German Declension: Your Essential Guide

Congrats! If you’re searching for ‘declensions’, you’re already far enough along in learning German to know that it’s essential to learn declensions if you want to get anywhere!

Declensions are probably the aspect of German that historically causes my students the most wailing and gnashing of teeth.

But don’t worry. It turns out that there’s a much simpler way to learn declensions. And you’re not going to hear about it anywhere but here. So, let’s go!

In this Article you’ll learn the following:

  • the distinctions that matter (and those that don’t) when talking about declensions
  • how to work with ONE chart (not 10) for all your declensions needs
  • basic declensions patterns that bring logic and organization to the topic
  • tips, tricks, and shortcuts for always knowing which declension you need

What You Need To Know

Declensions are vital. The German language as such can’t exist without them. You can barely say anything beyond hallo without using declensions!

German uses declensions to provide crucial information about the nouns in a sentence — so that we can know who is doing what to whom.

In this way, English & German are very different.

English is a analytic language: we know who is doing what to whom in a sentence based on word order.

German is an inflected language: we know who is doing what to whom in a sentence because of the declensions that ‘flag’ the role (e.g. subject, direct object) of each noun.

The information that is packed into declensions tell us the gender & case of the noun.

The case of the noun is how we know what role in the sentence it’s playing. And the gender of the noun is an inseparable feature of the noun that has to come along for the ride.

Since declensions tell us the gender & case of each noun, declensions change dependent on if a noun is masculine, feminine, neuter, or plural AND dependent on if the case is nominative, accusative, dative, or genitive.

Whew! If you’re not already familiar with some of these concepts, this can sound a little overwhelming. But, don’t worry, we’ll go over this step-by-step!

Why does German use declensions?

Declensions matter because you can barely say anything beyond ja, nein, and hallo! without working with declensions. They are a big deal!

OK, but why?!

I will answer that question. Let’s first lay some groundwork.

How Sentences Have Meaning

We couldn’t just say The man the child the woman, right?

That’s not a full sentence. It doesn’t have any meaning. It’s missing crucial elements that tell us how the man, the child, and the woman relate to each other.

There are different ways of stringing information together so that it makes sense.

How Sentences Work in English

In English, we know “who is doing what to whom” because of word order. 

Check out these examples:

The man gives the child to the woman.
The child gives the woman to the man.

Both of these sentences use the exact same components, but the meaning is changed because the word order is changed!

How Sentences Work in German

In German, however, we don’t know which noun is in which ‘slot’ because of the word order.

Rather, the words that come in front of nouns indicate “who is doing what to whom” because of their declensions!

Check out those same two sentences translated to German. The words with bolded letters that come in front of the nouns are the ones that change — do you see it?

Der Mann gibt der Frau das Kind. (‘The man gives to the woman the child’)
Dem Mann gibt die Frau das Kind. (‘The woman gives to the man the child’)

In these examples, all of the words with bolded letters on the end are different forms of ‘the’. The bolded letters themselves (<– the small changes!) are the declensions.

And that is how the meaning of the sentences changed even though the word order didn’t!

Declensions, The Smarter Way

Traditionally, German students are introduced to lots and lots of separate charts for all the words that take declensions.

You’d have all these charts thrown at you:

Definite Articles (der, die, das, etc.)
Indefinite Articles (ein, eine etc.)
Demonstratives / der-words (dies-, jed-, etc.)
Indefinite Pronouns
Relative Pronouns (der, dessen, etc.)
Possessive Pronouns
Possessive Adjectives (mein, dein, etc.)
Strong Adjectives (No Determiner)
Weak Adjectives (With Determiner)
Mixed Adjectives (with ein-word Determiners)

Learning these individual charts can seem deceptively easy – all the work is done for you – it’s all spelled out. For example, if you need to say ‘the’, there’s a chart for that!

But almost every chart has 16 words. With 10 charts, that’s up to 160 words to memorize. OUCH.

The good news is that all these charts have much more in common than not.

That means that it’s possible to combine them all into ONE chart and just mention a handful of special exceptions — then all our bases are covered!

