What Are Measurement Phrases?

In this post, we’ll be talking about measurement phrases. With these, it can be hard to keep track of which cases to use, because there are many different kinds of phrases with different rules. Not to worry, though, we'll provide lots of examples and brief explanations to cover everything.

First of all… What do a glass of wine, a handful of cookies and a bucket of ice cream have in common? Yes, they all belong to a cozy evening on the sofa. And, they also include measurement phrases

A measurement phrase is a special kind of noun phrase

that determines the size, quantity or capacity of something. 

There are different ways to use measurement phrases:

  1. by using cases,
  2. by using the preposition “von” + Dative, or
  3. by using appositions.

Let's review these three topics! 

After a long day, a small glass of wine. 

Appositions - A Short Review

An apposition is when we have a noun phrase that is immediately followed by another noun phrase. This second noun phrase defines the first one and is "in apposition". You can see some examples here: 

  • Mein Bruder, der Lehrer (My brother, the teacher)
  • München, die Hauptstadt Bayerns (Munich, the capital of Bavaria)
  • Bello, der Hund meines Nachbarn (Bello, my neighbor’s dog)

Basically, we use appositions when we want to offer more information about the noun

There are some points which are helpful to remember when you use appositions.  

  1.  Appositions always stand right after the noun they refer to.

    Das ist Mini, der Hund meines Nachbarn. (This is Mini, my neighbor's dog.)
    →  Right after "Mini" we get more information through the apposition.

  2. Appositions are always separated by commas.

    Mini, der Hund meines Nachbarn, hat schwarzes Fell. (Mini, my neighbor's dog, has black fur.)
    → If the apposition is in mid-sentence, we need to separate it with commas from the rest of the sentence.
    → If the apposition is at the end of the sentence, there is one comma between noun phrase and apposition.

  3. Appositions usually have the same case as the noun they define. 

    Ich gehe mit meinem Nachbarn, dem Besitzer von Mini, spazieren. (I'm going out for a walk with my neighbor, Mini's owner.)
    → In the given example the noun "Nachbar" (neighbor) is in the Dative case. Therefore, the apposition takes the same case.

  4. You can use more than one apposition in a sentence.

    Mini, der Hund meines Nachbarn, ein kleiner Terrier, ist sehr nett. (Mini, my neighbor's dog, a little terrier, is really nice.)

    → We can add more than one apposition to define a noun. In the given example "Mini" is defined by apposition 1 ("der Hund meines Nachbarn" - my neighbor's dog) and apposition 2 ("ein kleiner Terrier" - a little terrier).
     
    → The sequence of the appositions is not arbitrary: You usually put the more specific idea first, and then move towards more general definitions. Hence the apposition "my neighbor's dog", which is more specific, goes before "a little terrier", which is more general.

There are some sneaky exceptions when you use appositions, but they’re very easy to master. For more details, just have a look at  "How To Use German Appositions". 


The Genitive Case - A Short Review  

Generally, the Genitive case is used in written language but it can also be found in spoken language. Like all cases, the Genitive case has specific functions, such as: 

To express possession

  • Der Hund meines Nachbarn (My neighbor’s dog / The dog of my neighbor)
  • Die Tasche meiner Mutter (My mother’s bag / The bag of my mother)
  • Das Auto meines Bruders (My brother’s car / The car of my brother)

To be used as a partitive

  • Ein Teil meiner Arbeit (A part of my job)
  • Die Hälfte des Kuchens (Half of the cake)


As the subject of a verbal noun 

  • Die Abfahrt des Zuges (The departure of the train)
  • Die Reinigung der Wohnung (The cleaning of the apartment)


In all the given examples, you use the Genitive in both written and spoken German.

gif of someone taking the lion part of a cake, illustrating the use of the German Genitive case ("des Kuchens" - the cake) after "ein Teil" (part of)

Dieser Teil des Kuchens ist für mich.

This part of the cake is for me.


In the video below, Anja explains the most important points about the Genitive case. Enjoy! 


Noun Phrases After A Measurement Noun

When we use a noun of measurement combined with another noun, it’s very common that the noun will have the same case. In fact, we can even say that our noun phrases are in apposition

Let’s look at some examples to clarify: 

  • Lass uns eine Flasche Wein öffnen. (Let's open a bottle of wine.)
  • Sie trinkt einen Becher heißen Kakao. (She drinks a mug of hot cocoa.)

→ Both verbs "öffnen" (to open) and "trinken" (to drink) go with an object in the Accusative case, "eine Flasche" (a bottle) and "einen Becher" (a mug). The appositions "Wein" and "heißen Kakao" are used in the Accusative, too.

  • Sie kommt mit einer Tasse heißem Kaffee ins Büro. (She comes into the office with a cup of hot coffee.)

The preposition "mit" (with) is followed by an object in the Dative case—"einer Tasse" (a cup). That means, the apposition "heißem Kaffee" is used in Dative, too.


Let’s move on to the next section of measurement phrases.

The Genitive Case In German Measurement Phrases

Sometimes, when we use measurement phrases in German, we also use the Genitive case. 

While the masculine and neutral singular is restricted to formal writing, it’s common in normal speech when using the plural. 

