The genitive case in German is a strange phenomenon these days. It’s currently being wiped out of the language… but in the meantime is still used sometimes.
Its weird, on-its-deathbed status means that the genitive is rarely used in common, everyday German; but it is still hanging on by its fingernails in academia and other formal registers.
Unless you are at a place in your German studies that you can’t think of a blessed other thing to work on other than the genitive case, I would actually recommend continuing to bypass it for now.
Dependent on your studies or line of work, you may never need to actually use the genitive itself (outside of maybe a few, easy-to-memorize phrases).
But if you do choose to learn the genitive case, you’ll probably understand the news, legal documents, and literature a stitch better … and there is something to that!
You’ll learn the following:
The genitive case is the fourth, final, and least used German case. It is almost completely replaced by the dative case in everyday speech & writing.
So, what you need to know is that you really don’t have to learn the genitive case — you can manage everyday situations just fine without it.
However, you’re here. That means you want to learn the genitive case (it does still have some merits!). Which means I will teach you — not only what the genitive case is and how to use it, but when to use it (and when to use a substitute for it).
First, recall that the four cases indicate what role each noun is playing in a given sentence and, therefore, how each noun relates to the other nouns.
Since we’re delving into the genitive case, I’ll give you a more thorough definition of it.
The genitive case in English or in German shows a relationship between two nouns. The noun in the genitive case modifies (tells us something about) the other noun. The first noun is part of, connected to, belongs to, or depends on the noun in the genitive case.
In English, the genitive is frequently also called the possessive case. This is misleading. The genitive case actually has a much wider range of usage (and there are other ways of indicating possession that don’t involve the genitive case).
The genitive case can be used in the following ways:
For our purposes, let’s loosely define the genitive case as indicating possession. (English professors look away!)
For example, ‘children’s songs’ means songs for children. They’re not owned by the children per se, but in a broad sense, yes, those songs belong to the children (not to the adults).
Similarly, ‘Rembrandt’s paintings’ means painting by Rembrandt. He doesn’t possess them (in part because he’s dead), but, as the creator of them, does have (even from the grave!) a certain level of ownership over them.
We have 2 forms of the genitive in English.
In English, it’s common usage to use this form of the genitive for animate objects: the cow’s young calf, her baby’s fuzzy socks, this flower’s petals.
In literature or other more formal registers, we might use an phrase with ‘of’ to connect inanimate nouns to each other: the bells of the tower, the trunk of the car
However, in everyday speech, instead of saying, for example, The bells of the tower need repairing, we’d actually rephrase to The tower bells need repairing (<– no genitive case at all).
Likewise, instead of saying The trunk of the car is full, we can get away without specifying ‘of the car’ and simply say The trunk is full, or even The car trunk is full (if we are specifying car as opposed to the van trunk).
Like the english examples above, German speakers increasingly re-formulate their sentences to avoid using the genitive. Keep reading for more below!
Lastly, there is a third way to indicate one noun’s connection to (or possession of) another noun.
We can use possessive determiners (my, your, his, her, our, etc.) to indicate possession in any of the four cases, not just the genitive. In fact, possessive determiners are often used as a way to avoid expressing possession using the genitive case at all.
For example, take the possessive determiner my. Look at these two sentences:
In both instances we are expressing possession of the white dog with my.
In sentence #1, the noun phrase “my white dog” is in the nominative case. But in sentence #2 (with its elevated, literary formulation we wouldn’t use in everyday language), we insert the genitive of ‘my white dog’ within the nominative ‘the paws’.
So, the point to remember here is that possessive determiners indicate possession in any of the four cases, including (but not limited to) the genitive case.
In fact, in many instances, we can use possessive determiners as one of the ways to bypass the genitive altogether (Read ‘When To Use the Genitive (Or Not!) Section below’).
Loosely defined, German uses the same two ways to formulate the genitive and when to use which one is actually very similar to English, too! Cool!
The two ways to for the genitive in German are:
In German, we can add an ‘s’ (no apostrophe!) to names or family member terms IF listed right in front of the noun they’re modifying: Vaters Computer, Opas Haus.
If a determiner and/or adjective(s) is added, we need to use the #2 setup, which is equivalent to the ‘of’ phrases in English. (This is the ‘classic German genitive’):
Der Computer meines Vaters (My father’s computer, literally ‘the computer of my father’)
Das Haus meines lieben Opas (My dear grandpa’s house, or ‘the house of my dear grandpa’)
We also use this #2 variant of the genitive if we’re relating to nouns that aren’t people (so, this is more limited than the animate vs. inanimate genitive nouns in English):
Das Dach des Zuges (the roof of the train)
Das Kälbchen der alten Kuh (the old cow’s calf, or ‘the calf of the old cow’)
Just as in English, there is a third way to indicate one nouns connection to (or possession of) another noun … but it doesn’t necessarily involve the genitive case.
As mentioned above, we can use possessive determiners (my, your, his, her, our, etc.) to indicate possession in any of the four cases (nominative, accusative, dative, genitive).
These possessive determiners are frequently used as a way to avoid expressing possession using the genitive case at all.
