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What are common mistakes that native German speakers make?

I'm wondering this - not everybody is as literate as everybody else and there are some things which are common mistakes for native speakers of a language. English has long been at war over "its" vs. "it's", and indeed there are many people who just cannot figure out how apostrophes work at all. There's also the use of "of" when "have" is meant - i.e. "I could of been with him", "I should of gone to the shops". There's also "you're" and "your", which people often get mixed up (those darned apostrophes again).

And, if you're a regular viewer of Jack Douglas' "Your Grammar Sucks", you'll know that there seems to be a sizeable proportion of people posting on the internet who have no idea that "rapping" and "raping" are two very, very different words.

So that got me thinking - there must be things in German that it's common for native speakers to get wrong, and I wouldn't be at all surprised if they weren't different from the things that non-native speakers speaking German get wrong. Can any native speakers on here enlighten me?

February 4, 2015



German is quite flexible when it is about word order, constructing compounds, or tenses. Want to express every tense just with the Present tense? Sure, why not, no need to use Future or Past tense at all. Plus there is no governing body*, just a description of the currently used language, so once a certain amount of the population uses something, may it be "wrong" or not in the first place, it gets "standard". Honestly, off the shelf I can think of more things that people pretend to be correct where they are factually wrong (e.g. pronouncing -ig as -ik (dialectal) instead of -ich (counter-intuitive, not consistent with other -g endings, but standard; or insisting that -s plurals don't exist in German; or the wrong meaning of -s- at word boundaries within a word) than real mistakes.

  • Well, there is a kind of standard orthography now (since ~1998), for school and official use. But it basically increased the degrees of freedom.

Anyway, let's see:

  • A common one nowadays: Using English grammar where it is not appropriate.
  • .. Using the apostrophe ' for genitive s. It isn't used in German for this purpose, just as a signal that a letter was left out. Which can happen quite often with the genitive, when the word ends on an s sound...
  • .. Using spaces to separate compounds. Which aren't compounds then but should be.
  • .. Phrases like "nicht wirklich" which is a literal translation of "not really".
  • Not using the genitive but dative was a big one for a long time but is standard now (see above).
  • Some seldom used irregular or strong verbs are used wrongly, the participles are formed regularly or weak. In most cases this has become standard... see above.
  • Using seldom used words or acronyms incorrectly. "Vorprogrammieren"? "Programmieren" means "vorgeben", the extra "vor" is superfluous. "LCD-Display"? Well, the "D" has a meaning.
  • Mixing up comparative and equalization. If you equalize things than you use "wie": "Er ist so groß wie sie" - "He is as big as her". If you compare things you use "als": "Er ist größer als sie" - "He is bigger than her". You often hear the form "Er ist größer wie sie". brrr
  • Using the superlative on words where it doesn't make sense. "Er ist der einzigste linkshändige Unterwassermundukulelespieler.". "einzigste" is the superlative of "einzige". But how can you be more unique than unique?
  • Not changing word order with subordinating clauses, e.g. weil.
  • As using tenses is practically not mandatory some trouble arises when they are used, with sometimes grotesque chains of verb forms. "Ich hatte das gehabt haben".
  • Mixing up words with subtle differences, e.g. anscheinend (apparently) and scheinbar (pretended).
  • Mixing up Conjunctive I (indirect speech) and Conjunctive II (conditional aspect. And indirect speech if Conjunctive I looks like indicative. Hooray.)
  • Mixing "das" (as relative pronoun starting a subordinating clause) and "dass" (starting a common subordinate clause)
  • Standart. The word is Standard but it is pronounced with a hard d. A Standarte is a pennant. And Standart is the art of standing. Think Monty Python. But in most contexts people don't talk about that uncommon art form.
  • Certain compound phrases. Some verbs are compounds, others are not. Eislaufen? Eis laufen? Fahrradfahren? Fahrrad fahren? Autofahren? Auto fahren? (It is an exercise to the reader to find the correct use).

I might have been wrong, maybe I can think of more "mistakes" than pretended mistakes...

February 4, 2015


.. Phrases like "nicht wirklich" which is a literal translation of "not really".

why that and not "Sinn machen" vs "Sinn ergeben" ? Besides I have never ever heard that "nicht wirklich" is actually wrong lol


I got carried away a bit. Not everything is wrong.