All-In-One Declensions Chart

Instead of memorizing chart after chart of the many possible solutions, we can simply memorize the formula which lets us ‘plug in’ any word that needs a declension and replace ALL of the charts listed above.

It might be a little more work up front, but understanding one chart instead of memorizing 10 different charts with just itty bitty differences is going to help you be a better German learner in the long run.

Don’t find yourself being dependent on all these charts! Memorize the principles. If you do, you’ll be able to ‘plug’ the information into the All-In-One Chart to get the answer that you need. Soon, you won’t even need this chart!

I’m going to show you how!

How The Chart Works

What all the charts on that long list above have in common are the very last letters that get put onto the words.

And those letters (-r, -e, -s, -n, -m) are declensions. We add them to the ends of all those types of words listed above (articles, pronouns, adjectives, etc.) to ‘flag’ the roles of the nouns.

But, again, instead of memorizing 10 charts with the declensions tacked onto all those different types of words, we can learn smarter, not harder by memorizing just the declensions themselves.

The All-In-One Declensions Chart lists just the declensions. I will soon also give you the important step-by-step directions so you know how to properly use it. But first, check it out!

In the Digging Deeper section below, I will explain all the terms & concepts you need to know in order to use this All-In-One Chart to replace all 10 of those charts.

First, we’ll dive deeper into how the chart fits in with understanding declensions.

Digging Deeper

In this section, you will learn how to master declensions with the All-In-One Declensions Chart. Including:

  • determiners (including der-words and ein-words)
  • how to determine noun gender
  • how to determiner noun case
  • basic declensions patterns
  • rulebreaker plural determiners
  • zero word determiners

How Declensions Work in German

We’ve established what declensions are: just single letters (-r, -e, -s, -n, -m) added to the ends of specific words.

And we’ve talked about why declensions are crucial: because they signal the gender & case nouns (<– and that’s important because German is an inflected language).

That leaves us with the topic of how declensions work, which we’ll unpack now!

Words that need declensions

We have to put a declension on words thatcome in front of nouns as part of the noun phrase.

Remember: A noun phrase would be like the bratty kid, a lonely buffalo, some red flowers, where kid, buffalo, and flowers are the nouns and the other words … are what we’re going to talk about!

Now you might be thinking “ah, ok, all those words like from that long, scary list of the conventional 10 charts … articles, pronouns, adjectives, etc.”

Yes and no.

I do mean those words, but we’re going to classify them the smarter, simpler way:

All the words that come in front of nouns are either determiners OR adjectives.

Determiners: a, the, some, few, this, etc. that tell us how many of the noun or which one.

Adjectives: describe some feature of the noun (e.g. big, small, round, flat, blue).

So, determiners & adjectives are the two types of words (that come in front of nouns in noun phrases) that take declensions.

‘Plugging’ words into the Chart

In terms of our All-In-One Declensions Chart, you can think of the determiners & adjectives getting ‘plugged in’ chart, taking the single-letter declensions listed and tacking it on like a tail.

For example, if I need to plug in the determiner this (dies-), dependent on where in the chart it needs to go, I might get any of these values: dieser, diese, dieses, diesen, diesem.

Similarly, if I need to plug in the adjective small (klein-), I’d get these values: kleiner, kleine, kleines, kleinen, kleinem, dependent on where in the chart I need to take the declension from.

This means that in order to actually pick out the correct declensions, you need some information!

For starters, you need to know the gender & case of the noun in order to identify the right area of the chart to work with.

For example, if you’re working with a feminine noun (e.g. Butter) and it’s the subject in the sentence: The yellow butter tastes delicious, then you know you need to be in the area where the feminine column and the nominative row meet up.

But then, you still have two declensions to choose from. Now what?

Types of Declensions

After you’ve got the gender & case of the noun sorted out, there’s still some more work to do: you have to figure out which declensions you need!

There are 2 types of declensions (you can see this in the All-In-One Declensions Chart above!):

  1. Strong declensions better (but not flawlessly) indicate the gender/case of the noun because they are the most varied.
  2. Weak declensions do not indicate the gender/case of the noun because they have almost no variation (there are just two options: -e or -en).

