What is the deal with German adjective endings?!
Why do we have to put -m, -n, -r, -s, -e onto the ends of adjectives? And how do we know which one to use when?!
Learning German adjective endings is crucial to speaking German well … but it can feel so random, nonsensical, and overwhelming.
I have good news … you’re likely doing it all wrong!
Would you like to learn German adjective endings smarter, not harder?
Well, you’ve come to the right place.
You’ll learn the following:
- why adjective endings are important
- the rhyme & reason behind them (<– there is one, promise)
- how adjectives work in English vs. German
- a smarter, not harder way to work with declensions (<– this is gonna be awesome)
- how to put the correct endings (declensions) on adjectives every.single.time.
Section 1: The Basics
What you need to know to start getting the hang of German Adjective Endings
Why do German adjectives need endings?
To an English speaker, all of the fiddly grammar details of German can seem so unnecessary.
Take adjective endings, for example. Does it really matter if we say, e.g. der kleine Mann vs. den kleinen Mann vs. dem kleinen Mann?!
Well, yes. Yes, it does.
How it works in English
No such thing as adjective endings (<– better word: declensions) exists in English. But in German, those little endings we put on the tailends of adjectives tell us absolutely crucial information.
German declensions or ‘endings’ on adjectives (and other words) tell us who is who in a sentence. They tell us, for example, who is the subject doing something to/for someone else.
Check out these scrambled English sentences:
The kind man gives the sad dog a big bone.
The sad dog gives the kind man a big bone.
A big bone gives the kind man the sad dog.
Only the first sentence truly makes sense, right? That’s because, in English, we know who is who in a sentence because of rigid word order. Change the order like I did in those examples and the meaning of the sentence changes, too.
How it works in German
In German, however, because of declensions, we can say all three of those sentences:
Der nette Mann gibt dem traurigen Hund einen großen Knochen.
Dem traurigen Hund gibt der nette Mann einen großen Knochen.
Den großen Knochen gibt der nette Mann dem traurigen Hund.
Those ^^ are exact translations of the English example sentences, but all these work in German! They make sense! And they share the same meaning, too: ‘the kind man gives the sad dog a big bone.’
This German grammar fancy footwork that allows for such flexibility in sentence structure is all about noun case, a.k.a. the roles nouns play in a sentence.
What is German noun case and why does it matter?
It’s the noun’s case that tells us what role the noun is playing in the sentence.
If it weren’t for what’s called the German case system, we couldn’t know who or what is the subject doing something, or who/what is being acted upon, etc. (so, sentences wouldn’t make sense).
In English, it’s the position of each noun (relative to the others) that tells us who is who. But in German — as you’ve seen — the nouns can be all shuffled around without it changing the sentence’s meaning. And that’s because of the noun’s case.
There are 4 German cases for the different roles a noun might have:
Cases are ‘slots’ for nouns
These cases are like ‘slots’ in a sentence that get filled in with nouns. But German can juggle the slots around — they can trade places without changing the basic meaning of the sentence.
Look at our same German sentences about the kind man giving the sad dog a big bone:
Does this concept of cases = ‘slots’ make more sense now, I hope?
‘Sure. That’s nice’, you say … ‘but I thought we were talking about adjectives?’
How noun case and adjective endings intersect
Here’s the thing: we have to know which case a noun is in, right? Otherwise sentences don’t have any meaning (or wouldn’t have clear, unambiguous meaning, anyway).
BUT it’s not the noun itself that tells us which case it’s in … it’s the words coming in front of the noun that tell us the noun’s case!
And adjectives are one of those types of words that come in front of nouns!
That’s how this all ties together. It’s those adjective endings (declensions) that signal the case of the following noun. And we’ve gotta know that!
Adjectives & other words that need declensions
The words that come in front of nouns need declensions. And there are TWO types:
Adjectives: describe some feature of the noun (e.g. big, small, round, flat, blue).
Determiners: a, the, some, few, this, etc. that tell us how many of the noun or which one.
Both adjectives and determiners take declensions / endings that reflect the case of the following noun. That’s a big deal – it’s how we know who is who in a sentence.
