Learn About German's Genitive (Possessive) Case

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This article examines some of the finer points concerning the use of the Genitive case and assumes you already know the basics. If you do not, you may want to check out "The Four German Noun Cases" article first.

It may offer you some comfort to know that even Germans have problems with the genitive. A common error made by native-speakers of German is to use an apostrophe — English-style — in possessive forms.

For instance, they will often write “Karl’s Buch” instead of the correct form, “Karls Buch.” Some observers claim this is an influence of English, but it is an influence that is often seen on store signs and even on the sides of trucks in Austria and Germany.

For non-Germans, there are other genitive problems of more concern. While it is true that the genitive case is used less in spoken German, and its frequency even in formal, written German has declined over the last few decades, there are still many situations when mastery of the genitive is important.

When you look up a noun in a German dictionary, whether bilingual or German-only, you'll see two endings indicated. The first indicates the genitive ending, the second is the plural ending or form. Here are two examples for the noun Film:

Film, der; -(e)s, -e  /  Film m -(e)s, -e

The first entry is from a paperback all-German dictionary. The second is from a large German-English dictionary.

Both tell you the same thing: The gender of Film is masculine (der), the genitive form is des Filmes or des Films (of the film) and the plural is die Filme (films, movies). Since feminine nouns in German don't have any genitive ending, a dash indicates no ending: Kapelle, die; -, -n.

The genitive form of most neuter and masculine nouns in German is fairly predictable, with an -sor -es ending.

(Almost all nouns ending in sssßschz or tz must end with -es in the genitive.) However, there are some nouns with unusual genitive forms. Most of these irregular forms are masculine nouns with a genitive -n ending, rather than -s or -es. Most (but not all) words in this group are "weak" masculine nouns that take an -n or -en ending in the accusative and dative cases, plus some neuter nouns. Here are a few examples:

  • der Architekt - des Architekten (architect)
  • der Bauer - des Bauern (farmer, peasant)
  • der Friede(n) - des Friedens (peace)
  • der Gedanke - des Gedankens (thought, idea)
  • der Herr - des Herrn (sir, gentleman)
  • das Herz - des Herzens (heart)
  • der Klerus - des Klerus (clergy)
  • der Mensch - des Menschen (person, human)
  • der Nachbar - des Nachbarn (neighbor)
  • der Name - des Namens (name)

See a full list of special masculine nouns that take unusual endings in the genitive and other cases in our German-English Glossary of Special Nouns.

Before we take an even closer look at the genitive case, let's mention one area of the genitive that is mercifully simple: the genitive adjective endings. For once, at least one aspect of German grammar is plain and simple! In genitive phrases, the adjective ending is (almost) always -en, as in des roten Autos (of the red car), meiner teuren Karten (of my expensive tickets) ordieses neuen Theaters (of the new theater).

This adjective-ending rule applies to any gender and the plural in the genitive, with almost any form of the definite or indefinite article, plus dieser-words. The very few exceptions are usually adjectives that are normally not declined at all (some colors, cities): der Frankfurter Börse (of the Frankfurt stock exchange). The genitive -en adjective ending is the same as in the dative case. If you look at our Adjective Dative and Accusative Endings page, the genitive adjective endings are identical to those shown for the dative case. This applies even to genitive phrases without an article: schweren Herzens (with a heavy heart).

Now let's continue with our look at some additional exceptions to the normal genitive endings for some neuter and masculine nouns.

No Genitive Ending

The genitive ending is omitted with:

  • Many foreign words - des Atlas, des Euro (but also des Euros), die Werke des Barock
  • Most foreign geographical names - des High Point, die Berge des Himalaja (or des Himalajas)
  • Days of the week, months - des Montag, des Mai (but also des Maies/Maien), des Januar
  • Names with titles (ending on title only) - des Professors Schmidt, des amerikanischen Architekten Daniel Libeskind, des Herrn Maier
  • But... des Doktor (Dr.) Müller ("Dr." considered part of the name)

Formulaic Genitive Expressions

The genitive is also used in some common idiomatic or formulaic expressions in German (which are not usually translated into English with "of"). Such phrases include:

  • eines Tages - one day, some day
  • eines Nachts - one night (note irreg. genitive form)
  • eines kalten Winters - one cold winter
  • erster Klasse fahren - to travel in first class
  • letzten Endes - when all is said and done
  • meines Wissens - to my knowledge
  • meines Erachtens - in my opinion/view

Using Von Instead of the Genitive Case

In colloquial German, especially in certain dialects, the genitive is usually replaced by a von-phrase or (particulary in Austria and southern Germany) with a possessive pronoun phrase: der/dem Erich sein Haus (Erich's house), die/der Maria ihre Freunde (Maria's friends). In general, the use of the genitive in modern German is viewed as "fancy" language, more often used at a higher, more formal language "register" or style than that used by the average person.

But the genitive is preferred in place of a von-phrase when it may have a dual or ambiguous meaning.

The dative phrase von meinem Vater can mean either "of my father" or "from my father." If the speaker or writer wants to avoid possible confusion in such cases, the use of the genitive des Vaters would be preferable. Below you'll find some guidelines regarding the use of von-phrases as a genitive substitute:

The genitive is often replaced by a von-phrase...

  • to avoid repetition: der Schlüssel von der Tür des Hauses
  • to avoid awkward language situations: das Auto von Fritz (rather than the old-fashioned des Fritzchens or Fritz' Auto)
  • in spoken German: der Bruder von Hans, vom Wagen (if the meaning is clear)

The genitive must be replaced by a von-phrase with...

  • pronouns: jeder von unsein Onkel von ihr
  • a single noun without an article or declined adjective: ein Geruch von Benzindie Mutter von vier Kindern
  • after viel or wenigviel von dem guten Bier

As mentioned in this article about prepositions that take the genitive case, even here the dative seems to be replacing the genitive in everyday German. But the genitive is still a vital part of German grammar--and it delights native speakers when non-native speakers use it correctly.