All the bolded declensions in the examples below are strong declensions:

Der Mann gibt der Frau das Kind. (‘The man gives to the woman the child’)
Dem Mann gibt die Frau das Kind. (‘The woman gives to the man the child’)

In a very limited number of instances, there might also be no declension at all (keep reading!)

How to Use Declensions

To properly use declensions in German, you need to know the following:

  1. What gender is the noun?
  2. What case is the noun supposed to be in?
  3. Which (of 3) basic declensions patterns are you using?

If you can answer these questions, you will always know which declension –strong or weak (or none!) is needed on each determiner and/or adjective.

1. How to Know the Gender of Any German Noun

One way to wrestle with German noun gender is to simply memorize every noun connected with either der, die, or das so that you (hopefully) remember what gender that noun has:

der Mann (the man [masculine])
die Frau (the woman [feminine])
das Kind (the child [neuter])

BUT there are some clever shortcuts that can save you a lot of time.

German noun genders are determined by either by group or by form.

Noun Group Examples:

Masculine (der):

  • Male persons and animals
  • mountains and mountain ranges
  • alcoholic and plant-based drinks

Feminine (die):

  • Female persons and animals
  • Airplanes, motorcycles, ships
  • Numerals used as nouns

Neuter (das):

  • Young persons and baby animals
  • scientific units & measurements
  • other parts of speech used as nouns (gerunds, colors, languages, English -ing forms)
Noun Form Examples:

The end of nouns, or, the suffix is what determines the gender of the noun.

There are certain suffixes that are almost exclusively masculine, feminine, and neuter.

Masculine: -ant, -ast, -ich, -ig, -ismus, -ling, -or, -us

Feminine: -a, -anz, -enz, -ei, -ie, -heit, -keit, -ik, -sion, -tion, -sis, -tät, -ung, -ur, schaft

Neuter: -chen, -lein, -icht, -il, -it, -ma, -ment, -tel, -tum, -um

2. How to Know Which Case to Use

The case of each noun in a sentence indicates what role it is playing in the sentence and therefore also shows its relationship to (i.e. how it’s interacting with) the other nouns in the sentence.

Chart on how nouns work in a sentence with their cases, roles, and description.

Think of the four cases as ‘slots’ in a sentence that we must/may fill up with nouns.

The general rules of thumb are:

  1. Always fill up the nominative ‘slot’ first — every sentence needs a subject!
  2. Default to filling up the accusative ‘slot’ next unless…
  3. If you’re using a dative verb, preposition, or adjective: the associated noun must be in the dative ‘slot’, not the accusative.
  4. You can pretty much forget about the genitive case.

3. Basic Declension Patterns

You can see in these FOUR declension patterns (<– the ONLY four there are, BTW!) that there is a general preference for using the strong   declension as the first priority:

Pattern #1: required determiner takes the strong declension; optional adjective(s) take the weak .

Pattern #3: required adjective(s) — the only pre-noun words present — take the strong declension.

Pattern #4: required determiners (<– only specific plural ‘rule-breaker’ ones) take the strong declension (just like pattern #1) … but the optional adjectives here do, too.

That leaves us with just pattern #2, which is an exception to this general preference for the strong declension taking priority.

Oddball Pattern #2

Pattern #2 is for a handful of exception instances that apply ONLY if an ein-word determiner is used in one of three specific instances.

EIN-word Determiners: ein(a), irgendein (any), kein (not a / any), and all possessives

TIP: if the determiner is not an ein-word, it’s a der-word by default, e.g. welch- (which), dies- (this), jed- (every), jen- (that), einig- (some), wenig- (few).

The distinction between ein-word and der-word determiners matters ONLY in the:

  • masculine nominative
  • neuter nominative
  • neuter accusative

Normally, the strong declension is used first and a weak declension comes second, if at all. This is true for der-words AND ein-words! Usually, they are lumped together as just ‘determiners.’

But … only ein-words only in those 3 spots behave differently by taking no declension.

Then, if there is an adjective (or multiple), they take the strong declension.

Another way to put it is that pattern #2 is simply pattern #1 shifted over one spot to the left! … But only for ein-word determiners in 3 specific instances.

Using the All-in-One Declensions Chart

Again, if you know your noun’s gender & case and which declensions pattern you’re using, you will be able to pinpoint exactly which declension (strong / weak / none) you need.

