The German Genitive Case Ending Explained Posted by Sten on Apr 8, 2021 in Grammar, Language
For all the German learners out there, I probably don’t need to say this. Grammar in German is a pain. In the jungle of articles, conjugations and cases, it can be daunting to get it all right. We’ve written about the Genitiv (Genitive) jungle before. And today, I want to focus on a small patch in that jungle. It’s an issue even native Germans struggle with: The use of the ending -(e)s. But don’t worry, it’s doable! Let me show you.
What’s the Genitive case again?
The Genitiv (genitive) is the possessive case in German. For example, in the sentence die Tasche der Frau (the bag of the woman), “der Frau” is in the Genitiv case. So instead of using “of” to indicate possession like in English, Germans like to keep it short and just change the article to indicate possession. Old English did this too, but modern English got rid of the Genitiv case completely.1Old English, in fact, had four cases itself! The only remnant that’s left is the ‘s to indicate possession: The woman’s bag. This alternative way of expressing the Genitive does not exist in German.2If you now think: But you can say “die Frauentasche”, you aren’t wrong. But now, you created a new noun that means “a bag for women”, which in English would normally translated as “woman’s bag”
The only other way that you will see quite frequently, actually, is von dem/der (of the), or the contracted version vom:
Die Tasche von der Frau (the bag of the woman)
Die Tasche von dem Mann (the bag of the man).
Die Tasche von dem Kind (the bag of the child).
The preposition von goes with the Dativ case, so that’s why we suddenly see a dem. It can also mean “from”, but that’s another story. In general, if you want to know about prepositions and how to use them, I wrote an All-You-Need-To-Know article about them.
So in that way, German is easier! Nice and short, with either an -s or an -r ending, like so:
Some different stuff happens where you want to add adjectives, but we discussed this elsewhere.
What I want to focus on is the -s that you get at the end of a the Genitiv. Let me show you.
The Ending of the Genitive: -es and -s
The Genitiv does not only change the article and adjectives, it also changes the end of the Genitiv itself. The Genitiv gains an -es or -s at the end.
However, this is the case only for masculine and neuter nouns. So for feminine nouns: it stays with die Tasche der Frau (the bag of the woman), not die Tasche der Fraus. Here’s if that bag suddenly changes possession to a man or child3children are neuter in German. Don’t ask me why.:
Die Tasche des Mannes/Manns (the bag of the man)
Die Tasche des Kindes/Kinds (the bag of the child).
Die Tasche des Kapitäns (the bag of the captain).
These ending letters can be called die Genitivendung (genitive ending).
Whether you use –es or simply -s depends on the ending of the word. If it ends with a vowel, simply add an -s.
If it ends with -en, -em, -el, -er, or it’s a Verkleinerung (diminution), you also simply get an -s.
However, often both -es and -s can be used, too! The easiest way to find out what you can use when you’re in doubt is to say it out loud or to check the Duden website. At the bottom, there is a page with declinations of the word.
The rule is that it is always used. But what about words that end on an s?
German words ending on s
Examples: das Haus (house), der Bus (bus), das Fass (barrel)
In these cases, you have a Zischlaut (sibilant) at the end of the word, so adding an -s wouldn’t change anything. And that’s a problem
So you add -es to make pronunciation possible:
Der Mann des Hauses sitzt auf dem Sitz des Busses mit dem Deckel des Fasses (The man of the house is sitting on the seat of the bus with the lid of the barrel).
Bus is a weird one – but that’s more because the u would become a long u if Busses was written with one s: Buses. Had the word been a proper German word, it should have a double ss or ß ending, like das Fass.
Pretty simple so far.
Examples: der Fokus (focus), der Kapitalismus (capitalism), das Leasing (leasing), der Shitstorm (the “flak”)
Words with Latin endings have the same problem – des Kapitalismusses? des Fokusses? How on earth do you do that right?
Der Kern des Fokus ist das Ziel des Kapitalismus (The core of the focus is the goal of capitalism).
Well, German just decided to keep those words the same! So no matter what, words ending on -us and -mus stay the same.
What about foreign words? Do they get the -s or -es?
Yes and no. If the word is common in German, you simply treat it like a German word, so you add the -s.
Der Effekt des Shitstorms war eine Beschwerde (the effect of the flak was a complaint).
But foreign words that aren’t that common:
Die Funktion des Keyboard ist immer gleich (The function of the keyboard is always the same).
You could write these with the -es/-s ending, too. It’s kind of up to you.
This perfectly leads into Eigennamen (m, proper names). These never get the Genitivendung -s or -es. So:
Das Ziel des Jan ist unklar (The goal of Jan is unclear).
However, in these cases, the preposition von, as explained earlier, makes more sense: Das Ziel von Jan ist unklar.
In the case of Eigennamen, that don’t really work with articles, you can also use the ‘s, like in English:
Jan‘s Ziel ist unklar – Jan’s goal is unclear.
Die Musik des Bach ist bis heute relevant (The music of Bach is relevant to this day).
Again, you can rewrite this as Bach’s Musik or die Musik von Bach, which are both a lot more common these days than des Bach.
What’s the -n/-en?
There are some words that get an -n ending in the Genitiv. This happens when the stress of the word is on the last syllable. So:
Die Kamera des Fotografen war klein. Trotzdem konnte er damit ein gutes Bild des Studenten machen. (The camera of the photographer was small. Yet he could take a good picture of the student with it).
So this rather uncommon ending looks like the ending possessive adjectives get. That makes things a bit easier.
How do you feel about the -s/-es of the German Genitiv? Helpful to understand the case better? Confusing? Annoying? I’d love to know! Please tell me in the comments below.
- 1Old English, in fact, had four cases itself!
- 2If you now think: But you can say “die Frauentasche”, you aren’t wrong. But now, you created a new noun that means “a bag for women”, which in English would normally translated as “woman’s bag”
- 3children are neuter in German. Don’t ask me why.
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