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When the Plural is Singular!

Avoiding English-German Noun Confusion

Polizei photo
The Polizei is coming!

Anyone who has experienced the two different flavors of British and American English can better appreciate the difference between the singular and plural of certain nouns in German and English. When referring to a company, the British say that "BMW are considering the purchase of Rover," while Americans would use the singular verb is. The same is true of speaking about a sports team (and "sport" vs. "sports"). It's just one of those elements that keep the two main versions of English unique.

A similar difference in the usage of the plural or singular exists between German and English. In German there are certain nouns that are always plural, while the English equivalent is singular. In fact, for German nouns such as Ferien (vacation) or Leute (people) there is no singular form of the word.

There is also the opposite case, which is even more common: nouns that are singular in German but plural in English. An example is the German word for "weeds." In English you say "the weeds are growing fast" (plural), while in German you would say: "das Unkraut wächst sehr schnell" (singular).

Look at the following comparison of singular and plural use with English and German nouns:

Deutsch English Beispiel / Example
GERMAN Singular - ENGLISH Plural
das Feuerwerk the fireworks Das Feuerwerk war sehr schön.
The fireworks were gorgeous.
die Polizei the police Die Polizei kommt.
The police are coming.
GERMAN Plural - ENGLISH Singular
die Möbel the furniture Die Möbel waren ganz neu.
The furniture was quite new.
die USA the USA Die USA sind ein großes Land.
The USA is a large country.
See many more examples in our Noun Chart of German singular/plural confusion.

The chief danger of such nouns is using the wrong verb form. It just doesn't sound right for an American to say, "The US are growing at a rate of..." — but that is exactly how German makes that statement. In German, the USA are plural, which of course is the truly logical way to express it. After all, the name is "The United States of America" (with an "s"), not "The United State"! (In German the full name of "die USA" is "die Vereinigten Staaten von Amerika" — also plural.)

But, as you can see in the chart above, the reverse of this singular/plural phenomenon also happens with common everyday words such as "the police" or "fireworks." In German the police is coming, and the fireworks is beautiful. The German word is singular, the English is plural.

The trick is to learn these few exceptions and avoid using a singular verb with a plural noun or the other way around. Our Noun Chart: English-German Plural/Singular lists virtually all of the nouns that fall into this special singular/plural category, plus a few other categories. For more on the basics of nouns and gender in German, see Lektion 3 of our online German for Beginners course.

NEXT > Noun Chart | Lesson 3 (Nouns & Gender) | Plural Forms

Related Pages

Noun Chart: English-German Plural/Singular
A table of German nouns that differ from English in their singular or plural use.

Lektion 3
Lesson 3 is an introduction to nouns and gender. Part of our online German for Beginners course.

German Noun Plurals
A guide to the dozen or so ways that German nouns form the plural.

Confusing Words in German
A guide to some areas of confusion in German vocabulary. Part 2 of our falsche Freunde glossary.

False Friends in German
Words that appear to be something they're not. Part One of our annotated German-English falsche Freunde glossary.

German Grammar Guide
All of the articles and references on this site that deal with grammar - by topic.

German Newsletters
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