Here it is again: the only declensions chart you’ll ever need!

Our declensions rules & patterns from above are easy to see reflected in this chart.

After you know the gender & case of your noun and find that intersection (of row & column) of the chart, you have to pick between 2-3 declensions options for the determiner and/or adjectives.

For example, let’s say you want to say “The young child is tall!”

Step 1: Child = Kind, which is a neuter noun
Step 2: Kind is the subject of the sentence, so we need the nominative case.
Step 3: If we intersect the neuter (green) with the nominative row, we have 3 declension options:

Then, you just need to pick the correct declensions of the three. And that’s where we circle back to our 3 basic declensions patterns.

We can take the ideas of the declension rules & patterns and rephrase them a little so that they work as directions for how to use the All-In-One Declensions Chart.

Directions for Using This Chart

Basic Principles:

  • Whatever type of word (<– determiner or adjective) comes first (or alone), it takes the declension listed under .
  • Since determiners & adjectives don’t mix, if a determiner is in the strong declension spot, any adjectives that follow have to scoot over to the next spot (weak declensions).

As discussed above, do you see the 3 exception instances when we need to use declension pattern #3 IF (and only if!) an ein-word determiner is being used?

Yes! The 3  listed under the masculine nominative, neuter nominative, and neuter accusative.

Even with the 3 exception cases, these same basic principles apply, just shifted over a position!

Basic Principles (continued):

  • If you have an ein-word determiner in one of the 3 exception spots, it takes no declension.
  • Any adjective(s) that follow must then be in the very next spot over, which is the strong declension spot!

Something is missing from this chart!

What seems to be missing in the All-In-One Chart?

That’s right, a lot of ‘e’s!

Because the All-In-One Chart replaces a whopping 10 different charts, we have to boil declensions down to their very basics.

In our All-In-One Chart, we’ve listed just the basic declensions shared in common between these 10 total charts you usually have to learn (but no longer have to — hooray!).

And the basics are this: the very last letter.

That is why the All-In-One Declensions Chart has just one letter in each spot.

What you need to remember is:
almost always add an ‘e’ between the ‘root’ determiner / adjective and the declension.

When to Add ‘e’

Let’s say ‘this red apple’ in all four cases:

dies- (this) is a ‘root’ determiner
rot- (red) is a ‘root’ adjective
Apfel is a masculine noun: der Apfel

NOTE: the ‘e’s are capitalized so you can clearly see them being added in each time. The declensions are bolded as always.

nominative: diesEr rote Apfel
accusative: diesEn rotEn Apfel
dative: diesEm rotEn Apfel
genitive: diesEs rotEn Apfels

Does it make more sense now when I say that you almost always have to add an ‘e’ between the root determiner / adjective and the needed declensions?

The dash at the end of ‘root’ determiners & adjectives is where we add all the different declensions, dependent on the gender & case of the following noun.

Just the dies- part is what actually carries the meaning of ‘this’. Likewise, just rot- means ‘red’. But without the declensions reflecting gender/case, we couldn’t use ‘this’ or ‘red’ in a German sentence.

When NOT to add ‘e’

Did you notice above the one time that we did NOT add an ‘e’ before putting on the declension?

Yep. Here it is: diesEr rote Apfel

Similarly, to say the dark plum, there are no inserted ‘e’s: die dunkle Pflaume.

Have you figured out why?

YES! It’s very simple: if an ‘e’ is the declensions itself, don’t insert another one!

So, where in our chart is this relevant?

  • feminine nominative & accusative, strong & weak declensions
  • plural nominative & accusative, weak declensions
  • masculine nominative, weak declension
  • neuter nominative & accusative, weak declension.

Do you see it in the chart?

All the spots with an ‘e’ listed as the declensions do NOT need an extra one. Insert an ‘e’ just in front of all the consonants!

Example

Let’s look at a two-part example using basic declension pattern #1: determiner + adjective.

Be sure to notice the added ‘e’s before a consonant declension (-r, -n, -m, -s), but not before an -e declension!

Part 1: determiner

Let’s use ein (‘a’) in a few gender/case combos. That’s an important little word! See how the All-In-One Chart helps you know exactly which declensions to put on.

