„The dative is the death of the genitive“, the book where Germans make fun of their own language

Is it possible to combine studying and careful attention to the proper use of the language whilst having fun?

But above all: is it possible to do so with the German language, generally considered one of the most difficult to learn due to its lexicon and rigid grammar that recalls the  Latin one? The innovative German grammar booklet „Der Dativ ist dem Genitiv Sein Tod“ (translated „The Dative is the death of the Genitive“), made up of 6 volumes published by Kiepenheuer & Witsch between 2004 to 2014, seems to have been able to do that perfectly, given that for the first time ever a language manual has managed to become an international bestseller with over 3 million copies sold.

Sebastian Sick, The dative is the death of the genitive

The author of this achievement is Bastian Sick, curator of the linguistic column Zwiebelfisch on Spiegel Online: the German term Zwiebelfish indicates those letter of a text that by mistake are reported in a different character compared to the others; Sick chose the term Zwiebelfisch as a title for his column as a metaphor of the German phenomenon of using words and expressions that would formally be incorrect. Journalist, entertainer, but especially a humanist specialized in history and romance philosophy, Sick began his career as a translator and interpreter: his passion for German language and grammar has allowed him to achieve a fine awareness of the language that is hard to find amongst professionals of the academic world and schooling staff. The title of Sick’s work “The dative is the death of the genitive” alludes to the grammatically incorrect replacing of the genitive with the dative in a lot of current German expressions. The same expression “Der Dativ ist dem Genitiv sein Tod” is grammatically incorrect, yet spread widely following the publication of the work. The 6 volume collection is a compilation of the articles published in Sick’s coloumn Zwiebelfisch.


The method

The case studies selected by Sebastian Sick aren’t tailored expressions, literary texts or lists of rules to learn by heart, but sentences that derive directly from conversations amongst native speakers, road signs, advertisements or newspapers. Sick deals with great humor certain grammatical, spelling and pronunciation cases that are common in modern day spoken and written German. Everyday life becomes the occasion through which even those whose first language is German have a chance to reflect and talk about  it with friends and acquaintances without having to resort to dusty toms stored in the library. At the same time Sick’s approach is also good for those who are new to the German language, but wish to know the nuances they often miss during frontal lessons. Sick’s work is one that aims to convey not only the rules for a good use of the language, but also the pragmatic, whose traditional study is often difficult to understand even within an academic environment. At a time where we are all coming to the terms with having the best results in the shortest amount of time, mistakes are demonized to the point of making us forget the universal truth that lies within the saying “one learns through mistakes”. Highlighting mistakes and analyzing them with the right lightness and irony, without falling into strict academic rigorousness, silencing the shame and fear of making another mistake, allowing you to better accommodate the corrections and learn the language effectively.

The opinion of the readers

Precisely due to its innovative features, “Der Dativ ist dem Genitiv sein Tod” hasn’t been welcomed warmly by everyone. Some appreciated Sick’s style and humor to the point of having integrated his manuals within the bibliography to prepare for German exams, others have instead condemned him for his method of analysis. Others have even spoken against it becoming an school text, as deemed not to be fit for students. As for any language manual there will never be a universally positive judgment, however one must recognize certain unique aspects of Sick’s work. In the first place he has a real talent in getting the reader’s attention on the topic, considering that it is not of the most approachable. In the second place is his focus on the modern day use of the language, which is ever more important to foreigners arriving to Germany right now. There will always be the fans of the “purist” language, that spend their time correcting the common use of new grammatically incorrect expressions, however given that every spoken language has a life of its own maybe it is time one accepts Sick’s lightness and irony: debating about mistakes, neologisms, of the most uncommon expressions can contribute in helping speakers to become more aware and conscious of the language’s mobility and variations.

In the meantime, if you wish to test your knowledge of the language, you can try to answer the following quiz available on Sebastian Sick’s private page!

Are you new to the language or have studied a bit of it and wish to perfect it? Take a look at the German courses that Berlino Schule organizes in Berlin!

10 mistakes that even native speakers do in German

German is complicated, this is no secret. The grammatical structure and its rules along with the extensive lexicon variety make it a tough language to fully possess. To the extent that even native speakers at time make some quite evident mistakes.

If it can happen to them is reason for someone trying to learn the language not to feel too discouraged. Allowing to be inhibited from saying something wrong is the best way to make no progress. This is the message of Trixi, Svenja Patricia Quecke, German Youtuber that through her channel DontTrustTheRabbit publishes a series of funny videos explaining the difficulties, secrets and tricks of the German language. In the two videos that we propose, Trixi makes a list of common mistakes that even native speakers do in German. Often they are related to dialect variations which (consciously or unknowingly) have been imported into the Hochdeutsch. In other cases it is due to common expressions that have become official expressions that have been even integrated in the Duden Dictionary (we talked about a few of them here). As follows is a list of the most common / interesting / funny mistakes, which you can also find in the videos.