In short: you can’t make sense of German or make sense speaking/writing German yourself if you don’t use the case system.
Using the case system is all about putting those endings on adjectives (and determiners) so we know which noun is doing what.
How to pick the right adjective endings
The way that adjective endings (and the declensions for determiners, too) is conventionally taught is a HEADACHE-INDUCING NIGHTMARE .
I mean, if you weren’t feeling confused and frustrated, you wouldn’t be here now, trying to figure this out, right?
Do yourself a major favor and take all those other charts (you’ve maybe been given 3 separate charts just for adjectives and up to another 7 to cover the rest of the declensions) and THROW THEM AWAY. Forget about them! They are making your life much harder than it needs to be.
Trying to learn the German case system off of 10 different charts makes the whole thing seem so haphazard and overwhelming — it reality, there is a lot of logic and consistency behind it. It doesn’t have to be intimidating.
I hope that taking the ‘YIKES!’ out of German declensions will help you fall in love with this beautiful language on a whole new level.
All-In-One Declensions Chart
I don’t know that it’s going to make me a millionaire, but I am dang proud of this chart I created while getting my master’s in German. I’ve never seen anything else like it, but it works like a charm and I hope it takes over the German-learning world.
This is honest-to-goodness-scout’s-honor the ONLY declensions chart you need.
All the vital German case system declensions info is here in this one chart. All you need now is to learn how to use it.
To use this one chart to pick the right declension for your adjective (or determiner) every. single. last. time, you need to have a handle on 3 things.
How to use this chart
You probably assume you need to know the case of the noun (nominative, accusative, dative, or genitive; listed down the right side of the chart). Correct! We’ve touched on that a good bit already.
You might also know that every German noun has a gender attached to it (masculine, feminine, neuter, or plural; listed across the top of the chart). This feature of the noun actually isn’t important (<– it doesn’t give us any crucial information like case does), but it’s inseparable from the noun, so it’s along for the ride.
Finally, and I’d bet my house on this: you’re not learning about declension patterns (e.g. when do you need the use the strong declension vs. the weak? And what about those three no declension spots?) anywhere else and you really need to be. Gotcha covered! Read on!
Section 2: Putting it into practice
When & how to use German adjective endings
In order to put the correct declension on your selected adjective (or determiner), you need to know …
- the gender of the noun being modified
- the case of the noun being modified
- which declension pattern (<– there are 4) is being used
Note: the determiner and/or adjectives that come in front of a noun are said to be ‘modifying’ (i.e. describing) that noun.
The adjective describes some feature of the noun — is it heavy? pink? fluffy?
The determiner tells us how many or which one — this? that? 1? 100?
How To Master German Adjective Endings
Most learners of German are pretty terrified when their teachers whip out chart after chart of German declensions bubbling over with all sorts of confusing terminology.
Strong endings, weak endings, no endings. Definite articles, indefinite articles. Der-words, ein-words. Singular, plural. Nominative, accusative, dative, genitive. YIKES.
What do you really need to know?
Well, for starters, you need to know that it’s not very useful to talk about just adjective declensions.
It makes the most sense to talk about declensions in general, which applies not only to adjectives, but also to determiners (as mentioned above).
There are four patterns of determiner and/or adjective combos that impact which declension you need to put on which word.
Declension types and patterns
There are two types of declensions: strong and weak.
Strong declensions: more varied, better indicate the gender/case of the noun.
Weak declensions: just -e or -n, do a lesser job indicating the noun’s gender/case.
You can see in these 4 declension patterns that there is a general preference for making sure there’s a strong declension put on either the determiner and/or adjective:
Pattern #3 (used only in 3 instances) is an exception to that general preference, since you might have just the ein-word determiner (no declension) and no adjective at all.
Knowing which declension pattern you’re using is a HUGE step toward nailing the correct declension for your adjective (and also determiner, of course).
Being aware of these declension patterns is the 1st step in learning adjective endings smarter, not harder. And the 2nd step is working with my All-In-One German Declensions Chart. 👍
All-In-One German Declensions Chart
The conventional way to learn German adjective endings is with separate charts for strong, weak, and ‘mixed’ declensions (<– don’t even ask! it’s dumb).