Remember, with our standard rules, our determiner will take the strong declension. BUT specifically ein-word determiners will take no declension in just 3 instances.

Masculine Nominative: ein (no declension: 1 of 3 exception spots)
Masculine Accusative: einen (strong declension)
Feminine Nominative: eine (strong declension)
Feminine Dative: einer (strong declension)
Neuter Accusative: ein (no declension: 1 of 3 exception spots)
Neuter Genitive: eines (strong declension)

Part 2: adjective

Now let’s put braun (brown) after each of those instances of ‘ein’ from above.

The adjective will be shifted over one spot from the ein-word determiner! Most of the time, that will mean a weak declension. But in our 3 exception instances, braun will need to take a strong declension.

Masculine Nominative: brauner (strong declension: 1 of 3 exception spots)
Masculine Accusative: braunen (weak declension)
Feminine Nominative: braune (weak declension)
Feminine Dative: braunen (weak declension)
Neuter Accusative: braunes (strong declension: 1 of 3 exception spots)
Neuter Genitive: braunen (weak declension)

Well done! I hope you’re really starting to see how this All-In-One Declensions Chart will support your German-learning. Learning German can be efficient, effective, and fun after all. 😀

Oddballs

There are a couple instances in which the debate between inserting an ‘e’ or not doesn’t quite cut it. Do you know what I’m talking about?

Well done. When we’re dealing with definite articles (‘the’), sometimes we have to insert a different vowel!

Think of it this way:

  • All our definite articles (‘the’) are 3-letter words that start with ‘d’ (<– the ‘root’).
  • All of them end with whatever the strong declension is (<– standard rule).
  • Most of them have an ‘e’ inserted in the middle (der, den, dem, des)

So … which versions of ‘the’ take different vowels?

  • feminine nominative & accusative: die, with an ‘i’
  • plural nominative & accusative: die
  • neuter nominative & accusative: das, with an ‘a’
Summary

There are two special words you need to remember: die and das.

  • These versions of ‘the’ take different vowels in front of the regular declensions.
  • And this applies to just 6 (out of 35) spots on the chart.

Then, remember that all weak declensions that are just -e won’t take an extra ‘e’.

That leaves all the rest of the time: insert an ‘e’ between the ‘root’ word (determiner or adjective) before putting on the supplied declension from the chart.

Special Situations

The All-In-One Declensions Chart can feel a little complicated until you get the hang of it, I know.

Trust me: learning how to work with it will still save you heaps of time and energy compared to working with ten different charts!

There are several last things you need to learn about in order to use the All-In-One Declensions Chart like a master:

  1. Nouns themselves that take declensions
  2. Zero Words (special determiners that don’t ever take declensions!)
  3. Certain words that have multiple functions
  4. A special rule-breaking declensions pattern used with plural nouns
  5. The word ‘all’ is a bit in a class all its own.

Special Situation #1: Declined Nouns

Dative plural nouns

ALL plural nouns in the dative case add an -n to the end of them IF there’s not one there already OR unless the plural form is -s (e.g. with foreign nouns):

nominative plural: die Kinder (the children) → dative plural: die Kindern

BUT

nominative plural: die Wagen (the car) → dative plural: die Wagen
nominative plural: die Autos (also ‘the car’) → dative plural: die Autos

Heres another example with a dative plural noun.

Masculine & neuter nouns in the genitive case

In the genitive case only, masculine & neuter nouns take an ‘s’ or ‘es’ at the end of them:

des Vaters, des Kindes.