"Sinn machen" hurts me all the time, good addition. ;-)


I would translate "Standart" to something like "way of standing", not to "art of standing", which seems rather like "Stehkunst" or "Standkunst" to me.

"Vorpogrammieren" is standard, though, and usually not used in the same way as "programmieren" (literal meanings aside).

Another big one is using "wo" in relative clauses (in place or after der / die / das).

It is also easy to mix up things like "zusammenschreiben" vs. "zusammen schreiben" etc.

As a kid I would often forget the "t" in "nicht", because that's how it's pronounced in some regions.


True, "art" in German would be way or mode.


Landsend, as a beginning German student, my eyes got wide with hopeful joy when you said, "why not use present tense for future and past?" and I was hoping that you were not just kidding! IS there seriously a way to use present tense to indicate past? I know that for many languages, I can use the form of "I am going (insert the full verb for "to go, or to sleep, etc) for an easy way to indicate future, but how does one indicate past by using present tense? I would love to know (unless you were just joking.) ;)


Just in case you hadn't noticed, you can use the present in English for both future and past:

"We leave next Tuesday."
"I'm away all next week."
"So last night, I'm just walking down the street, right, and suddenly I realize I can express past actions using the present tense!"

[Edit: just saw that Bvogel mentioned the past already... ah well, I'll leave this here anyway.]


In Yorkshire, we sometimes use the -s ending to express simple past. E.g. 'I goes to t' shops' (I went to the shops).


I've never heard that in Yorkshire.. UK ?


It is possible in colloquial speech, but you need to use certain words to indicate the actual time.

"Gestern gehe ich einkaufen, da fährt mir fast ein Auto über den Fuß."

for example is grammatically a present tense, but tells a story from the past. It only works because you begin the story with "gestern" though. It's used more frequently with future anyway. "Morgen gehe ich einkaufen." sounds much more natural than "morgen werde ich einkaufen gehen." and is more accepted than the past tense example.


Ah, I see! Yes, that makes sense. I can see how it would be a bit less awkward sounding using it for future rather than for past. The first thing I saw in your past example was "Yesterday I go" and it immediately looked funky, so I see your point.

Thank you Sakasiru. :)


That's true, but I think it's nothing new or wrong. In fact it has probably less to do with grammar and more with style. As far as I know using present tense as a stylistic device when recounting stories was already done by the Romans (in Latin) and isn't too uncommen in English either.


Definitely not uncommon in English. It's very casual speech but you often hear people telling about something that happened in the past by saying "so I go answer the door, and there's a man standing there, and I ask him what he wants, and he says he knows me..." etc. All present tense, but all referring to a past event.


Thanks, that's precisely what I was referring to.


Yep, good point Bvogel.


And, funnily enough, it seems that the rule is opposite to German. In German you need to locate it in time (as with the use of "gestern" in the above example. In English, however, that would be wrong.

"I'm walking down the street and this bloke comes up to me" is perfectly fine, but you wouldn't say "yesterday I'm walking down the street" or "I'm walking down the street yesterday". Then it would have to be "yesterday I was walking down the street" or "I was walking down the street yesterday".

Locate it in time in a different sentence, however, and you're golden: "Funny thing happened to me yesterday. I'm walking down the street..." or, as you showed in your example, using "so": "Funny thing happened to me yesterday. So I'm walking down the street...."

And I'd say it's rarer, but present tense can be used for the future, as well. "How am I going to look if he turns up? I'm in there pretending to be Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip walks in? No way I'm doing that".


No, this is not possible. When you say something in the vein of "Gestern gehe ich ... etc" (an acceptable stylistic figure to make speech more lively), then it is still present tense.


Not kidding, but exaggerating, as others have already explained. But with the knowledge of Present and Present Perfect you can express nearly everything. And we don't have this strict usage of tempus and modus in conditional (if) clauses, and not continuous forms. Maaaaybe that was what my motivation behind that part really was. But the question was about typical mistakes by natives and not a comparison to other languages so I left that out.


Ah, okay, I get your point, thanks for that reply! It made sense. :)


These particular ones make me feel better. It's not a mistake, I'm just talking/writing like a native. Or something. :)

**Using spaces to separate compounds. Which aren't compounds then but should be.

**Mixing up comparative and equalization. If you equalize things than you use "wie": "Er ist so groß wie sie" - "He is as big as her". If you compare things you use "als": "Er ist größer als sie" - "He is bigger than her". You often hear the form "Er ist größer wie sie". brrr

**Mixing "das" (as relative pronoun starting a subordinating clause) and "dass" (starting a common subordinate clause)

**Certain compound phrases. Some verbs are compounds, others are not. Eislaufen? Eis laufen? Fahrradfahren? Fahrrad fahren? Autofahren? Auto fahren? (It is an exercise to the reader to find the correct use)

And the winner - making us all "golden" when we repeatedly this up mess :) ...