And then, there are additional declensions charts for determiners (which, like the charts for adjectives, also get over-categorized into more sub-groups than necessary).
In short: the conventional way is needlessly over-complicated.
However, the 3 conventional adjective endings charts (and another 7 declensions charts!) can be combined together into our clever, radical All-In-One chart that is much more user-friendly. NICE!
Even after seeing this for the 2nd time now, this chart might seem crazy-intense. But TRUST ME, it’s the better way.
You get the same results for literally 10% of the effort you’d otherwise have to invest in 10 charts. And the results are more reliable because this system is (believe it or not) significantly less confusing. Learning about those declension patterns above is going to help tremendously.
Let’s now take a closer look at how to use the All-In-One Declensions Chart.
How to Use This Chart
Earlier, I said you need to know 3 things in order to pick the correct declension for your adjective (or determiner) every. single. time:
- the gender of the noun being modified
- the case of the noun being modified
- which declension pattern (<– there are 4) is being used
The last thing we need to settle before we can launch into examples is this:
Before adding the listed declension to your base adjective (or determiner), you need to first add an ‘e’ (<– as filler/glue) if the declension itself isn’t an ‘e’.
The reason WHY these filler ‘e’s aren’t just in the chart already is because …
- it’s less visually overwhelming without them
- it feels like less to memorize without them
- there are a few determiners that actually take a different vowel for filler (not ‘e’).
Let’s look at a quick example of filler ‘e’s at work!
noun phrase: this young dog (nominative ← randomly assigned)
‘this’ = dies-
‘big’ = jung-
dog = Hund (masculine)
So this is where we’d need to be on the chart: the masculine nominative
- listed strong declension: -r
- listed weak declension: -e.
- [non-ein-word, non-rulebreaker-plural] determiner & adjective → declension pattern #1.
- So → strong declension goes onto determiner (dies-)
- and → weak declension goes onto adjective (jung-).
I’ll italicize the determiner/adjective, bold the declensions and CAPITALIZE the filler ‘e’s so you can see the different components more clearly:
diesEr junge Hund → dieser junge Hund
Do you see how we need a filler ‘e’ with dies- before adding the -r declension? But we don’t need a filler ‘e’ on the jung- because the necessary declension itself is an ‘e’. Make sense?
OK! That’s it. Are you ready to absolutely nail adjective endings? Let’s do it!
Examples: how to nail adjective endings!
Masculine Adjective Endings
Let’s actually keep working with the same noun phrase from above: this big dog. But now, we’re going to put it into the three other cases.
Again, this is the end result for the nominative: diesEr junge Hund
Since it’s the same noun, we still need to stay in the masculine gender column. But then we’ll just keep shifting down to the different rows for the 3 other cases.
Since we’re working with the same determiner & adjective set-up, we’ll still be using declension pattern #1, which dictates that the determiner takes the strong declension and the adjective takes the weak declension.
And notice the filler ‘e’s! 🙂
accusative: diesEn jungEn Hund → diesen jungen Hund
dative: diesEm jungEn Hund → diesem jungen Hund
genitive: diesEs jungEn HundEs → dieses jungen Hundes
Feminine Adjective Endings
First, let’s work with the same example as the masculine (‘this young dog’), but replace ‘dog’ with ‘cat’ (<– die Katze, feminine noun):
nominative: diese junge Katze
accusative: diese junge Katze
dative: dieser jungen Katze
genitive: dieser jungen Katze
- the nominative & accusative are exactly the same
- both the strong & weak declensions in the nominative & accusative are just an ‘e’
- both the dative & genitive are exactly the same, too, (but with different strong vs. weak declensions)
OK, now we’re going to take the feminine noun Milch (milk) and talk about ‘cold milk’ in each of the four cases. To shake things up, we will use declension pattern #2 (adjective only) in these examples!
nominative: kalte Milch
accusative: kalte Milch
dative: kalter Milch
genitive: kalter Milch
Declension Pattern #2 (adjective only) requires the strong declension in each case– do you see it on the end of our base adjective ‘kalt’? -e, -e, -er, -er
Neuter Adjective Endings
For starters, we’re going to stick with the same ‘this young …’ from above and use the neuter noun Schwein (pig).
nominative: dieses junge Schwein
accusative: dieses junge Schwein
dative: diesem jungen Schwein
genitive: dieses jungen Schweines
- the declensions for the nominative & accusative are identical.