‘Weak’ masculine nouns

There is no good reason why the terminology is ‘weak’ masculine nouns, but anyway, here is how it works:

There is a group of masculine nouns that take an -en declension in every case except in the nominative, for example:

nominative: der Student
accusative: den Studenten (<– singular! compare with die Studenten, plural!)
dative: dem Studenten (<– singular! compare with den Studenten, plural!)
genitive: des Studenten (<– note: NO extra -(e)s for these ‘weak’ nouns in the genitive!*)

Most of the ‘weak’ masculine nouns refer to male people or animals. Notice that many nouns end with -e OR with a suffix of foreign origin (e.g. -arch, -ist, -om):

der Bauer (farmer)
der Affe (monkey)
der Löwe (lion)
der Experte (expert)
der Junge (boy)
der Kunde (customer)
der Nachbar (neighbor)
der Russe (Russian)
der Jude (Jew)
der Monarch (monarch)
der Komponist (composer)
der Astronom (astronomer)
Mensch (person)
Bär (bear)
Christ (male Christian)
Herr (sir)
Elefant (elephant)
Bauer (farmer)
Held (hero)

NOTE: Other less common examples include Prinz (prince), Narr (fool), Ochs (ox), Fink (finch), Spatz (sparrow), Pfau (peacock).

Of course, all of those nouns ^^ would have female variants, too; but those do not apply to our special situation! (Read more on female noun variants).

*There is a short list of ‘weak’ masculine nouns that add the -n and THEN an -s in the genitive, as per regular rules:

der Buchstabe (letter of the alphabet)
der Friede (peace)
der Funke (spark)
der Gedanke (thought)
der Glaub (belief)
der Name (name)
der Same (seed)
der Wille (will)

There is even ONE neuter noun that is semi-‘weak’: das Herz (nom)→ das Herz (acc) → dem Herzen (dat) → des Herzens (gen)

Notes:

  • ‘weak’ masculine nouns do NOT decline if they are used without a determiner, e.g. Das Problem war für Arzt und Patient verblüffend (The problem was puzzling to [both the] doctor and [the] patient).
  • of course, in colloquial German, many ‘weak’ masculine nouns are treated as totally normal nouns (i.e. not declined), e.g. der Student → den Student → dem Student → des Students.

Special Situation #2: Zero Words

ZERO WORDS: a special set of determiners that takes zero (i.e. no) declensions, no matter where in the chart they are used.

Think of the three special instances on our Chart where there is a  listed.

That symbol reminds us that specifically ein-word determiners will take no declensions in those spots (masculine nominative, neuter nominative, neuter accusative) and that adjectives (if present) will take the strong declension.

Well, now just imagine that you can use a zero word anywhere in the Chart and it functions the same way:

RULE: If using a zero word (which takes no declension), any following adjectives take strong declensions.

There are a few strictly Zero Words used with singular nouns:

ein bisschen / ein wenig (a little)
etwas (some)
nichts (nothing)
genug (enough)
lauter (only, nothing but)
dergleichen / derlei (suchlike, that kind / sort of)

And a strictly Zero Word used with plural nouns:

ein paar (a couple of, a few)

Examples:

Bitte schenk mir etwas heißem Wasser ein! (Please pour me [into my cup] a little hot water!).
Um genug Zeit kommt es nicht dran (It doesn’t have anything to do with having enough time).
Ein paar fleißige Studenten meldeten sich (A couple hard-working students raised their hands).

There are some determiners that function as zero words in the singular, but as determiners (that do take declensions!) in the plural, which leads straight into our next special situation:

Special Situation #3: Words With Multiple Functions

There is a large body of German words that can function differently — sometimes as a determiner / pronoun, other times as an adjective, or as a zero word (always in the singular except for all- which can be a zero word in the singular OR plural → keep reading!).

Of course, the role of the word in the given phrase impacts which declension (if any) it must take!

Determiner / Zero Word

As you can see in the following huge table, here are several words that function as zero words in the singular AND as determiners in the plural:

wenig(-) (a little)
viel(-) (a lot)
manch(-) (many)
solch(-) (such)
all(-) (all)*

*Also functions as a zero word in the plural (See below for more).

Multi-Use German Words Table

Here are a few examples of these words functioning as zero words:

Mit wenig öder Arbeit kannst du …
(You can … with [just a] little tedious work).
Viel flauschiger Schnee liegt auf dem Dach
(
A lot of fluffy snow lay on top of the roof).
Solch ein Fehler wird nicht wieder vorkommen
(Such a mistake won’t happen again!).

And here are some similar examples, but with the words functioning as plural determiners:

Wenige Arbeiter werden gebraucht
(Few workers are needed).
Viele Schneestürme sind übers Wochenende erwartet
(Many snowstorms are expected over the weekend).
Solche Fehler mache ich immer wieder!
(I’m repeatedly making such mistakes [as these]!)