Not changing word order with subordinating clauses, e.g. weil. *


German is very different from English in regards to spelling. We generally speak what we write; there are few to none silent letters, and letters are mostly pronounced consistently, so there is much less chance to get it completely wrong like in English. Usual mistakes are forgetting the doubling of consonants (or putting a double consonant where none is required, like "Brommbeere" instead of Brombeere") and make a vowel longer than it needs to be ("Maschiene" instead of "Maschine").

I can't agree to your notion that learners make the same mistakes as native speakers. Learners usually learn the spelling of words together with their meaning and sound, so everything is learned as one bundle, while native speakers learn them at different points of their life. I never saw a non-native English speaker confuse their and there for example, that's a typical mistake for a native speaker.


I can't imagine anyone butchering English as much as native English speakers do! We shame ourselves daily with our bad grammar and our punctuation errors! XD


You never saw German advertising then... "body bag" instead of "Rucksack", and my favourite is "Bad Design" ;)


Body bag! Yikes! :D


lol! "Bad Design", it took me awhile to get it.


I can't agree to your notion that learners make the same mistakes as native speakers.

Perhaps that's because I actually said the opposite.


Sorry, got confused by the double negative!


Die Nichtverwendung doppelter Verneinung ist untersagt!


Ernsthaft jetzt; "ich wäre nicht überrascht wenn sie nicht anders wären" bedeutet doch, dass sie nicht überrascht wäre wenn sie gleich wären, oder ist das im Englischen anders?


Ich hätte den Satz auch so verstanden wie Du. Zwar ist doppelte Verneinung oft Verstärkung und nicht Aufhebung, aber nicht in diesem Fall, wo Haupt- und Nebensatz unabhängig voneinander negiert werden.


It is the same in English. However, it's also a common native speaker error to get confused by double negatives in English.


Let me answer the inverse question :) A very frequent and typical spelling error native English speakers (who are learning German) make and that you'll virtually never see in texts by native Germans is to confuse "ie" and "ei", or to forget Umlauts.


The thing is, this is as sakasiru said, something that I find actually fairly easy. Because in German you can just go by how it's pronounced. If it sounds like "i" then it's "ei" and if it sounds like "e" then it's "ie". If it's a hard vowel then it doesn't have umlauts and if it's a soft vowel then it does.

Not that I'm saying that I don't make my fair share of mistakes on these things, but they usually come from trying to write too fast (as, indeed, most of my English mistakes do, too). Because German is very consistent between spelling and pronunciation it's relatively easy to hear a word for the first time and spell it correctly, even if it's not a compound of words that you've encountered previously.


ManofGer, you know, you are right. I have had times on my DuoLingo lesson where I have to type a sentence out that I have just heard in German, and I will write out the sentence correctly, based only on what I am hearing, even when I do not really have a clear understanding of what I just wrote!


Yes, I definitely find German very dictation-friendly also. Handy for some of those long words I really haven't learned well yet!


Yes, agreed, Bvogel! :)


Man, I saw your reply about how you grew up saying "Ich" and yes, there it was again..no way to reply to you on that specific post! Anyway, replying down here. Yes, I can see how it would be pointless for one pronunciation to be considered "wrong" or "right". Just depends on how it is learned based on where you are I guess! Like Bvogel said earlier, about how his Yankee/Maine grandfather pronounces things! :P Sorry Bvogel, I could not reply directly to your comment either for some reason!


