front of, before
between, in between

These are tough. You get these right, and no native speaker is likely to pat you on the back and go “oh yeah, man, you’re ROCKIN’ out on those prepositions!”. But they sure will notice if you get them wrong. Sadly, the only rules of thumb I can offer are:

  1. When the prepositional phrase is describing motion and a change of location, go Accusative. When the location of the action in the prepositional phrase is unchanging, go Dative. Beispiele:
    Ich gehe ins Zimmer. I’m walking into the room.
    Ich gehe im Zimmer. I’m walking inside the room.
  2. When in doubt in figurative expressions, like über die Grammatik reden, where there is no motion to speak of, go Accusative.

A native speaker friend-of-a-friend once told me in flawless Standard American English

You know you’re really good at a foreign language when the native speakers stop complimenting you on it.*

This is one of those things that you can’t expect praise for, and instead at best can only hope for no (obvious) screw-ups. Like working in IT.

* And then he remarked on how good my German was. Hmmph.

DOGFU and the Datives

Learn these prepositions, and learn ‘em good. Know that you can count on these two groups of prepositions. They stick to their guns. They are dependable. They won’t let you down. All their objects come out inflected as though they were being used as direct objects (for the DOGFU group) or indirect objects (the datives, further below). What’s all this Dative and Accusative mess? Ah, you have not yet visited the Shrine of the Holy NADGe.

We know what direct and indirect objects are, right? The subject of a sentence acts directly on the direct object via the verb, and indirectly on the indirect object (if there even is one). This happens quite naturally without prepositions getting in the way, as in Ich kaufe dir das Buch.

subject verb indirect object direct object indirect object
Ich kaufe das Buch.
I’m buying the book.
What gets bought? The book.
Ich kaufe dir das Buch.
I’m buying you the book.
I’m buying the book for you.

I am the subject, the book is the direct object (that which is bought), and you are the indirect object (for whom the book is bought). Oh, look at that — in English we also use prepositions to indicate an indirect object: for whom. Never needed to think about it that way before learning German!

But in German, there are at least two circumstances under which the direct/indirect objectiveness is overruled. One of them is via prepositions. When a preposition acts upon a noun in a prepositional phrase, that noun becomes its object. The preposition simulates, for want of a better term, a particular grammatical case for its object. The DOGFU list forces its object into the Accusative case (meaning those objects appear as though they were being used as direct objects even though they’re not — they’re just being used in a prepositional phrase). The list of Dative prepositions does what you suspect it does.



Fortunately, they line up nicely into a goofy mnemonic. Much better than our next group, which doesn’t have a catchy name. I recommend rote memorization here, perhaps in an angry little Teutonic chant. Aus! Außer! Bei-Mit-Nach! Seit-Von-Zu! Or go totally elegant, like an ostrich in a ballerina tutu1 and use the stuttering melody from the Blue Danube as an Eselsbrücke.


out, out of, shut off
excepting, outside
with, by, in case of
with, at (the age of)
from, by (authorship)
to, closed

Try to internalize DOGFU and the Datives™ (that’s my grammatical cover band name). It’s nice to have hard and fast rules in languages (how many can you think of in English?). German, for all its irregularities, has a few areas where you can count on it to come through for you in a pinch. Take advantage of them!

  1. Strauß! Get it!?

    Big thanks to the esteemed members of the English-Speaking Music Ensemble e.V. for teaching us the Blue Dative Danube thingy. []