Determiners / Pronouns

Notice that anything listed in the table as a determiner is also a pronoun!

Determiners / Pronouns will all take strong declensions as per our standard rules & basic declension pattern #1 that follows from them.

Determiners vs. Pronouns is a worthy distinction in that they each play a different grammatical role in a given sentence.

For example:

Determiner: Solche Schuhe finde ich ganz schön (I think shoes such as these are really lovely).
Pronoun: Welche Schuhe möchtest du? –Solche! (Which shoes do you want? –Ones like these!)

BUT! Determiners vs. Pronouns take the same declensions (like you can see in the above examples ^^) except in a handful of special instances (covered soon). 

So, for our purposes (<– since we’re not linguists), we don’t really care about the technical distinction. We care about the functional sameness! 😀

The ONLY time the determiners vs. pronouns distinction matters is with ein-words: ein, kein, irgendein, and all of the possessives.

Ein-words used as determiners decline using our special 3 no declension instances listed in our All-In-One Chart:

But ein-words used as pronouns will use ALL the regular, strong declensions — no exceptions!

Example:

Determiner: Ein blauer Rock hätte ich gerne! (I’d like a blue skirt)
Pronoun: So einer! [points to a blue skirt] (One [replacing ‘a blue skirt’] like this!).

Determiner / Adjective

You can see the in massive table that there are also many words that can function as either a plural determiner or as an adjective (in front of a plural noun).

NOTE: the determiner ein is our only exception case: it is a singular, not plural, determiner; as an adjective, it works like this: Das eine Buch, das ich dieses Jahr gelesen habe … (The one book I read this year …)

  • A plural determiner or a stand-alone (declensions pattern #2) adjective would take the strong declension.
  • BUT! If the adjective follows a determiner (declensions pattern #1), it will need a weak declension!

Examples:

Viele Studenten rauchen
(Many students smoke).
Die vielen Studenten die rauchen….
(The many students who smoke …).

Special Situation #4: Plural Determiners

When we deal with singular nouns, we have to split determiners into 2 groups: ein-words and der-words (remember: this distinction matters only in our 3 exception spots — the rest of the time, a determiner is just a determiner!).

In the plural, we still have two distinct categories of determiners: one that always follows the rules (like der-words) and one that is all about exceptions (like ein-words). ← For more discussion on this point, read my study tips below.

RULE: Regular Determiners take strong declensions. Any following adjective(s) take weak.

Regular Determiners:

All- (all [covered in depth below!])
Welch- (which)
Irgendwelch- (any)
Die/ Der (the)
Solch- (such)
Beid- (both)
Sämtlich- (‘each and every’ → more defineable than ‘all’)
Kein- (no, not any)
Possessives (e.g. my, your, etc.)

Now, did you notice some words in that huge table that have an * in front of them? Here, look again:

Multi-Use German Words Table

Those * in the table mark the rulebreaking plural determiners!

RULE: Rulebreaker Determiners also take strong declensions (as per normal) BUT they require that any following adjective(s) take strong declensions, too (<– which is weird).

Example: Einige amerikanische (NOT einige amerikanischeN) Studenten lernen Deutsch (Some American students learn German).

In contrast to the regular determiners that are similar to the concept of der-words, these rulebreakers are akin to ein-words: they are indefinite, or, in other words, more vague.

Rulebreaker Determiners:

etlich- (quite a lot of)
verschieden- (various, different)
zahlreich- (numerous)
folgend- (following)
manch- (some, many)
wenig- (few)
ander- (other, different)
einig- (some)
mehrer- (multiple)
viel- (a lot of)

TIP: Because the plural dative strong & weak declensions are identical, you don’t in that instance have to worry about if a determiner is regular or a rulebreaker -- it doesn’t make a difference.

Special Situation #5: all-

Like all zero words in the table, all- can function also function as a regular determiner / pronoun.

What’s weird about its zero word status, though, is that all- can be used as a zero word in the singular or in the plural.

