Learning German phrases or even just some nouns feel so satisfying … like you’re really getting somewhere with your growing German skills.
Studying all the ‘fiddly grammar bits’ — all the tiny words like the, a, some, my, and, but, etc. — that can feel like a tedious slog.
But it’s those little words that actually get used the most! They help string everything together.
For example, even as a beginner German speaker, it’s important to know possessive adjectives: important words like my, your, his, her, its, our, and their.
Think about it: whether you’re referring to a pet, a car, a snack, or whatever … how often do you use just a generic ‘the’ or ‘a’ … and how often do you talk about who those things belong to?
- what are the German possessive adjectives
- how to use them (<– it’s all about declensions)
- how possessive adjectives relate to the German case system
- a better term to use (and why it matters)
- principles for learning ALL those ‘little words’ in German
Section 1: Possessive adjectives – What you need to know
Two Types of Possessives
The very first thing you need to know is that there’s some labeling confusion when it comes to ‘possessive adjectives’
Possessive adjectives are words such as my, your, his, her, its, our and their. But sometimes these words are called possessive articles or possessive determiners.
Possessive determiner is a much better term to use — it’s a more accurate description of how you actually use these words in German. Said another way; possessive adjectives = 👎 and possessive determiner = 👍 (more on this below!).
The other type is possessive pronouns, which are words such as mine, yours, his, hers, its, ours, and theirs.
Those two types of possessives are clearly very similar in English. And they are in German, too!
List of German Possessive Adjectives (again, better term: Possessive Determiners)
Possessive determiners & possessive pronouns have the same German base-words in common:
Ihr- (Your/Yours, formal)
unser- (our/ ours)
euer / eur- (y’alls)
But the two types of possessives function differently, for example:
My dog is brown vs. That brown dog is mine.
- The possessive determiner — my — comes in front of a noun as part of a noun phrase.
- The possessive pronoun — mine — actually replaces a noun / noun phrase
You can read up on possessive pronouns here, but in this guide, we’re going to focus on the possessive adjectives (determiners)!
How to use possessive adjectives (determiners)
Learning those possessive base-words listed above a great start! You do need to have that vocab under your belt.
It’s pretty useless if you don’t know how to properly use these possessives.
I know that you can figure out on your own if you want to say my pencil vs. your pencil. That’s a matter of when to use a possessive, and that’s simple: just about whenever you would in English!
How to use the possessive base words is a different animal. You need to be able to slightly change those base-words so you can use them as either possessive determiners or pronouns.
How do we do that?
Did you notice those dashes (-) after each German possessive base-word? We need to add some extra letters there, but it’s a bit of a process to know which ones to use and when.
The conventional way to learn possessive ‘adjectives’
With the good intention of trying to make things easier for German students, conventionally, you might see a chart like this for possessive adjectives (determiners):
It has allllll the possessive determiners (with the added extra letters on the ends) spelled out for you (and, then, there’s a separate chart like this for possessive pronouns).
I know that being able to just pick out the exact word you need has some initial appeal …
But there are a few problems with this conventional method.
Problems with the Conventional Way
Not only is the everything-spelled-out chart pretty dang visually overwhelming and intimidating, but it’s also a crutch.
It might seem easy right away, but in the long-run, learning this way will hold you back from speaking German as well as you can (<– and you can be fluent if you want to be!).
My final beef with the conventional way: by studying all sorts of separate everything-spelled-out charts (<– there are many more!), you don’t see the patterns, the relationships, the logic, the ways that all this German grammar stuff actually connects and makes sense.
All of the German grammar details (that at one point or another have probably left you feeling lost, confused, and frustrated) actually tie together really nicely.
German is a really fantastic language! And you can handle even the grammar parts if you know how to learn them smarter, not harder.
Possessive ‘Adjectives’, the Smarter Way
If you want to speak German well, you need to work with formulas or patterns.
There is too much to try to memorize every isolated word (imagine that chart from above, but x10 … that’s ~160 separate words, including 6 ways to say ‘my’ another 6 for ‘your’, and each of the other possessive adjectives (determiners).
Here’s the smarter way: You need to understand how you can take base components of German, slightly alter them (<– there are principles & patterns for that) and piece them together in a way that makes sense.
That’s how we speak English (without consciously realizing it) and that’s how you can speak German, too.
Instead of working with conventional charts that spell out each isolated word for you, you can learn a handful of base words and the patterns for what changes need to happen to all of them in particular situations.
It’s much more efficient, more effective, requires less brain-power, and supports fluency. Ready?
All-In-One Declensions Chart
Instead of studying multiple charts (not just for possessive determiners, but also for possessive pronouns and many other types of words!) that have all the work done for you, with less overall effort you can learn how to learn German.
