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:
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.
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.
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.
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:
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?’
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!
In order to put the correct declension on your selected adjective (or determiner), you need to know …
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?
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.
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 #2 (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. 👍
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.
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 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 …
Let’s look at a quick example of filler ‘e’s at work!
noun phrase: this young dog (nominative ← randomly assigned)
‘this’ = dies-
‘big’ = groß–
dog = Hund (masculine)
So this is where we’d need to be on the chart: the masculine nominative
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 große Hund → dieser große 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 groß– 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!
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 große 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 großEn Hund → diesen großen Hund
dative: diesEm großEn Hund → diesem großen Hund
genitive: diesEs großEn HundEs → dieses großen Hundes
First, let’s work with the same example as the masculine (‘this big dog’), but replace ‘dog’ with ‘cat’ (<– die Katze, feminine noun):
nominative: diese große Katze
accusative: diese große Katze
dative: dieser großen Katze
genitive: dieser großen Katze
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 #3 (adjective only) in these examples!
nominative: kalte Milch
accusative: kalte Milch
dative: kalter Milch
genitive: kalter Milch
Declension Pattern #3 (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
For starters, we’re going to stick with the same ‘this big …’ from above and use the neuter noun Schwein (pig).
nominative: dieses große Schwein
accusative: dieses große Schwein
dative: diesem großen Schwein
genitive: dieses großen Schweines
Now, in the feminine example we also looked at an additional declension pattern — #3. Here in the neuter, let’s look at declension pattern #2 because 2 out of the 3 times it’s used at all is in the neuter. We’ll say ‘a big pig’ so that it’s easy to see the slight differences from ‘this big 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.
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 big … dogs/cats/pigs’:
nominative: diese großen … Hunde / Katzen / Schweine
accusative: diese großen … Hunde / Katzen / Schweine
dative: diesen großen … Hunden / Katzen / Schweinen
genitive: dieser großen … Hunde / Katzen / Schweine
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 big … dogs/cats/pigs’ with ‘many’ as the only difference so it’s easy to see:
nominative: viele große … Hunde / Katzen / Schweine
accusative: viele große … Hunde / Katzen / Schweine
dative: vielen großen … Hunden / Katzen / Schweinen
genitive: vieler großer … Hunde / Katzen / Schweine
Do you see the strong -e declension on both viel- and groß– 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 big … dogs/cats/pigs.’
In the genitive, both the determiner (viel-) and the adjective (groß–) 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.
Occasionally, 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).
Declension patterns #1 (the standard, default pattern) and #3 can be used with any gender or in any case.
Declension patterns #2 and #4 have limited usage (see graphic above).
There are some other special ‘oddball’ details such as some nouns requiring declensions!