I have been studying and struggling with German for quite some time now. I am quite frankly amazed of how difficult it is to learn the declinations.

What struck me the other day is that all these different declinations, fall into a very restricted group of suffixes (-e, -er, -em, -en and -es) regardless of one speaking of declining articles, adjectives, personal or possessive pronouns, adjectives as nouns, etc.

How does the average German fare in speaking German, especially when it comes to speaking uncommon words? When speaking unusual words, how confident are they with respect to its gender and follow-up declinations? Does it make them cringe or face-palm when someone uses the wrong declination, or does it result just in confusion. If an average German speaks "fancy" words (those that are not typical of everyday speech), how often comes to their understanding that a specific declination was incorrectly made? Is this part of the normal daily experience of German natives listening to other German natives?

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    As someone who has never actively learnt German, but just sort of picked it up from media, visits to Germany and having to read German texts at uni (and thus almost never knows gender or declension of any word), my experience is that if you, as a foreigner, get these things mixed up and use the wrong ending, Germans in general don’t even bat an eyelid. They may notice, but I can count on one hand the times when it’s actually caused any confusion and required anyone to ask for clarification. So my advice would be to stick at trying to get it right, but don’t stress too much about this. Commented Aug 21, 2023 at 0:52
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    Similar question from 2014 on linguistics.SE: linguistics.stackexchange.com/questions/9752/… Commented Aug 21, 2023 at 9:09
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    Native speakers of a language don't make mistakes with word genders, using the wrong gender for a noun sounds very strange and ''wrong''.
    – Tom
    Commented Aug 21, 2023 at 13:20
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    @Tom: Indeed. Though some dialects may use different genders than the standard. I don't know any examples in German, but I would imagine they exist. Plattdeutsch/Schleswigsch? A non-German example. Commented Aug 22, 2023 at 8:18
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    To give a small anecdote: I had a professor who spoke accent-free german but used a wrong article. I got confused for a second but thought nothing of it. Then he used another wrong article. I became suspicious. And the third time I knew he wasn't German. I just couldn't figure out where he was from, because there was no accent. Turned out his native language was Swedish. However, there is basically never any trouble with using wrong articles and we (Germans) just "fix it in our head". I usually tell foreign friends to not bother with articles too much, unless you really want that 100%. Commented Aug 22, 2023 at 11:12

6 Answers 6


Native speakers usually don't make gender mistakes. Consider less than one of a thousand nouns spoken may be wonky in that regard. And often it's one of disputed gender e.g. die Butter vs der Butter. That can differ by dialect and if you are a speaker of such a dialect, you have to remember the extra exception for writing Standard German.

What helps with that is that most "fancy" German words are actually compounds of everyday words, and you already know the gender of their last component.

I seriously cannot remember the last time when I had to look up a "fancy" word's gender. That must have been years ago. Probably a chemistry term.

My dad had to speak Polish in school and in public in his youth and spoke German only at home. He sometimes has to ask me about the gender of a "fancy" word. But his rate is likely one out of almost a thousand nouns even when I consider that.

Native speakers of other languages, even if they are very proficient, usually reach a gender error rate of not less than one out of a hundred nouns in German. So it really takes a dozen years of daily practice to iron that out.

What happens very often is native speakers confusing when to use dative and when to use genitive. This on the other hand is completely justifyable because many German dialects don't use genitive as often as Standard German mandates it and some don't use it at all.

Less often native speakers confuse when to use dative and when to use accusative, or mix up case endings in complicated noun phrases with multiple different cases. But even then they stick to the correct noun gender.

If someone detects a gender or declination "mistake" they will account it to dialect when spoken. In writing, it's a huge no-no however.

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    Der Dativ ist dem Genitiv sein Tod! Commented Aug 21, 2023 at 6:20
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    Really ubiquitous is the confusion between "das" and "dass". Commented Aug 21, 2023 at 6:43
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    THE most disputed gender by native speakers is Nutella! I've heard a lot of people avoid this by actually saying "Kannst du mir mal derdiedas Nutella geben?".
    – Max
    Commented Aug 21, 2023 at 7:04
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    The gender of Butter is not disputed in my book, at all, ever. Commented Aug 21, 2023 at 8:26
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    @Max - Wait, wouldn't it be "Kannst du mir mal dendiedas Nutella geben?". Fwiw, Wiktionary has a whole list: (en.wiktionary.org/wiki/…).
    – RDBury
    Commented Aug 21, 2023 at 13:45

If I know a word in German, it is very unlikely I do not know its gender too. After all, I would have read or heard the word somewhere before and would have seen what declension was used there. When I know the gender, the rest of the declension is pretty obvious. I am unlikely to make mistakes there.