Zero Word Examples:

In the singular (note that Haltung is an uncountable noun):

All umstrittene Haltung zu Politik nehme ich mir lieber nicht ein (I prefer to not take any controversial stance on politics).

Notice: the adjective umstritten- has the strong feminine accusative declension!

NERD ALERT: uncountable nouns can’t be counted! For example, water, milk, snow, oxygen, freedom, furniture, sleep, chaos, etc. You can’t have five furnitures, but you can have five pieces (<-- ‘pieces’ is countable) of furniture. In German, all uncountable nouns take declensions in the singular (not plural → for something to be plural, it has to be countable!).

In the plural (note the optional ‘e’):

All(e) unaufrichtige Angebote lehne ich ab (I reject all insincere offers).

Notice: the adjective unaufrichtig- has the strong plural accusative declension!

All as a regular determiner (in the plural ONLY):

Der Freundschaftsbruch [plural nominative] hat alle guten Erinnerungen vernichtet (The breakup of the friendship destroyed all the good memories).

Notice the strong declension on all- and the weak one on gut-!

Main Takeaways

  1. German is an inflected language that uses declensions to indicate the case of each noun (who is doing what to whom) in any given sentence.
  2. Since German nouns also have gender, this feature also has to be taken into account when figuring out the right declensions to use in each situation.
  3. It is specifically determiners & adjectives (the words that come in front of nouns)that take declensions that indicate the noun’s gender & case.
  4. There are strong and weak declensions AND also 3 instances when no declension is used.
  5. Declensions follow two standard patterns, and then there’s a 3rd exception pattern that occurs in just 3 instances.
  6. Rather than studying 10 different charts of various words with their attached declensions, you can memorize just ONE chart of declensions only and learn the simple rules for how to know when to use which one.
  7. Zero words are special determiners that do not take declensions anywhere on the chart! 
  8. Some plural determiners break our standard rules by taking strong declensions AND requiring that any following adjectives take strong declensions, too.
  9. Some words have multiple functions (possible options: zero word, determiner / pronoun, adjective).

Study Tips

For once, I really only have one study tip: USE THE ALL-IN-ONE DECLENSIONS CHART! 🙂

Forget about the others. You don’t need them. They’re confusing. They make distinctions that aren’t useful. And they tediously repeat the bulk of the information anyway.

Using the provided examples as a reference, practice plugging in various determiners and/or adjectives (in one of the 3 basic declensions patterns, of course!) until you surprise yourself by having the whole chart of declensions memorized. It’ll happen!

SPECIAL NOTES ON PLURAL DETERMINERS (and how to remember which is which):

In a way, we could think of the regular plural determiners as being like der-words (like ‘this’ and ‘that’) because they are more specific, more definable, more definite. 

HOWEVER, notice that all of the traditional ein-words (except ‘a’, which you can’t say with a plural noun!) are on this list, too: kein, all the possessives, and irgendwelch- (which is akin to irgendein-).

The normal way of categorizing der- vs. ein-words for singular nouns has nothing to do with how specific or vague the determiner is. But in the plural, that’s what it’s all about!

If you don’t like repurposing the same vocabulary of der- and ein-words like this, that is totally fine (and understandable, too).

Maybe you want to repurpose the terms definite and indefinite. Or use concrete vs. abstract. Or specific vs. vague. That’s all up to you and whatever makes the most sense in your brain!

I just want you to notice the distinction here between the regular determiners (specific) vs. the rulebreakers (vague). And then I recommend coming up with some way to help yourself remember which determiners belong to which category.

NOTE: the two words that seem (to different extents) to break this pattern of specific vs. vague are irgendwelch- (regular determiner) and folgend- (rulebreaker).

In a way, irgendwelch- seems vague — it does mean ‘any’ after all! — but if you think of it in context, as in, Any of those methods would be fine with me, ‘any’ is actually delineating a specific, limited number [of methods].

However, I don’t have any good explanation for folgend-. :-p It really does just break our nice little pattern (darn!). It’s specific, not vague, and there’s no two ways about it. Sorry!

Using the provided examples as a reference, practice plugging in various determiners and/or adjectives (in one of the 3 basic declensions patterns, of course!) until you surprise yourself by having the whole chart of declensions memorized. It’ll happen!