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Making sense of old handwriting

German Grammar has a variety of idiosyncrasies and differences from English. However, an English speaker that intends to read historical German records may focus on a few concepts that will allow them to understand (with a dictionary) the majority of what they read. Hence, this page selects a few valuable concepts but will not give you a good understanding of current spoken German. For further resources to learn German, see the German Grammar Resources page.

Articles and Gender

In English, we use the definite article 'the' with every noun, regardless of gender or case:

The dog is nice.”

“I see the dog.”

“I gave it to the dog”

“That is the dog’s collar”

das Geld

In German, Nouns have a few more rules related to them. First of all, every noun that you encounter will be capitalized, and every noun has a gender that corresponds to it which impacts which article you use with it. For example, Geld (money) is neuter, and in the nominative case we would attach the definite article das to it: das Geld.

Geld, n.

The there are three different genders: masculine, feminine, and neuter. When you look up a German noun in a dictionary, there will be a lowercase gender indicator next to the word: either m, f, or n. In the example to the right, you see that Geld has 'n.' next to it, indicating that it is neuter. Additionally, a noun used in plural form has its own set of articles, replacing those you would have used for gender.


The word's usage in the text, or its case, indicates which version of the word's gender-specific articles you use.

Consider the word Hund (dog). Its gender is masculine. It is used in the four different cases in the following example sentences (which correspond to the English examples above):

(Nominative) Der Hund ist nett

(Accusative) Ich sehe den Hund

(Dative) Ich gab es dem Hund

(Genitive) Das ist der Kragen des Hundes

There are a variety of rules and exceptions regarding the occurrence of the cases, but in general:

  • Nominative is used when the noun is the subject of the sentence- it often comes first.
  • Accusative is used when the noun is the direct object; i.e. the object that is being interacted with by the subject of the sentence.
  • Dative is used for the indirect object- a noun that is neither the subject nor the direct object but is interacting in some way with them.
  • Genitive is used to show possession, usually of the subject of the sentence.
    Genitive is less used in spoken language, but often used in records.

When you know the case and gender of a noun, you then may refer to this table to find the correct definite article to place with it in the sentence.

Definite Article Declension Table

A closer look at the Genitive Case

Like previously stated, you will see a lot of the genitive form throughout documents, especially as the scribes note the facts surrounding an individual. Take a look at these examples found in the headings of German church records.

Genitive examples table

Der words

The same endings used for the definite articles (the last two letters of each) are also used on "Der words;" words that act as definite articles. They are dies- (this), jen- (that), welch- (which), jed- (every), solch- (such), manch- (many a) and all- (all). See some usage in these examples:

Dieser Hund ist nett (this dog is nice)

Ich sehe jenen Hund (I see that dog)

Ich gab es jedem Hund (I gave it to every dog)

Das ist der Kragen dieses Hundes (That is the collar of this dog)

Der words are uncommon in the German records you will use.

Indefinite articles

Sometimes, instead of the definite article of 'the' one uses an indefinite article like 'that' or 'this'. These in German are ein (a), mein (my), dein (your: singular informal), ihr (your: singular formal), ihr (your: plural formal), euer (your: plural informal) kein (no), sein (his), ihr (her), ihr (their), ihr The different cases also impact suffixes given to these indefinite articles: see the examples using mein as the base indefinite article.

"Meiner Hund ist nett" (my dog is nice)

"Ich sehe deinen Hund" (I see your dog)

"Ich gab es seinem Hund" (I gave it to his dog)

"Das ist der Kragen eines Hundes" (that is the collar of a dog)

Indefinite Article Declension Table


Prepositions in German change the case of the nouns associated with them. The prepositions you will see most are an (on, date) von or aus (from), in (in), mit (with), and um (at [time]). Here are some examples of them in actual records:

Barbara Surbeck geb. Baumann von Oberhallau
Barbara Surbeck geb. Baumann von Oberhallau

Translation: Barbara Surbeck born Baumann from Oberhallau

Katharina gebor: Akker aus Obertdorf
Katharina gebor: Akker aus Obertdorf

Translation: Katharina born Akker from Obertdorf

Michael Fetterer Landwirth in Babstadt
Michael Fetterer Landwirth in Babstadt

Translation: Michael Fetterer farmer in Babstadt

in der Kirche getauft:
in der Kirche getauft: Notice that the article for Kirche is in its dative form: "der"

Literal Translation: in the church baptized:
Alternate Translation: in the church was baptized...

um 6 Uhr
um 6 Uhr

Translation: at 6 o'clock


Similarly to English, German has some common contractions for the common prepositions as listed above.

Im Jahr eintausend acht hundert vier und vierzig
Im Jahr eintausend achthundert vier und vierzig

In may be contracted with the definite article dem to form im, as the preposition in makes the following noun, Jahr (neuter in gender) take its dative definite article (dem).
Literal Translation: In the year one thousand eight hundred four and forty
Alternate Translation: In the year one thousand eight hundred and forty four

am 26t. März 1843
am 26t. März 1843

An may also be contracted with the definite article dem to form am, as the preposition an makes the following term (ordinal numbers are masculine) take its dative definite article (dem).
Translation: on 26th March 1843

Simple Past

The simple past is what we are familiar with in English with 'ed' endings or past tense verbs (with no helper verbs).