Like speakers of all languages, German speakers too sometimes misspeak. When we misspeak a common declension or gender, it usually immediately sounds very wrong and it is likely we will immediately correct ourselves. In the first segment of this video, you can watch an example; this news announcer (apparently from the Tagesschau of 1995-04-20) says the following:

In Bonn befasst sich heute der parlamentarische Kontroll... äh, kommission des ... also, die parlamentarische Kontroll ... ich fang den Satz am besten noch mal ganz von vorne an.

The only mistake she'd made was to read "der" instead of "die" (possibly expecting "Ausschuss" instead of "Kommission"?), but that sounded so wrong to herself that she decided to start the sentence all over again.

Where are native speakers most likely to make mistakes? I would say it is these two things:

  • declining weak (n-declension) nouns as if they were strong in the accusative and dative singular, i.e. without endings (which don't add anything useful anyway), for example dem Mensch instead of dem Menschen; the dictionaries say it is dem Gepard, but dem Leoparden, but I do not think many native speakers know that
  • unusual combinations of demonstrative pronouns with adjectives, especially in the relatively rarely used genitive case; is it aller großer Fahrzeuge or aller großen Fahrzeuge, they both don't immediately sound wrong to me and I'm not looking this up
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    What trips many native speakers up are mineral names, which look and feel neuter but are actually all masculine. Some loanwords that are often used without article can be difficult.
    – user6495
    Commented Aug 21, 2023 at 5:10
  • And the trap of Latin neutra ending in -us: Virus, Corpus, ... Commented Aug 21, 2023 at 6:42
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    @phipsgabler I say "das Virus" for biological viruses, "der Virus" for computer viruses.
    – wonderbear
    Commented Aug 21, 2023 at 8:09
  • @phipsgabler for Corpus/Korpus the usual rule of "take the genus of a related German word (here masculine Körper)" also adds to the confusion. Genera are subject to linguistic change over time anyway.
    – Chieron
    Commented Aug 21, 2023 at 11:00
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    "Aber Herr Professor! Es ist doch wegen dem Schild!" - "Wegen des Schildes...!"
    – YetiCGN
    Commented Aug 21, 2023 at 12:19

how does the average German fair in speaking German

You should also be aware that German language has a lot of different dialects:

These dialects do not only have their own pronounciation and words but (sometimes) also a grammar that differs from "official" German. Some nouns have a different gender in some dialects.

I think that most native speakers would nearly never make any grammar mistakes if you assume that the special grammar of their dialect is "correct".

However, when speaking "official" German (or trying to do so), many native speakers only use the "official" German pronounciation, but they still use words that only exist in their dialect and the grammar that would be "correct" in their dialect but not in "official" German.

especially when it comes to speaking uncommon words.

If the declination or conjugation of these words is also uncommon, there is a high probability that a native speaker does not do that correctly:

For many words, there are no rules that can be applied but you simply have to learn the correct conjugation or declination. If you never heared the word before, you have no chance to do it correctly.

Does it make you cringe or face-palm when someone uses the wrong declination ...

In the case of uncommon words that are not used every day: No.

  • Do you have examples for rarely used words, where it is hard for a native speaker, to figure out declination and conjugation? Commented Aug 21, 2023 at 12:32
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    @userunknown I started with a new hobby: Sailing. I doubt that many persons who do not have to do with boats know the gender or the singular of the following words: Fallen (das Fall), Schoten (die Schot), Stage (das Stag), Wanten (der Want), Lieken (das Liek) ... I think that other sports have similar words. Commented Aug 21, 2023 at 13:01

Gender is usually not an issue at all; in fact, most native speakers (those who are not concerned with or interested in language issues) are probably not consciously aware of many intricacies of German declination. For example, based on my own personal experience, I bet you that many native speakers are not consciously aware of the frankly insane and deplorable custom to make the adjective declination depend on the definite-ness of the article , as in ein lauter Knall vs. der laute Knall. Most students of the German language, I'm afraid, have to learn and understand these rules.

This unconscious correct usage, typical for native speakers, is true for many other peculiarities, for example distinguishing between male and female subjects when using the possessive pronoun — ihr Auto vs. sein Auto.

But when things become complicated, that is, with constructs not common in everyday language, native speakers start making mistakes. A common example is mit großem, lauten Knall when it would be in fact correct to say lautem1, since all the parallel adjectives are declinated alike. (I suppose that the speakers, including myself, feel a parallel to the correct declination in mit einem lauten Knall mentioned above; the need for an "m" appears to be fulfilled, so to speak.) With a definite or indefinite article, which would be used in casual speech, the problem would not arise, which is why even a native speaker may be unsure here.

