How to Write Vocabulary Lists

Writing down new words sounds like a simple and mundane task, but there is actually more to it than meets the eye. Vocab lists form an integral part of learning any language. Over the years I’ve developed my own system for writing down German words clearly and unambiguously which I believe to be almost perfect.

Writing down vocabulary items incorrectly can be a source of mistakes in your German. Since it can be very difficult to unlearn something once you’ve learnt it incorrectly, it’s very important to nip these in the bud and only commit to memory what you know to be correct.

In this article, we are going to look at a badly written vocab list, discuss the issues with it and write a correct and unambiguous list.

Take a look at this list BADLY WRITTEN LIST for example:

Baum – tree
Verwandte – relative
Essbar – edible
Band – band
Verzichten – to do without
Dinge – thing

Lists like this are fairly typical of new learners. I have even seen lists like this on language courses and in published vocabulary books.

Firstly I should say that all the words are correctly translated. The problem lies in how they are written down. Let’s take a look.

Problems with the List

Baum – tree

Our learner should have written Baum with the gender and plural ending. It’s best to just learn them individually for every noun since you usually cannot know the gender and plural with 100% certainty.

r Baum -¨e – tree

I write them like this because it’s the most efficient way of recording all of the necessary information. Der, die and das become r, e and s, and the plural ending is attached to the end of the word.

If the plural is weird I write it out in full.

r Bau, Bauten (building, structure, construction)
r Atlas, Atlanten (atlas)

Verwandte – relative

While this is correct, a lot of important information is missing.

Verwandte is a noun which refers to a person related to someone else, i.e. a relative (if we just write relative, it could be confused with the English adjective relative). What’s special is that Verwandte is something called an adjectival noun, meaning that it is an adjective used as a noun. These can refer to abstract things, das Coole “the cool thing (about something)”, but usually refer to people, in which case they take masculine, feminine or plural endings.

der Verwandte – the (male) relative
die Verwandte – the (female) relative
die Verwandten – the relatives
der Fremde – a (male) stranger
die Erwachsene – a (female) adult)
Erwachsene – adults
ein witziger Deutscher – a funny German

Achtung! Adjectival nouns change their endings according to case, just like adjectives.

ein Verwandter – a (male) relative
mit einem Verwandten – with a (male) relative
mit einer Verwandten – with a (female) relative
für eine Verwandte – for a (female) relative
das Nervigste an Verwandten – the most annoying thing about relatives

So, taking this information into account, we need to make a note in our list so that we know this is an adjectival noun. I usually write them as follows.

r Verwandte, e Verwandte – relative (related person)

The plural ending is redundant in this case as it’s clear it is an adjectival noun, and so takes normal adjectival plural endings.

Essbar – edible

This one isn’t super bad. Essbar is an adjective, so should be written in lower case. By writing it in upper case, it makes it look like a noun. In this particular case, an Essbar could be a bar where you go to eat (a compound of essen and die Bar).

essbar – edible

Band – band

The problem here lies in the fact that for Band, the gender is very important. Band is one of a handful of words where the meaning changes based on the gender.

der Band, die Bände – volume (part of a larger book)
die Band, die Bands – band (music group)
das Band, die Bänder – ribbon

A similar example is die Bank. Look at the example below:

die Bank -¨e – bench (e.g. in a park)
die Bank -en – bank (where you store money)

In this case the same word refers to two different things, but their plural varies. It’s important to keep things like this in mind if you really care about speaking German correctly. So the correct word in this case, referring to a music band, is:

e Band -s – band (music group)

Verzichten – to do without

This one is very important. As well as the actual meaning of verbs, there is a huge amount of associated information to learn alongside them.

Imagine someone is learning the English verb “to put”. They write down “to put” and then the translation in their native language.

They will know what “to put” means if they encounter it passively, but they won’t know how to use it properly.

Take a look at these sentences:

*I put.
*I put the letter.
I put the letter on the table.

The boy ran.
The boy ran a marathon.
The boy ran through the forest.

The verb “put” requires a direct object and a prepositional phrase, whereas “run” can be used with a subject (intransitively), a direct object (transitively) or with a prepositional phrase.

Returning to our example, the correct way to write verzichten would be like this:

verzichten auf etw. (a) – to do without sth.

Note the lack of capitalisation – only nouns should be capitalised.

Dinge – thing

This one is quite sloppy. Dinge is in the plural but thing is singular. When you encounter a word you don’t know, make sure to check whether it’s singular or plural before writing it down in the singular with the plural ending.

s Ding -e – thing

Corrected List

We now have something that looks like this:

r Baum -¨e – tree
r Verwandte, e Verwandte – relative (related person)
essbar – edible
e Band -s – band (music group)
verzichten auf etw. (a) – to do without sth.
s Ding -e – thing

This is much better! It contains all of the information you need to know.