The structure of the measurement phrase is like this:
noun phrase of measurement + adjective + noun (in Genitive)


Let’s take a look at some examples:

  • Eine Flasche französischen Weins (a bottle of French wine)
  • Drei Jahre wertvoller Lebenszeit (three years of precious lifetime)
  • Zwei Stunden absoluten Wahnsinns (Two hours of total madness)

→ The given examples all use adjectives + nouns in Singular in the Genitive case. That makes it sound formal. The less formal way would be to express it with "von" + Dative. 

  • Eine Packung leckerer Pralinen (a box of delicious chocolates)
  • Ein Bündel bunter Luftballons (a bunch of colorful balloons)
  • Eine Schachtel lustiger Streichhölzer (a box of funny matches)

→ In Plural, it's quite common to use the Genitive in measurement phrases, both in written formal and spoken German.

gif of person flying off with balloons, illustrating the use  of the German Genitive in measurement phrases "ein Bündel bunter Luftballons" (a bunch of colorful balloons)

Und weg ist er ... mit einem Bündel bunter Luftballons.
And off he goes ... with a bunch of colorful balloons.


German Measurement Words For Vague Quantities

A bunch of, an amount, a range, ... There are some words that only describe vague amounts. Their use also varies depending on whether the noun after the measurement phrase has an adjective or not. The words we’re talking about are, for instance: 

  • die Anzahl (the number/ quantity)
  • das Bündel (the bunch)
  • die Gruppe (the group)
  • der Haufen (the heap/ load)
  • die Reihe (the lot/ series) 
  • die Schar (the family/ flock/ crowd) 
  • die Sorte (the type)


Examples:

  • Eine Anzahl interessanter Diskussionen (A number of interesting discussions)
  • Ein Haufen wertvoller Gegenstände (A load of precious items)
  • Jede Menge schwieriger Hausaufgaben (Difficult homework galore)
  • Eine Schar Blonder (a crowd of blonde people)

→ When the noun after our measurement phrase comes with an adjective or it’s an adjective which is used as a noun (as in "eine Schar Blonder" - a crowd of blondes), then we put it in the Genitive case. This is in regard to the written language, but often it’s used in spoken German, too. However, sometimes we replace the phrase with the preposition “von” + Dative


Let's check out some more examples:

  • Eine Art AusstellungEine Art von Ausstellung (A sort of exhibition) 
  • Eine Sorte Tourist—Eine Sorte von Tourist (A kind of tourist)

→ It’s also possible to use just single nouns without adjectives after the measurement phrases. In these cases, it’s normal to use the preposition “von” + Dative case in the phrase. However, it’s also possible and common to use just a simple apposition in that situation. 


Check out Anja's video here for some useful tips about the Genitive case! 


Measurement Phrases With Numbers

Alrighty, that was a nice little break. Now let’s get back to the exploration. Now, we are going to look at phrases with numbers. When we use them in the plural and without a numeral in front, we can use a phrase with the preposition “von” Dative case.  

Here are some examples:

  • das Dutzend (the dozen) - Dutzende von Fragen (dozens of questions)
  • das Tausend (the thousand) - Tausende von Fans (thousands of fans)
  • die Million (the million) - Millionen von Menschen (millions of people)
  • die Milliarde (the billion)  - Milliarden von Schulden (billions of debts)


And now comes the fun part! When we use these nouns of number and add an adjective afterwards, we are free to decide how we want to use them.

This means we can either continue with...

  1. a phrase with the preposition “von” + Dative,
  2. a phrase adding the Genitive, or
  3. a phrase in apposition—reusing the same case as the noun of number. 


Let’s look at some examples to make it more visual for you.

  • Wir haben Dutzende von interessanten Fragen. (We have dozens of interesting questions.)
  • Das sind Dutzende interessanter Fragen. (These are dozens of interesting questions.)
  • Sie stellten Dutzende interessante Fragen. (They asked dozens of interesting questions.)

→ In the first example, you can see the use of "von" + Dative, which shows in the ending -en of the adjective for the plural noun "Fragen" (questions).

→ In the second example, the same plural noun is used in the Genitive case, which shows in the adjective ending -er.

→ The third example shows the entire measurement phrase in the Accusative case after the verb "stellen" (here: to ask): the noun of number "Dutzende" (dozens) as well as adjective (note the ending -e) and noun in plural are in apposition.

  • Tausende von ungeduldigen Fans warteten auf sie. (Thousands of impatient fans were waiting for her.)
  • Tausende ungeduldiger Fans standen am Eingang. (Thousands of impatient fans stood at the entrance.)
  • Tausende ungeduldige Fans lesen seine Nachrichten auf Instagram. (Thousands of impatient fans read his news on Instagram.)

→ The first two examples folliow the same rules as above. The third one shows a measurement phrase as a noun of number and apposition in the Nominative case, since they are used as the subject.

  • Millionen von glücklichen Menschen feiern das neue Jahr. (Millions of happy people are celebrating the new year.)
  • Millionen glücklicher Menschen feiern das neue Jahr. 
  • Millionen glückliche Menschen feiern das neue Jahr. 

  • Der Golfspieler hat angeblich Milliarden von angehäuften Schulden. (The golf player supposedly has billions of accumulated debts.)
  • Der Golfspieler hat angeblich Milliarden angehäufter Schulden.
  • Der Golfspieler hat angeblich Milliarden angehäufte Schulden.

Thousands of impatient fans

You're almost done. It's time to test yourselves on all the useful measurement phrases of our post.

Short Quiz: German Measurement Phrases

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