"The dog barked"

"The man walked with the dog"

"The dog ate his food"

It a form of past tense that you will encounter often in German records as it is most often associated with narration. Similar to simply adding 'ed' or using the past tense form of a verb in English, in German the verb remains in its usual place (see word order below) typically right after the subject but is changed to its simple past form; regularly adding a 't' before the conjugated ending, such as wandern (to hike) becomes wanderte or spielen (to play) becomes spielte. Irregular verbs typically have a vowel change, such as schlafen (to sleep) becomes schlief and essen (to eat) becomes ass.

Johann Greif wohnte damals und nachher in oder bei Glatt.
Johann Greif wohnte damals und nachher in oder bei Glatt.

The verb wohnen takes the simple past form, conjugated to its third person singular wohnte for this reference to where Johann Greif lived before this entry.
Translation: Johann Greif lived then and afterward at or near Glatt.

Zeugen waren die genannten Pathen : 1.) Alexander Heller 2.) Johannes von Ow. -
Zeugen waren die genannten Pathen : 1.) Alexander Heller 2.) Johannes von Ow. -

The verb sein takes its simple past form of conjugated to plural waren for this situation naming the baptism witnesses.
Translation: Witnesses were the named godparents: 1.) Alexander Heller 2.) Johannes von Ow.-

Simple past example 4
Jestatten den 10 ten Martz Abends halb 9 Uhr 1824 starb M. Anna Derkmeister von Jestatten.

The verb sterben takes the simple past form, conjugated to its third person singular starb in this entry noting the death of M. Anna Derkmeister.
Literal Translation: Instetten the 10th March evening half 9 o'clock 1824. Died M. Anna Derkmeister from Instatten.
Alternate Translation: In Instetten on the evening at 8:30 on the 10th of March, 1824, M. Anna Derkmeister from Instatten died.

Am 19. April 1849 zog die Wittwe Bader mit der ganzen Familie nach Nordamerika.
Am 19. April 1849 zog die Wittwe Bader mit der ganzen Familie nach Nordamerika.

The scribe added a note to this familybook entry to say that the widow took all her children to North America. He used the simple past form of ziehen (to move or to pull): zog.
Literal Translation: On the 19 April 1849 moved the widow Bader with the whole family to North America.
Alternate Translation: On the 19th of April, 1849, the widow Mrs. Bader moved to North America with her family.

Simple Word Order

Generally, German word order is similar to English. It typically is (subject)(verb)(object). One notable rule is that when there are multiple verbs in a clause, all verbs after the first one are 'kicked' to the end of the clause. In practice, word order is much more complicated than that as different forms have different word order. Additionally, the scribes of the records that we use often leave out words or shorten statements, just use clauses or make other changes in their formats.

Passive Voice

Passive voice is when the subject of the sentence is receiving an action.

"The dog was given a bone"

"I was licked by the dog"

"The dog had been sleeping"

"The dog will jump over the fence"

In German, passive voice is constructed with the helping verb
(to become) conjugated according to the subject and the past participle of the action verb.

Past Participles

A past participle is most often used with the present perfect (what you would use in conversation to indicate something that has happened) and the passive and is generally formed by adding the prefix 'ge' to the infinitival stem and adding 't' to the end. Similar to other verb usages irregular past participles are common and must be looked up. They can also be used as adjectives. Past participle forms are often used in German records- the most common of these are given in the below table.

past participle table

Here are some examples of past tense passive voice. Note that the past participles used are the second verb and thus kicked to the end of the clause.

Samuel Schmidt wurde am 23 Aug 1907 in Grass-River Man. Canada geboren
Samuel Schmidt wurde am 23 Aug 1907 in Grass-River Man. Canada geboren

Literal Translation: Samuel Schmidt was on the 23 August 1907 in Grass-River Manitoba Canada born.
Alternate Translation: Samuel Schmidt was born in Grass-River, Manitoba, Canada on the 23rd of August, 1907.

E. C. Renke wurde den 20 Februar begraben.
E. C. Renke wurde den 20 Februar begraben.

Literal Translation: E. C. Renke was the 20 February buried.
Alternate translation: E. C. Renke was buried the 20th of February.

Final Example

Note many of the topics that were covered in this paragraph form marriage record. (interlinear transcription is not original).

grammar paragraph example
Friedrich Branding, from Lohe, Nienburg, Hannover by birth, and widow Margaretha Steinbrink nee Bertels, born in east St. Louis, were married on 6 December 1881. Witnesses were Heinrich Branding, Heinrich Schärmann, Mrs. Mathilde Branding, Mrs. Marie Schärmann.

Literal Translation: Friedrich Branding, by birth out of Lohe, county Nienburg, Kingdom Hanover and widow Margaretha Steinbrink born Bertels, born east St. Louis, were on the 6 December 1881 married.
Witnesses were: Heinrich Branding, Heinrich Schärmann, Frau Mathilde Branding, Frau Maria Schärmann.
Alternate Translation: Friedrich Branding, born in Lohe, Nienburg, Hanover was married to the widowed Margaretha Steinbrink (nee Bertels) who was born in east St. Louis on 6 December 1881.
The witnesses were Heinrich Branding, Heinrch Schärmann, Mathilde Branding and Maria Schärmann.