Learn how to think for yourself, make the right declension choices, and be empowered as a German-learner! Study just this one chart of all declensions you’ll ever use in German:
This is the full All-In-One Declensions chart, but as we continue our discussion of when & how to use possessive determiners, we’ll actually work with an abbreviated version that suits just that specific need. I just wanted you to briefly see the whole thing as a sneak peek!
Section 2: When & how to use possessive ‘adjectives’ (i.e. determiners)
If you’re using a possessive ‘adjective’, you are using it in combination with a noun. We can’t just say ‘my’ or ‘your’ — we have to say ‘my’ or ‘your’ what (<– noun).
My pen. Your dog. His shirt. Her ring.
These possessive ‘adjectives’ are modifying the nouns that come after them. ‘My’ is modifying ‘pen’. ‘Your’ is modifying ‘dog.’ Etc.
Modifying words always come in front of a noun. They always tell us something about that noun — whose pen? whose dog?
Anytime we modify a noun we have to know three things:
- What is the noun’s gender?
- What is the noun’s case?
- What declension pattern are we using?
If you need some tips for how to know the gender of your noun or how to know the case of your noun, do some background reading on that!
For our purposes here, I’m going to assume you’ve got a handle on German noun gender & case (<– hopefully you’re learning those the smarter, not harder way, too!).
So, keep reading for specific info on what you need to know about using declensions with possessive ‘adjectives’ (determiners).
Everything you need to know about declensions
Words that need declensions
The ‘slight changes’ that happen on the tailends of many words in German are called declensions. Declensions are just these FIVE single-letters: -m, -r, -n, -s, -e.
One of these 5 declension options has to be put on the tailend of every word that modifies a noun — i.e. comes in front of a noun (within the noun phrase).
There are 2 types of words that modify nouns and therefore need declensions:
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).
This is why it’s important to call possessive ‘adjectives’ possessive determiners. Because there are just those 2 types of words that come in front of nouns (<– modify nouns), but they work differently!
And the possessive ‘adjectives’ my, your, his, her, its, our and their don’t modify nouns the adjective-way — they do it the determiner-way. 🙂
How it works
You saw these base possessives above:
Ihr- (Your/Yours, formal)
unser- (our/ ours)
euer / eur- (y’alls)
To make these into possessive determiners, you have to put on the correct declensions (-r, -m, -n, -s, -e) because those declensions provide us with crucial information about the modified nouns.
Why declensions are important
In English, we know who is who in a sentence because of word order. Saying, for example, the man loves the woman means something different from the woman loves the man, right? It’s the same words, but a different order.
In German, word order isn’t such a big deal. Because it’s the declensions that are put onto determiners & adjectives that tell us about the following noun — is it the subject? an object?
Check it out:
Der Mann liebt die Frau.
Die Frau liebt der Mann.
I just translated those English examples word-for-word … but, the meaning of them both is the same: the man loves the woman. The bolded letters are the declensions that tell us so!
The declensions on the determiners (der & die are 2 ways to say ‘the’ in German) are the same, so the meaning is the same. Even though the word order is different. Cool, huh?
What declensions tell us
German declensions are part of the “German case system”.
Every German noun is ‘in a case’: nominative, accusative, dative, or genitive.
The noun’s case is connected to the role the noun plays in the sentence.
Or, in other words, we have to know what case the noun is in in order to know what it’s doing in the sentence — is it the subject? the direct object? the indirect object?
Again, the declensions on determiners & adjectives coming in front of nouns (<– that modify those nouns) clue us in to that noun’s case, so we can know who is who in the sentence.
How declensions work
German’s 5 single-letter declensions (-m, -r, -n, -s, -e) signal or ‘flag’ the gender & case of the noun that follows.
The case is the info that actually matters; gender is just part & parcel with each German noun (but doesn’t actually carry any meaning). So, the noun’s gender is simply along for the ride.
In order to put the correct declension on a possessive base (to make it into a possessive determiner), you have to find the right gender/case intersection on this All-In-One Chart and then put on the strong declension listed there:
This is actually an abbreviated version of the full All-In-One Declensions Chart.
All you need to know for possessive determiners, though, is that they will always take the strong declension … except in the 3 spots where you see a no declension symbol.
Why possessive determiners sometimes don’t take a declension at all
The possessive determiners belong to a sub-group of determiners called ein-word determiners (note: all other determiners default to the only other sub-group, der-word determiners).
