Comparing two aspects of German and English grammar

There are some aspects of English which perfectly reflect the hybrid status of our language. It is not only the vocabulary that derives from both Germanic and Latin sources, but also the grammar system.

Two good examples: making comparisons and showing possession.


I am taller than her. Ich bin grösser als sie.

He is happier now than he was. Er ist glücklicher jetzt als zuvor.

She is more ambitious than me. Sie ist ehrgeiziger als ich.

The rule is simple: if it is a one-syllable word (or a two-syllable word ending in –y) we use the German system of adding –er to the adjective.

If it is a two-or more syllable word, we use the French system: ‘more + adjective + than’.

No one would say ‘Taking the train is relaxinger’, for example, or ‘the Nile is more long than the Amazon’.

So, remember to only use the German system when speaking German: don’t be tempted to translate the French system by saying “mehr + adjective”. You would be understood, but it would almost always be wrong.

An equally important point here is to notice that the pronoun at the end of the phrase remains in the nominative case.

In the first example above, it would be more helpful to think back to the proper English of the 1950s:

I am taller than she.

Hardly anyone would say this now, but the equivalent ‘mistake’ in German would render the sentence ambiguous, incomprehensible.

Possession / the genitive

Another example of hybrid English grammar is how we show possession: by our use of both the apostrophe-s (German-style) and also the ‘of’ method (French)

London’s Theatre-land is in the centre of London.

A native speaker would instinctively choose one over the other, but for a student of English it must be learnt, case by case.

Surely no one would say: The bedroom of my son is very untidy.

But rather: My son’s bedroom is untidy.

Das Schlafzimmer meines Sohnes ist sehr unordentlich.

Similarly: The front of the house is painted white.

…is obviously more natural than: The house’s front is white.

Die Vorderseite des Hauses ist weiß gestrichen.

The apostrophe-s way of doing things is the direct equivalent of the German genitive. The German has lost the apostrophe, or rather the English has gained it, but essentially they work in the same way. The other slight difference is that the word order (or should that be ‘the order of the words’) gets flipped around:

Im Norden Deutschlands

We would translate this naturally as ‘in the north of Germany, but ‘in Germany’s north’ is the more direct translation.

This is a simultaneously good and bad example phrase to choose: bad because it would be much more common to say “in Norddeutschland”, and good because this, in itself, proves another point: that the genitive case is clinging on, but faces an existential threat of extinction!

So, how could the above examples be expressed in German without using the genitive?

Answer: By using von (which always takes the dative case)

Das Schlafzimmer von meinem Sohn ist sehr unordentlich.

Die Vorderseite vom Haus ist weiß gestrichen.

This has long been considered correct in certain German dialects (Swiss German, for example) and is used increasingly among speakers of Hochdeutsch, but purists would frown!

Andrew Wenger teaches German to people who, like you, are interested in the workings of the language, but would prefer to concentrate on practising speaking and gaining fluency than becoming grammar-nerds, like their teacher can be! If you would like to join us for a trial lesson, please make contact here, and see how fun and informal it is to learn this *beautiful* language in a group of like-minded adults.

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