Das macht Sinn

“This makes sense”. Doesn’t it? It might seem so, but in German the correct way should be Das hatt Sinn or Das ergibt Sinn. In any case, even Duden appears to have come to terms with this version.


German has two different words to say “at least”: zumindest and mindestens. Some love these words so much that they have fused them together in a word that doesn’t even exist: zumindestens.

Ich gehe bei Aldi

The matter of motion towards the place and being in the place is a complicated one in German. There are thousand of nuances and variations which at times not even German get right. Trixi takes the example of supermarkets, such as Aldi or Penny. It is not uncommon to hear a German say: ich gehe bei Aldi or ich gehe nach Aldi. The first form is definitely incorrect, as bei expresses the being in a place. The second one is debatable, as nach is generally used to convey the motion towards a state, city, continent. The correct expression would be: ich gehe zu Aldi.

The subjunctive, a foreigner.

Most Germans don’t consciously use the Konjunktiv II and the Konjunktiv I, used in indirect speeches especially in writing. Building the correct form of the Konjunktiv and above all deciding when to use one or another is a complicated matter. So a lot of people give up the hassle and almost always use the formulation würde + infinite form, even when it shouldn’t be so. Trixi makes an example of the correct form of speaking indirectly Er sagte, er sei ein Goldfisch (he said he was a Goldfish, where “sei” is the third person singular of the Konjunktiv I or sein, the verb to be). Some native speakers don’t bother, and write instead. “Er sagte, er würde and Goldfisch sein, which is two times incorrect. a) Because indirect speech requires Konjunktiv I and not Konjunktiv II. b) Because “sein” (but also “haben” and modal verbs) have their own specific form in the Konjunktiv II and can’t be replaced with a periphery (so at the most we could have accepted wäre, the Konjunktiv II of sein).

Ich bin größer wie du

Some native speakers struggle even with the comparative forms. Often, following a majority comparative they use “wie” (as) as opposed to “als”, the correct form that introduces the second comparative term. “Wie” would be correct after an equal comparative. The sentence reported here is a nosense as literally means “I am taller as you”. The correct version would obviously be ich bin größer als du.

Das Perfekteste

Strictly speaking, you can not make the comparative or superlative of adjectives that already involve the idea of perfection or that are already superlative (you feel more and more often „the closest“ but technically close is already superb). So, say das Perfekteste, „the most perfect thing“ does not make much sense.

Scared of the genitiv?

The genitiv in German is a case that is gradually disappearing, replaced where possible by the dativ. So many, to say “my sister’s dog” would never dare to use the gentiv form, “Der Hund meiner Schwester”. They would find refuge in the expression – correct, but a bit sloppy – von+ dativ: “Der Hund vor meiner Schwester”. Or, according to Trixi (we fortunately still never hear of it), they come up on unlikely hypothesis like “meine Schwester ihr Hund” (??)

Das gleiche/dasselbe

In German, which unlike English when we try to indicate the same form of identity we always use “the same”, there are two adjectives to express the concept of identity. So, to say “wir tragen den gleichen Pullover” would mean we are wearing the same Pullover. But if we wrote “wir tragen denselben Pullover” we would maybe be trying to say that it is really cold and in that moment we are trying to share the same type of Pullover.

Das/dass: ist mir egal?

The neutral determinative article (but also the determinative and relative pronouns) “das” and the declarative conjunction “dass” are written almost identically. But they have very different uses. A fact that, according to Trixi, many native speakers fail to acknowledge and in turn may lead to misunderstandings and frivolous sentences. Perhaps the unlikely mistake taken as an example by the youtuber can help bring some clarity: “ich denke, dass das das Dasseler Museum ist” (I think that this is the Dassler Museum), where the “dass” is clearly the subordinate conjunction. The first “das” is demonstrative, “this”, and the second “das” is the article related to the Museum.

The courtesy form

When they refer to a friend or a member of the family, Germans use “du”. But when they talk to someone they just met they wish to be more formal and use the courtesy form “Sie” (with the capital S). To which always follows the third person plural (and the corresponding possessive adjectives). As follows “kannst du mir helfen” equates to our “can you help me?” whereas “können Sie mir helfen” would be “could you help me?”. However at times Germans exaggerate with the courtesy capitals, using them even when they are out of context. Trixi reports a sentence read on a magazine, “Taylor Swift hat all Ihre Shuhe gespendet” would mean “Taylor Swift donated all her shoes”. But with the possessive article “Ihre” written with the capital distorts the meaning of the sentence, addressing the reader that the american star has donated, without permission, all the shoes of the unfortunate reader.

Cover Photo: © Facebook – DontTrustTheRabbit

Wish to perfect your German or are you just starting to get intrigued by the language? Take a look at the German courses that Berlino Schule organizes in the heart of Berlin.