German/Grammar/Possessives and the genitive case

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Possessives and the genitive case[edit | edit source]

There is one remaining German case to cover, the genitive. Unlike the other cases, which are used to tell you the relationship between a noun and the verb, the genitive is used to tell you the relationship between a noun and another noun. Specifically, it's the same relationship expressed by possessive pronouns and determiners, except there are no special pronouns involved here. Note that possessive pronouns are not examples of the genitive case since they are declined by the case of the thing being "owned". So the genitive in German is usually only applied to nouns and replaces the "'s" suffix in English that shows ownership.

The German genitive case is almost always used when the English possessive is applicable, and it's often used when the preposition "of" is used in English with the alternative being the preposition von. You may want to review the terminology in the section on pronomial possessives to refresh your memory on the distinction between grammatical possession and actual ownership.

It is often said, and there's no point in omitting it here, that the genitive is disappearing from German. Its function can, and often is, replaced by something else, usually the preposition von. While this may be so, the process seems to be taking place very slowly and it seems unlikely that it will be done any time soon. So, while it's not as common as the other cases, it is still used enough to make it necessary to learn the grammar associated with it. We could postpone discussing it because it's not used as frequently, but much further delay will cause problems since we still have a lot to do with declension and it makes sense to do all the cases at once when we cover the rest of it.

Forming the genitive[edit | edit source]

In English, possession is usually shown by adding "'s" to the end of the noun; this is what we're calling the possessive case. In German, most word types have different forms for the genitive, though there is some similarity between the genitive and the dative.

The genitive of a noun phrase modifies a noun. In this way it's similar to an adjective except that it's usually (but not always) placed after the noun it modifies.

The genitive articles[edit | edit source]

In the genitive case, the definite articles are:

  • des – "the" (with masculine nouns)
  • der – "the" (with feminine nouns)
  • des – "the" (with neuter nouns)
  • der - "the" (with plural nouns, of any gender)

and the indefinite articles are:

  • eines – "a(n)" (with masculine nouns)
  • einer – "a(n)" (with feminine nouns)
  • eines – "a(n)" (with neuter nouns)
  • (nothing) - (nothing) (with plural nouns)

Examples:

  • Wir wohnen am Fuß des Berges. – "We live at the foot of the mountain."
    • This could also be translated as "We live at the mountain's foot," but from now on we'll just list the version that seems more idiomatic. Mountains don't actually have feet of course, and if they did you wouldn't say they "owned" them, so this is an example of close connection rather than ownership.
  • Sie bringt Freude ins Leben der Leute. – "She brings joy into people's lives."
  • Ich habe ein Foto eines Hundes. – "I have a photo of a dog."
  • Ich liebe den Geruch einer Blume. – "I love the smell of a flower."
  • Der Dotter eines Eies ist gelb. – "The yolk of an egg is yellow."
  • Das Haus des Bürgermeisters ist groß. – "The mayor's house is large."
  • Die Leute der Stadt sind zufrieden. – "The city's people are contented."
  • Das Spielzeug des Kindes ist bunt. – "The child's toy is colorful."
  • Die Schule der Kinder ist gut. – "The children's school is good."

You may notice that the noun endings are declined here, and we'll talk about this a bit.

The endings of ein words such as possessive determiners are the same as the endings of the indefinite articles here as with the other cases. The genitives of a possessive determiners are useful for a chain of possession where X belongs to Y which in turn belongs to Z:

  • Das Handy meines Sohnes ist kaputt. – "My son's cellphone is broken.

We still need to fill in the plural forms though, and, as usual, we'll use examples:

  • meiner – "my" (with plural nouns)
  • keiner – "no/not any" (with plural nouns)

For example:

  • Die Eltern meiner Frau sind hier. – "My wife's parents are here."
  • Dies ist das Land unserer Väter. – "This is the land of our fathers."
  • Das Haus meiner Eltern ist alt. – "My parent's house is old."

The genitive forms for keiner are rare since a sentence that might use one can almost always be rephrased to avoid it. The genitive form for welcher, the only der word we've done so far, is rare as well, so we'll talk about the genitive case of other der words when they come up.

Genitive nouns[edit | edit source]

Forming the genitive of nouns is, unfortunately, not as straightforward as one might hope. The most common pattern is to add an (e)s ending if the noun is masculine or neuter (even if the noun already ends with -s), and to do nothing if the noun is feminine or plural. You may recall though, that there is a troublesome group of masculine nouns which don't follow the normal pattern in the accusative case. These nouns add an -(e)n ending in the accusative, and since the dative case is the same as the accusative case for nouns, they have the same ending there as well. They add the -(e)n ending in the genitive, but some (not all) add an additional -s on top of that. The result is that there are three classes of masculine nouns:

  1. ) Those that only add an -(e)s ending in the genitive. This includes most masculine nouns.
  2. ) Those that add an -(e)n ending in the accusative, dative and genitive. Included here are Mensch, Junge, Hase, Kollege and Kunde. These are mostly either animals or people.
  3. ) Those that add an -(e)n ending in the accusative, dative, and an -(e)ns in the genitive. Included here are Name, and Buchstabe.

Some grammars gives names to these groups, following a system of "strong", "weak" and "mixed", but this jargon seems to have little value to learners because it doesn't do anything but give names to the patterns. In addition, we've already talked about "strong" and "weak" verbs, which is an unrelated classification, and overloading these words with another set of meanings seems confusing.

Plurals have the same form in the genitive as in the nominative and accusative; only the dative requires a special ending for plurals.

Finally, the neuter noun Herz – "heart" is irregular. The accusative is the same as the nominative. The Dative can be Herz or Herzen, depending in part on the meaning. And the genitive is Herzens. The plural for all cases is Herzen. There are a few other nouns which had irregularities in the past, but you would rarely encounter these irregular forms in normal conversation.

The genitive of a name is usually formed by adding -(e)s. For names already ending in -s, -z or , just add an apostrophe as in English when a name ends in "-s". In this case the genitive comes first. So

  • Naomis Auto – "Naomi's car"
  • Hans' Haus – "Hans' house"


The genitive pronouns[edit | edit source]

Most of the time a possessive determiner would be used in place of a genitive personal pronoun, and the genitive pronouns are rarely used. The inflection table is given here for completeness.

Personal Pronouns (Genitive)
Person Masculine Feminine Neuter Plural
First meiner unser
Second (informal) deiner euer
Second (formal) Ihrer
Third seiner ihrer seiner ihrer

The genitive form of the interrogative pronoun wer is wessen and is more common:

  • Wessen Pullover ist blau? – "Whose sweater is blue?"

Miscellaneous uses of the genitive[edit | edit source]

Occasionally you'll see the genitive case used without an accompanying noun. One example of this is that certain prepositions are often followed by a genitive. and we'll cover these in another section.

Some adjectives can be used with a noun in the genitive; this usually happens when "of" would be called for in English. Most of the time the genitive can be replaced by "von" in such phrases. The trend seems to be toward using "von", but it seems German is in a transitional phase on this issue and there's no telling when or if everyone will be on board with the change. Some examples:

  • Der Mann ist schuldig des Verbrechens. – "The man is guilty of the crime."
  • Ich bin westlich der Stadt. – "I'm west of the city."

Another use is a somewhat idiomatic figure of speech involving a unspecified day or part of one.

  • eines Tages, eines Abends, eines Morgens – "one day", "one evening", "one morning"

These expressions use the genitive. For example:

  • Eines Tages wirst du mich verstehen. – "Someday you will understand me."

Even though Nacht is feminine, and shouldn't have an ending in the genitive, one still says Eines Nachts in this type of phrase.


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