The English example sentences from above function the same when translated into their German equivalents:
(My white dog has dirty paws.)
(My white dog’s paws, ‘the paws of my white dog’, are dirty.)
OK, so by now you hopefully understand why we use the genitive and with which forms. But that still leaves more to the how to use the genitive. Let’s dive in!
Now that you know the structure of the genitive case, you need to learn how to actually properly plug information into the genitive case.
Using the German genitive case by simply tacking an ‘s’ onto a name or family member term (directly in front of the noun being modified) is straightforward:
modifying noun (name or family member term) -s + modified noun
Opas Haus (Grandpa’s house)
What is trickier is using the #2 form with this structure:
modified noun + determiner (and/or +adjectives) + modifying noun
If we plug in our phrase ‘the paws of my white dog’, it looks like this:
Die Pfoten (modified noun) + meines (determiner) + weißen (adjective) + Hundes (modifying noun)
The modified noun is the one being described.
The modifying noun is the one doing the describing.
As in the other German cases (nominative, accusative, dative), the words that come in front of nouns must be ‘flagged’ with slight grammar changes (called declensions) that indicate the gender & case of the noun.
The words in question with our white dog example are, then, meines and weißen. Keep reading!
In the above example, meines and weißen (coming in front of the noun Hundes) were changed from their basic or ‘root’ forms:
That -es and -en are the ‘grammar flags’ (declensions) that properly reflect that Hundes is a masculine noun in the genitive case.
There are two types of words that come in front of nouns: determiners and adjectives.
Determiners are little words (a, the, some, many, all, every, etc.) that tell us how many or which one.
Adjectives are words that describe some feature of the noun (e.g. big, flat, rough, new, green, etc.).
In our example, meines is a determiner and weißen is an adjective. Look at it here again:
Why do meines and weißen have different declensions, though? Why not the same because they’re both coming in front of a noun in the genitive case?
That is an excellent question! I’m glad you asked .
Determiners & adjectives need different declensions because they are different types of words, so we can’t put them into the same category. In fact, declensions in general change based on:
Whoa! That might sound like a lot, but let’s break it down for just the genitive case. It’s really not that bad. You’ll see. 🙂
The two types of declensions that we use for all determiners and adjectives: strong declensions & weak declensions.
Strong declensions better (but not flawlessly) indicate the gender/case of the noun because they are the most varied.
Weak declensions do not indicate the gender/case of the noun because they have almost no variation (there are just two options for any gender/case combo: -e or -n).
Look at this genitive case snippet of my all-in-one declensions chart. Notice the for the strong declensions, the for the weak declensions.
All of these declensions could be listed as –es, -er, or -en. But I leave all the ‘e’s out of the chart in part to make it less visually overwhelming. Just remember to add them in whenever you’re plugging determiners or adjectives into the chart! 🙂
Look at our same example of the white dog’s muddy paws again:
Since Hund is a masculine noun, you can see the strong declension (-es) on the determiner (mein) and the weak declension on the adjective (weiß).
And that leads us straight into the next related point!
There are two rules at play in our declensions chart. From them we derive two basic declension rules and patterns.
Rule 1: The gender/case of the noun must be signaled by a strong declension first [see patterns #1 and #2 below].
Rule 2: IF the gender/case of the noun has been signaled by the determiner, any remaining modifiers (adjectives) are off the hook and take weak declensions [see pattern #1 below].
Patterns #1 and #2 are most standard. Pattern #3 (not explained here) is for a handful of exception instances (that break our above rules ^^) that are not relevant in the genitive case (they are relevant only the nominative & accusative cases).
Can you see how the declensions patterns graphic connects with the declensions chart because of our 2 rules?
By understanding the basic declensions patterns, you always know which declension (strong or weak) to put on your determiner and/or adjective(s).
Do you also understand how these patterns combined with the declensions chart work with our white dog with dirty paws example?
That sentence is an example of pattern #1: the determiner mein has the strong -es declension and the adjective weiß has the weak declension.
One important thing that hasn’t been addressed already (and it’s probably been driving you nuts) is WHY IS THERE AND -ES ON THE END OF HUND!?
Here’s your quick-n-easy answer:
It’s a special quirk of the genitive case that an -(e)s declension will be added onto any nouns that are masculine or neuter.
Why? I haven’t got a clue. I don’t think any Germans who aren’t linguistics professors have a clue either. But that is at least how it works even if we don’t now why.
Tip: note how the -(e)s being added to masculine & neuter genitive nouns is the same as the strong declension in the masculine & neuter genitive!
For details on the nuances of this quirky genitive rule, read more below (jump there now).
Next, let’s apply these declensions patterns AND the declensions chart by looking at a couple new examples.
(My dear grandpa’s house, or ‘the house of my dear grandpa’ is very small.)
Our genitive phrase here is meines lieben Opas (Opa is, of course, a masculine noun — der Opa in the nominative case). It is modifying Das Haus and which is all (das Haus meines lieben Opas) in the nominative case, with the genitive phrase nestled inside.
Then, we have a determiner (meines) and an adjective(lieben).
Do you see the strong declension (-s) on the determiner (‘my’ = meines)? On the declensions chart, the -s is listed under in the masculine category.