There are some. I would say the most common mistake comes from choosing between "dass" and "das" (probably the same like "to" and "too" in English). Like "Ich hörte, dass das Auto Gelb ist". (I heard that the car is yellow). "Ich fülle das Wasserglas, das halb leer ist" (I filled the glass of water, which was half empty). The most popular is "it makes sense" though. It comes probably from the influence of English (makes = macht), but saying "es macht Sinn" is wrong in German (but nearly everybody says it). The right version would be "es ergibt Sinn". Nobody really thought about that one, but there was a book a couple of years ago called "Der Dativ ist dem Genetiv sein Tod", which was really popular. Another typical thing is to increase the meaning of a verb or words who can't be increased. Like "einzige" and "einzigste". Einzig = sole / one and only. There can be only one "one and only". So saying "einzigste" (which is the increment) is wrong. Same goes with "meist gelesene" and "meist geleseneste". The most read book. That's already the top, there can't be a book with more readers.


saying "es macht Sinn" is wrong in German (but nearly everybody says it)

If (almost) everybody is saying it, why would you still consider it as wrong? The Duden currently mentions it as "colloquial", but I wouldn't be surprised if it were to become standard sooner or later.

Ich hörte, dass das Auto Gelb ist

Capitalisation is sometimes messed up by native speakers as well. (sorry)


A very often seen mistake is the confusion of dass and das, like the "their and there" mentioned by sakasiru. In the southern dialects the a of das is longer and the problem less, but for some people the use seems very randomly. There are other regionally widespread mistakes, influenced by the totally different grammar of dialects, like mixing up mir and mich, using no genitive at all and so on.


I only have the feeling, immigrants mix them (mir and mich) up.


"Mir" and "mich" may certainly be easy to mix up for immigrants as well, but it is pretty common in "Ruhrpottdeutsch" (using "mich" instead of "mir", that is). E.g. footballer Lothar Emmerich (born in Dortmund) was famous for saying "Gib mich die Kirsche!" when demanding the ball.

It is also examplified in this joke:

Ein kleines Kind im Ruhrpott sagt zu seiner Mutter: "Mama, Mama, gib mich die Pommes!" Da sagt die Mutter: "Kind, dat heißt nicht 'Gib mich die Pommes'. Dat heißt: 'Gib mich die Pommes, BITTE!'"


You can often hear things like "dem Michael sein Buch" or "Michael sein Buch" instead of the correct "Michaels Buch" (Michael's book).


Related to the use of "of" instead of "have:" I always thought people were just dropping the "h," as in "I could 'ave been with him." What I'm trying to get at is: I think people are butchering the pronunciation of "have" rather than replace it with "of."

I know this isn't related to German, but I had never encountered this before, and I would like to hold on to my belief that people don't actually think the word "of" goes there.

Also, I had never seen "Your Grammar Sucks" before, so thank you for that.


I have actually seen it written as "of" in comments, so yes, this is a thing.


I honestly wish you hadn't corrected me. Now, I'm going to be a little sad about this.


I get pretty disheartened by this too! I feel you probably hit on the reason though - that it started out as a colloquial dropping of the h in speech and that fed into the perception that that was how to write the phrase - because "'ave" sounds like "of".


I think this mistake is more common in Britain for some reason, I see it all the time.


I think people butcher the pronunciation and then when they go to write it down aren't sure what to write and so go for something that approximates what they're saying, even if it doesn't entirely make sense. ;)

I read voraciously as a child and so acquired variant guess pronunciation of some words, (e.g. "chaos") but there were also words and names I heard in speech but never saw written that I wasn't sure how to write down. I think the word that got thrown around by older relatives was supposed to be "ornery" but it sure sounded more like "awnry" and I have no idea how I thought the spoken word "chaos" was supposed to be written.


Isn't language wonderful? Perhaps in fifty years time learned professors will be explaining why it makes sense that the subjunctive is formed in the same way as the genitive.


I think you're right that it's a corruption of what's right (specifically, "could've" and "should've" would be right, although highly informal), but there are definitely people who both say and write "could of".

Still, that's the thing about English, it's a constantly evolving language. What's "wrong" today will be right tomorrow. I'm a staunch defender of the use of the word "literally" to provide emphasis to a figurative statement. I think it makes as much, if not more, sense than "really" or "actually", and they've been perfectly acceptable for centuries.

As for "Your Grammar Sucks", you're welcome.


Wow, people have been using "literally" that way for centuries?


I think ManOfGer was referring to "really" and "actually" in this case, which are also often used as intensifiers. But yes, people have been using "literally" as an intensifier for quite some time. This article claims that many celebrated authors such as Charles Dickens, James Joyce, Louisa May Alcott, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Vladimir Nabokov used it in this way.


You're right that I did mean that "really" and "actually" had been used that way for centuries, but I did also know that "literally" had been for longer than people seem to think. See also "irregardless", which has been in the dictionary for more than a hundred years, despite people seeming to think that it's an internet phenomenon.

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