And then there are ways of speaking which are mistakes by the standard grammar rules but wouldn't be considered wrong by the speakers or their peers. Dialects, of course, deviate from the standard language, but many variations below the dialect exist within certain groups of speakers: Peter sein Auto instead of Peters Auto is an example that was not uncommon in the suburb of Hannover where I grew up, even if the speakers didn't speak any "official" dialect.

1 Correct at least according to the Gesellschaft für deutsche Sprache e. V. The Duden apparently is inconsistent here, see the discussion with David Vogt below. Historic and probably contemporary uses are mixed in any case, and David has a point that the line between common "mistakes" and common "usage" is permeable and moving.

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    The ending -n on adjectives following an adjective in -m in the dative singular masculine and neuter is not considered a mistake (Duden grammar, 8th/9th ed. paragraph 1527; 685 in the 10th ed.). And this would in fact be the best answer to OP's question: If native speakers were making mistakes, these would, in time, become the new standard.
    – David Vogt
    Commented Aug 21, 2023 at 10:07
  • @DavidVogt Oh my. Is that a recent change (for me, recent would be in the past 50 years)? Commented Aug 21, 2023 at 10:07
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    @DavidVogt I do not have a printed Duden here. Is there an online Duden article? The Gesellschaft für deutsche Sprache e. V. seems to differ: "Wird ein Komma gesetzt, so ist nur Parallelflexion möglich." Commented Aug 21, 2023 at 10:11
  • @DavidVogt Hm. Good old Sebastian Sick has an essay about the topic from 2015. He says that the weak declination (-n) was originally indicated if the adjective adjacent to the noun constitutes a unit with the noun. He quotes Thomas Mann with eine Flut von weißem elektrischen Licht. According to Sick, the Rechtschreibreform changed this difficult distinction and mandated parallel declination throughout, reflected in Duden's 9th edition. Commented Aug 21, 2023 at 10:30
  • @DavidVogt So, according to Sick the weak declination was the earlier rule which has now been superseded. I assume that the Duden locations you quote acknowledge that deviations from this new rule are common and thus do not constitute "mistakes"? Commented Aug 21, 2023 at 10:35

I'm a native German, and very many rules are in our head so that we "hear" dissonance. In this I agree with my forewriters as long as the words are easy. BUT: Germans are mostly not even aware of stuff like substantivated adjectives (you may recognize via der Beamte vs. ein Beamter). They just have neural networks in their brain suggesting. Coming to lean words or words adopted from other languages it gets interesting: An italian pizza is 'die Pizza'. Plural: if a German says 'die Pizzas', it tells you that s/he is agnostic of italian (le pizze => die Pizzen). Lets take a common rule of thumb: German river names are mostly female (except, Main, Rhein, Inn, Neckar, ..). Internationally they are male, except they end in -a, or -e (see Duden, Grammatik 2009, §246). If Germans don't know, they are sure that the mistake they are saying is correct.

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    Die Mehrzahl "Pizzas" kann auch jmd., der des Italienischen mächtig ist, als dt. Form der Pluralbildung ggü. Pizzen bevorzugen. Der dt. Plural von Computer ist auch Computer und nicht Computers, obwohl sehr viele Deutsche soweit Englisch können. Regeln zur Pluralbildung usw. werden beim Import von Fremdwörtern nicht mitimportiert, so wenig wie das Geschlecht oder die Kleinschreibung am Wortanfang. Commented Aug 21, 2023 at 20:18

How many grammar mistakes people make depends also a lot on their upbringing and level of education. And also on the social circle you belong too.

If you grow up a part of town where mostly well educated people live, you attend kindergarten from early age on, where other pupils are corrected by their parents, you pick up better grammar, clearer pronunciation, and you learn proper Hochdeutsch, and you can choose to use your dialect or choose not to use it.

On the other hand, if you're born into an area where a lot children have migration background, partly have parents that don't speak German at all, you don't attend kindergarten from early on or not at all, in first grade lots of other children lack basic communication skills, you're likely won't have the benefits of the group above.

And even if two siblings upbringing is the same, their communication abilities may differ a lot, depending their personal circumstances: intelligence, effort, social circle.

Social circle is likely the most limiting factor, if your are in a group that pays attention to upper level language usage, you automatically follow their example. If you are in a more left-behind surrounding, your communication skills will decline too.

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