We take the basic, ‘root’ form of the possessive determiner mein (my) and plug it into the genitive ‘slot’ in our sentence by adding the -es.
Then, do you see the -n weak declension on lieben? It’s listed under the in the masculine category of the declensions chart.
The ‘root’ form of dear is lieb. So, we take lieb and put the declension onto it — this time the weak declension because the strong declension was already claimed by the determiner (mein).
Can you see with this example how it all fits together? How meines lieben Opas is in the genitive case, taking a strong declension on the determiner and a weak declension on the adjective as dictated by declension pattern #1?
Now let’s look at an example that would work for a feminine or plural noun.
We’ll return to our white dog with dirty paws example, but add more dogs to make it plural.
(‘The paws of white dogs’ are always dirty).
Our genitive phrase here is weißer Hunde and it’s modifying Die Pfoten. All together, Die Pfoten weißer Hunde is the complete subject of this sentence (and that’s why it’s in the nominative case with the genitive phrase tucked inside).
Since this sentence fits in with declension pattern #2, we have no determiner — just the adjective weiß.
Weiß needs to take the strong declensions listed under the plural (which match the feminine, recall!) because there is no determiner to take care of that.
So the adjective has to step up to the plate. That’s why we add -er to our adjectives weiß to make it weißer.
Uffda! Well done! So, now you know what the genitive case is and how to use it.
If you want more information on different applications of the genitive case (including, very importantly, when not to use it), keep reading!
For a quick summary of the most important features of the genitive case, read the Main Takeaways below. I also recommend you check out my Study Tips section!
In this section, you will learn about how the genitive case (and its declensions) is used with …
We’ll also discuss additional info to the topics of our basic declensions patterns (<– there’s a genitive case exception!) and declined masculine & neuter nouns.
Most importantly, we’ll talk about when to use the genitive (or, more likely, when not to). Let’s start there!
Whenever I come across usage of the genitive in German books I’m reading, I always feel so delighted. It’s somehow simultaneously cute & old-fashioned and also sassy badass.
While the genitive is all but dead already in colloquial German, there is something about coming across it in books (or using it your own writing) that just makes you feel so darn smart and plucky.
I’ll repeat that of the long study list for How to Learn German Efficiently & Effectively (<– I should write an article on that, huh?), learning the genitive case rightfully belongs pretty low on the totem pole.
That said, if you’re still reading this, you must have exhausted your other study options. :-p So, we’ll keep going.
The genitive, with its two formulations that you learned above, is on the one hand still very much in use and, on the other, habitually avoided.
The genitive is absolutely still in common use when you can slap an ‘s’ onto a name or family member term that comes immediately in front of whatever noun is ‘owned’ by that person.
Our earlier examples of this were Vaters Computer, Opas Haus, Franks Auto.
This form of the genitive is easy to use, easy to remember. It’s just like English (just without the apostrophe [‘]). Simple!
But, as I mentioned above, German speakers use work-arounds in order to avoid specifically the #2 genitive form — just like we English speakers do!
For example, in literature or other elevated speech/text, we might see sentences such as our declensions patterns examples above:
However, we can take any #2 genitive form and rephrase it so that the genitive is unnecessary.
How do we do that? Simple! Use a dative case formulation instead.
In everyday German, we would use the preposition von (which is a dative preposition, meaning that the noun phrase that follows it must be in the dative case).
Look at this snippet of the dative case declensions so you can understand the changes on the determiners & adjectives here. (And recall that plural nouns — Hunde — in the dative must have an ‘n’ added to them — Hunden).
Of course, we have other ways that we can avoid using the #2 ‘classic genitive’ formulation of
modified noun + determiner (and/or +adjectives) + modifying noun
As discussed earlier, many times just using a possessive determiner (my, your, his, our, etc.) and opting for other cases will do trick.
For example, instead of saying My grandpa’s house is very small (which in English is perfectly fine, but in German is the cumbersome classic genitive we’re trying to avoid: Das Haus meines Opas ist sehr klein), we can rephrase the sentence like this:
(My grandpa has a very small house).
Similarly, we can rephrase:
Die Pfoten weißer Hunde sind immer schmutzig
…to a simpler sentence that also makes use of just the nominative & accusative cases:
(White dogs always have dirty paws).
Just when you thought you were getting off easy, right? Sorry ‘bout that.
Remember this from above?
Well, there’s an exception here we need to talk about.
For some reason (and I don’t know the reason), in the genitive ONLY, if you are formulating a genitive phrase with just adjectives (<– so, declension pattern #2), the adjectives will take weak declensions … but in front of specifically a masculine or neuter noun.
According to our rules, we would expect to put strong declensions on those adjectives, but we don’t — but just in these 2 instances.
We do still follow our rules to a ‘T’ for feminine & plural nouns (so, adjectives as part of basic declension #2 take strong endings, like we’d expect), but, again, masculine & neuter genitive nouns are oddballs.
The list of what you need to know in the genitive is crazy-short.
To come at this come the other angle, I recommend NOT using the genitive in these instances of spoken German (they are still very often appropriate in written German):