As grammar topics go, learning the comparative & superlative adjective forms is easier than most. Get ready to put another feather (<– the easiest one yet) in your proverbial German cap!
In this guide, you’ll learn the following:
- when to use various comparative or superlative phrases
- how to form the comparative & superlative adjective forms
- which adjectives are ‘oddballs’ that break the usual rules
Section 1: Understanding Comparative & Superlative Forms
Two Basic Types of Adjectives
Adjectives are words that describe nouns — the noun’s size, shape, color, texture, speed, age, etc. Blue, big, rough, fast, new, etc. are all examples of English adjectives.
In both English & German, there are TWO basic types of adjectives that function differently:
Predicate adjectives ‘stand-alone’ as in this dog is big.
Attributive adjectives come in front of nouns as in this big dog is barking.
In English, the ONLY difference is simply the location of the same, unchanged adjective.
But in German, we start with the same ‘base-form’ of the adjective. Then, the base-form adjective branches off into two different tracks: the predicate and the attributive.
The key difference between German predicate and attributive adjectives is that attributive adjectives must be declined (<– take declensions), but predicate adjectives are not!
Predicate vs. Attributive Adjectives
Notice the predicate adjectives ‘standing alone’ and the attributive ones coming in front of dog:
Predicate: This dog is big → This dog is bigger → This dog is the biggest.
Attributive: The big dog is barking → The bigger dog is barking → The biggest dog is barking.
Look at those examples again and notice that both the predicate & attributive tracks have the same 3 degrees: positive, comparative, and superlative.
1st degree (positive) = big
2nd degree (comparative) = bigger
3rd degree (superlative) = biggest
The concept of ‘degrees’ is easy to remember because …
- when you’re describing just 1 noun, you use the 1st degree adjective (e.g. big)
- when you compare 2 nouns, you use the 2nd degree adjective (e.g. bigger)
- when you compare 3+ nouns, you use the 3rd degree (e.g. the biggest)
3 Degrees of Adjectives
In English, the adjectives that function as predicate or attributive adjectives are the same base-form (just the location is different). So, their degrees will also be the same, as you saw.
But check out those same sentences from above, now in German:
Predicate: Dieser Hund ist groß → Dieser Hund ist größer → Dieser Hund ist am größten.
Attributive: Der große Hund bellt → Der größere Hund bellt→ Der größte Hund bellt.
We start off with the same base-form adjective groß (big). Then, we take it through the same 1st, 2nd, 3rd degrees … but you can see the bolded declensions on the attributive varieties:
- 1st degree (positive): either just groß (predicate) OR große (attributive).
- 2nd degree (comparative): altered to größer (predicate) or größere(attributive)
- 3rd degree (superlative): altered to am größten (predicate) or größte(attributive)
There are obviously some additional differences with the superlative degree (<– more soon!).
How to form comparative & superlative adjectives
Predicate and attributive adjectives use the same base-form in the positive (1st) degree, e.g. groß. But then the attributive adjective will also have a declension, e.g. -e → große.
Both predicate & attributive adjectives also form the comparative (2nd) degree the same way: by adding -er (and occasionally umlauting the stem-vowel), e.g. größer and größere. Again, the difference here is just the added declension on the attributive adjective.
The superlative degree is formed by adding -st (and occasionally umlauting the stem-vowel). But then the predicate vs. attributive tracks make some additional changes.
The predicate variety adds an am in front of the adjective AND tacked on an -en after the standard -st superlative form.
So, we could say that the predicate superlative is am … -sten (again, occasionally umlauting the adjective base-word’s stem-vowel).
Here are a few extra examples:
am kleinsten (base-word klein) → the smallest
am schönsten (base-word schön) → the loveliest
am weißten (base-word weiß) → the whitest
am schnellsten (base-word schnell) → the fastest
am stärksten (base-word stark) → the strongest
3rd degree attributive adjectives don’t use am — instead, there will be some sort of determiner there. Then, after the standard -st form, attributive adjectives must add whatever appropriate declension.
Here are examples of the … dog (nominative case), using the same superlatives from above:
der größte Hund
der kleinste Hund
der schönste Hund
der weißte Hund
der schnellste Hund
der stärkste Hund
In each example, we’re using the determiner der (the). Then, you see the base-word adjectives (e.g. klein, schön, etc.). Next comes the standard -st superlative form added on. And finally, the necessary declension (in these instances, an -e).
To start getting the hang of comparative & superlative adjectives, you need to first understand how ‘stand-alone’ predicate & ‘declined’ attributive adjectives serve different functions and therefore interact differently with the base-word adjectives.
Base-word adjectives are used to form 3 degrees of adjectives: positive, comparative, & superlative. How these degrees are formed depends on if they are the predicate or attributive variety!
The key defining features of predicate vs. attributive adjectives are 1) position and 2) declension.
Predicate adjectives (in any degree) ‘stand-alone’ after a verb and NOT in front of noun. They take no declensions.
Attributive adjectives (in any degree) necessarily come in front of nouns and, as such, must be plugged into the German case system and be declined (i.e. take declensions).
Section 2: When & how to use Comparative & Superlative Forms
The best way to teach you when to use comparative and superlative adjective forms is to simply run you through a lot of examples (<– coming right up!).
As for the how to use these 2nd & 3rd degree adjective forms … well, I’ll start by pointing out what’s happening in the various examples I’m going to show you.
But if you need more help with the concept of adding declensions to the attributive adjectives, I encourage you to read my guide on Adjective Endings!
