There are many words in English that even native speakers struggle to use correctly.
Is it "their" or "there"? Is it "than" or "then"? In German, too, some words are so similar that even native speakers struggle to tell them apart and might use them incorrectly. This can make learning these words a bit confusing. Let's take a look at some German words that even native speakers get confused.
Here are a few examples:
1. "seid" or "seit"?
"Seid" is the conjugated form of "to be" for the personal pronoun "ihr" (you guys).
For example "Ihr seid zu spät!" (You guys are too late!). "Seit" on the other hand, is most frequently used as a temporal preposition meaning "since" or "for". For example: "Ich wohne seit 2014 in Berlin." (I live in Berlin since 2014). Or, "Ich arbeite seit drei Jahren mit ihm." (I have been working with him for three years.
A little "donkey bridge", or a little trick to help you remember the difference is: "seit" deals with "Zeit" (time), "seit" and "Zeit" almost sound the same, and are spelled very similarly.
2. "das" or "dass"?
"Das" is the definite article for neutral nouns. Think of it this way: All definite articles (der, die, das) are three letters. If it's "dass" (four letters) it cannot be the definite article.
For example: "Das Haus ist klein." (The house is small). "Dass" on the other hand, is a subordinating conjunction meaning "that". "Weisst du, dass du zu spät bist?" (Do you know that you are too late?" Both "dass" and "that" are four letters. Another thing that might help you figure out the difference is, that "dass" always introduces a subordinate clause, so it will kick the verb to the end of the clause (but not necessarily the whole sentence!).
3. "ist" and "isst"
"ist" is the conjugated form of "to be" for "er / sie / es" (he / she / it). "Er ist ein Fußballspieler." (He is a soccer player.) "Sie ist müde." (She is tired.)
"isst" is the conjugated form of "to eat" for "er / sie / es", as well as for "du" (you).
"Sie isst einen Apfel" (She eats an apple.) "Du isst gerne Kuchen." (You like to eat cake.) One way to think about it is, that "ist" and "is" are both shorter compared to "isst" and "eats", which are both four-letter words. So: if it's short, it's "to be", if it's longer, it's "to eat".
4. "wart" or "ward"?
"wart" is the preterit (simple past) form of "to be" for the personal pronoun "ihr".
"Wart ihr gestern im Kino?" (Were you at the movies yesterday?). Or "Ihr wart zu spat!" (You were too late!). "Ward" on the other hand, is an outdated past tense form of "werden" (to become), but it is no longer used.
5. "sie" or "Sie"?
Part of the confusing part of figuring out the capitalization of "sie" is that if it's at the beginning of a sentence, it will be capitalized no matter what pronoun it actually is (she, they, or formal you). However, "Sie" is always capitalized, no matter where in the sentence, if you are addressing someone formally (plural or singular). Think of it as an extra level of respect to give to a stranger. If it is "she" (sie) or "they" (sie), then you only capitalize it if it is the first word in a sentence. Another trick is to pay attention to the conjugation of the verb. "Sie geht...", for example, can only mean "She goes...", because of the conjugation of "gehen". However, "Sie gehen...", without context, can either mean "They go...", or "You sir(s)/ma'am(s) go...".
6. "tot" or "tod"?
"tot" is the German adjective for "dead". "Er ist tot." (He is dead.). "Tod" on the other hand, is the noun for "death". "Der Tod des Mannes..." (The death of the man...) "Tod" is always capitalized, as it is a noun. A simple trick to differentiate between the two is that "Tod", the English name, is also a noun, and it is spelled like the German noun "Tod". Both would be capitalized. "tot" is not a noun, so it's not spelled the same as the noun, and it is lower-case.
7. "wenn" or "wann"?
Most German natives will have no issue differentiating between "wenn" or "wann", but it is a tricky one to remember for German learners. "Wann" is a question word that can be used for direct questions "Wann gehen wir? (When are we going?), or indirect questions "Kannst du mir sagen, wann... (Can you tell me when...)
"Wenn" on the other hand, is used as a subordinating conjunction that we use for conditional statements, like the English "if". "Sag mir, wenn du kommen willst!" (Tell me, if you want to come." Of you use "wann" in the above example, the meaning changes: "Sag mir, wann du kommen willst." (Tell me when you want to come.)
What makes it a bit more confusing is that "wenn" (if) can also be used for regular occurrences, often in the phrase "Immer wenn" (whenever, always when). "Immer wenn er kommt, streiten wir." (Every time/Whenever he comes, we argue.)
Ready to test yourself?
1. Seit/Seid ihr gestern gut angekommen?
2. Peter isst/ist sein Mittagessen.
3. Seit/Seid wann arbeitest du?
4. Wenn/Wann kommt Julia nach Hause?
5. Entschulding, wissen sie/Sie wie spät es ist/isst?
6. Ich rufe an, wenn/wann ich am Bahnhof bin.
7. Ich weiss, das/dass das/dass Auto teuer ist.
8. Er freut sich auf das/dass Geschenk.
9. Wo wart/ward ihr gestern?
10. Der Tod/Tot meines Haustieres macht mich traurig.
1. Seid, 2. isst, 3. Seit, 4. Wann, 5. Sie ist, 6. wenn, 7. dass das, 8. das, 9. wart, 10. Tod
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