- the dative & genitive declensions are the same you saw above with the masculine!
Now, in the feminine example we also looked at an additional declension pattern — #2. Here in the neuter, let’s look at declension pattern #3 because 2 out of the 3 times it’s used at all is in the neuter. We’ll say ‘a young pig’ so that it’s easy to see the slight differences from ‘this young pig.’
nominative: ein junges Schwein
accusative: ein junges Schwein
dative: einem jungen Schwein
genitive: eines jungen Schweines
Do you see the no declension on ‘ein’ in the nominative & accusative? And how the adjective then has to take the strong declension (-s)?
But then, the declensions in the dative & genitive are unchanged from the previous example.
Plural Adjective Endings
In the plural, it makes no difference what gender the noun has in its singular form. You can see that with these examples of ‘these young … dogs/cats/pigs’:
nominative: diese jungen … Hunde / Katzen / Schweine
accusative: diese jungen … Hunde / Katzen / Schweine
dative: diesen jungen … Hunden / Katzen / Schweinen
genitive: dieser jungen … Hunde / Katzen / Schweine
- the nominative & accusative cases are identical.
- in the dative case only, an extra ‘n’ must be added to any plural noun that doesn’t already have an ‘n’ there (i.e. so, no extra ‘n’ on Katzen; but Hunde and Schweine both need an ‘n’ added).
- the plural genitive is identical to the feminine genitive.
Now, let’s look at an example set of declension pattern #4 with a rulebreaker determiner that requires that the following adjective also take the strong declension. We’ll say ‘many young … dogs/cats/pigs’ with ‘many’ as the only difference so it’s easy to see:
nominative: viele junge … Hunde / Katzen / Schweine
accusative: viele junge … Hunde / Katzen / Schweine
dative: vielen jungen … Hunden / Katzen / Schweinen
genitive: vieler junger … Hunde / Katzen / Schweine
Do you see the strong -e declension on both viel- and jung- in the nominative & accusative?
But in the dative, the strong & weak declensions are the same (-n), so this doesn’t look any different from the previous example with ‘these young … dogs/cats/pigs.’
In the gentive, both the determiner (viel-) and the adjective (jung-) have the strong -r declension.
The 5 declensions (-r, -n, -m, -e, -s) are coupled into strong & weak combos that get recycled throughout the All-In-One Declensions Chart.
Often, a given gender has the same set of declensions in 2 different cases (e.g. the declensions for the feminine nominative & accusative are identical).
Sometimes, the same strong & weak declension combo is shared by 2 different genders in the same case (e.g. the masculine & neuter dative and genitive declensions are identical).
Any of the 4 declension patterns can be used with any gender or in any case except for pattern #3, which has very limited usage (see graphic above).
There are some other special ‘oddball’ details such as some nouns requiring declensions!
- Adjective endings are important — crucial! — because they help signal the case of the following noun (and we need to know that in order for sentences to have meaning).
- Adjective endings are historically the #1 most awful part of learning German. BUT! It doesn’t have to be that way! You can learn them smarter, not harder. Promise. 🙂
- Conventionally, adjective endings are taught in 3 groups: strong, weak, and mixed.
- It’s much smarter to study endings (<– declensions) in general, because the same principles that apply to adjectives apply to the other words (determiners) that take strong, weak, or no endings / declensions.
- There are a limited number of possible determiner / adjective declension combos and knowing which you’re using is essential to picking out the right endings for your words.
- You also need to know the gender & case of the following noun in order to pick the correct declensions for the determiner / adjectives.
- Instead of working with multiple, separate charts of various endings, I recommend working with ONE chart that cleverly combines all the info you need & is more accessible.
- You can get reliable results in a fraction of the time and no longer be held back by adjective endings seeming too complicated. You’ve got this! 😀