When to use 1st, 2nd, or 3rd degree adjectives
Before we really kick off here, remember that whenever you learn a German adjective …
- You’re learning the base-word (e.g. hungrig = hungry)
- You can plug the base-word into a sentence as-is as a positive predicate adjective
- You can add declensions to the base-word, making it into a positive attributive adjective
- You can add the comparative form (+er) or superlative form (+st) to base-word adjectives (and then make additional predicate vs. attributive adjective changes as necessary).
All right! Ready for examples. Woohoo!
Predicate Adjective Examples
Positive (1st Degree)
In both English & German, positive degree adjectives (<– not just comparative degree ones!) can be used to make comparisons between 2 nouns.
Comparisons of Equality
so + (adj.) + wie
gleich + (adj.) + wie
Anna ist so schön wie ich. / Anna ist gleich schön wie ich. (Anna is as beautiful as I am).
Peter ist so dumm wie Martin. / Peter ist gleich dumm wie Martin. (Peter is as dumb as Martin).
Comparisons of Inequality
nicht so + (adj.) + wie
Anna ist nicht so schön wie ich. (Anna is not as beautiful as I am).
Peter is nicht so dumm wie Martin. (Peter is not as dumb as Martin).
Comparative (2nd Degree)
In German, all comparative adjectives (and adverbs) are formed by adding -er.
intelligent → intelligenter
klein → kleiner
hübsch → hübscher
English also uses -er to make comparative adjectives (richer, poorer, kinder), but sometimes uses more + (adj.) as in more beautiful, more successful, more encouraging.
Never use mehr + (adj.) in German, though!!!
Comparisons of Superiority
(adj.)er + als
Anna ist schöner als ich. (Anna is more beautiful than I am).
Peter ist dümmer als Martin. (Peter is dumber than Martin).
Comparisons of Inferiority
weniger + (adj.) + als
Anna ist weniger schön als ich. (Anna is less beautiful than I am).
Peter ist weniger dumm als Martin. (Peter is less dumb than Martin).
Remember, the core superlative form shared by both predicate and attributive adjectives is the addition of -st to the base-word.
But because of the predicate-specific changes we need to make, we can say that superlative predicate are formulated as am … -sten.
Er ist am klügsten. (He is the most clever.)
Sie ist am schönsten. (She is the most beautiful.)
Dieses Auto ist am schnellsten. (This car is the fastest.)
Attributive adjectives in any degree are trickier than predicate adjectives because attributive adjectives require declensions that accurately reflect the gender & case of the noun.
We can’t use attributive adjectives to make comparisons in the positive degree like you saw above in the predicate adjective section.
Positive attributive adjectives are used simply in regular, descriptive noun phrases that don’t make comparisons between 2 nouns:
Die schöne Frau da heißt Anna. (The beautiful woman there is named Anna).
Der dumme Mann da heißt Peter. (The dumb man there is named Peter).
Notice the strong declensions (-e and -r) on the determiners (die and der) and the weak declensions on the base-word adjectives themselves (schön and dumm).
If you feel unsure of how to know when to use the strong vs. weak declension and/or how to know what the strong & weak declensions are for a given gender/case combo, learn more here.
We can use attribute adjectives in the comparative degree! Check out these examples:
Ich will den größeren Keks! (I want the bigger cookie!)
Ich sehe da eine rötere Blume (I see a redder flower there)
Ich gebe lieber dem traurigeren Hund einen Knochen (I’d prefer to give the sadder dog a bone).
Of course, in these examples, it’s implied that there is a smaller cookie, or a less red flower, or a less sad dog present, respectively. Thus, the comparison. 😉
The first example (the bigger cookie) is in the masculine accusative. The 2nd, in the feminine accusative. And the 3rd, in the dative neuter.
Bear in mind that the base-word adjectives are groß, rot, and traurig. Then, we add the +er for the comparative degree. THEN, we add the listed declension (with an additional ‘e’ for glue first, if needed).
Superlative attributive adjectives take just the standard -st superlative form, but then also add the correct declension that reflects the gender & case of the following noun.
Here are a few examples in the nominative case:
Masculine: Er ist der Klügste. (He is the most clever.)
Feminine: Sie ist die Schönste. (She is the most beautiful.)
Neuter: Dieses Auto ist das Schnellste. (This car is the fastest.)
Plural: Diese Katzen sind die Weichsten. (These cats are the softest.)
Notice the strong declension on the determiners (der, die, das, die ← forms of ‘the’) and the weak -e declension (but -en in the plural) on the adjectives, which also have to be capitalized here because they’re actually functioning as nouns.
- Comparative adjectives are used to compare 2 nouns, e.g. this car is bigger than that car.
- Superlative adjectives are used to compare 3+ nouns, e.g. this car is the biggest.
- Comparative adjectives are formed by adding +er to the base-word adjective.
- Superlative adjectives are formed by adding +st to the base-word adjective (plus additional changes dependent on if the adjective is being used as a predicatively or attributively).
- Predicate & attributive noun forms in English are the same (just the position of them in the sentence is different), but German also adds declensions to attributive nouns.
- Adjectives of any degree (positive, comparative, or superlative) must also have declensions on top of their own forms (e.g. +er for comparative adjectives) if being used attributively.
- There are various set expressions in German that make, e.g. comparisons of equality, inequality, superiority, etc.
- Some adjectives take stem-vowel changes in the their comparative & superlative degrees.