The ein-word determiners (ein, kein, irgendein and all the possessive determiners) do NOT take declensions in those 3 spots you see in the chart:
- masculine nominative
- neuter nominative
- neuter accusative
Except in those 3 spots, ein-word determiners behave like any other [der-word] determiner: they take the strong declension listed for that gender/case intersection.
Examples & Exercises
How to use the All-In-One chart for German possessive pronouns is very simple.
STEP 1: Know the gender & case of noun you’re modifying.
STEP 2: Find the corresponding slot on the chart.
STEP 3: Pick the possessive pronoun you want.
STEP 4: Plug the pronoun into the chart by adding the provided ending onto it.
Here again is the list of possessive base-words to which add the correct declensions to make them into possessive determiners specifically (read below for some points on the oddball aspects of these base-word, e.g. have you noticed that some are repeated?).
Ihr- (Your/Yours, formal)
unser- (our/ ours)
euer / eur- (y’alls)
All right! Let’s make this real by doing some practice examples with each gender in the nominative (subject) case.
EXERCISE 1: My cat (Katze) is brown.
STEP 1: Katze is in the feminine nominative
STEP 2: Go the ‘feminine’ column on top & match up with the ‘nominative’ row on the side
STEP 3: my = mein (German possessive base-word)
STEP 4:Plug mein into the selected slot (feminine, nominative) on the chart.
There is an -e in this spot on the chart, which means we add -e onto mein = meine.
ANSWER: Meine Katze ist braun.
EXERCISE 2: Her horse (Pferd) is white.
STEP 1: Pferd is in the neuter nominative
STEP 2: Go to the ‘neuter’ column on top & match up with the ‘nominative’ row on the side
STEP 3: her = ihr (German possessive base-word)
STEP 4:Plug ihr into the selected slot (neuter, nominative) on the chart.
There is a -s strong declension in this spot on the chart, BUT there is also one of 3 no declension symbols present, which is what we want: we use just ihr with no declension added.
ANSWER: Ihr Pferd ist weiß
EXERCISE 3: Your dog (Hund) is black.
STEP 1: Hund is in the masculine nominative
STEP 2: Go to the ‘masculine’ column on top & match up with the ‘nominative’ row on the side
STEP 3: your = dein- (German possessive base-word)
STEP 4:Plug dein into the selected slot (masculine, nominative) on the chart.
Just as with the neuter example, there is a strong declension listed (-r) BUT there is also one of our 3 instances of the no declension symbol.
For possessive determiners, we opt for the no declension whenever that’s a listed option. So, we don’t actually add an ending onto mein for this example.
ANSWER: Dein Hund ist schwarz.
Exercise 4: Our cats (Katzen) are brown.
Step 1: Katzen is in the plural nominative
Step 2: Go to the ‘plural’ column on top & match upwith the ‘nominative’ row on the side
Step 3: our = unser- (German possessive base-word)
Step 4: plug in the listed strong declension: -e
Answer: Unsere Katzen sind braun.
These four exercises were all in the nominative case, but we can use this same chart for accusative, dative, and genitive. Just follow the same provided steps!
If you know the gender [column] of your noun and the case [row] it needs to be in, locating the right spot in the All-In-One Declensions Chart is easy: trace the column & row until your fingers meet!
Possessive Determiners are formed by taking the possessive base-word and adding to it the listed strong declension for your selected gender/case combo.
Exception: if you’re in the masculine nominative, neuter nominative, or neuter accusative, your possessive determiner takes no declension at all.
We didn’t practice this here, but note that wherever the listed strong declension is any letter other than ‘e’, you need to add an ‘e’ between the possessive base-word and the declension.
Oddball Aspects of German Possessive ‘Adjectives’
It’s frequently confusing to German-learners that so many ‘little words’ (generally various determiners or pronouns) get reused a lot!
There are two possessive base-words that do double (or triple!) duty.
- Sein is used to say both ‘his’ and ‘its’.
- Ihr is how your say ‘her’ and ‘their’ and also the formal ‘your’.
Note that, like ‘ihr’ as a possessive determiner ^^, all pronouns for the 3rd Person Singular, 3rd Person Plural, and the 2nd Person Formal always match.
You’ll also notice the two ways to say ‘y’alls’ (or ‘your’, plural).
- Euer is the possessive determiner to use ONLY when you’re NOT adding a declension, which is in just 3 spots: masculine nominative, neuter nominative, neuter accusative
Euer Baby finde ich ganz niedlich (I think y’alls baby [neut. acc.] is really cute).
- The rest of the time, use eur- with the appropriate declension tacked onto the end:
Eure Babys finde ich ganz niedlich (I think y’alls babies [plur. acc.] are really cute).
- Possessive adjectives are the words my, your, his, her, its, our and their.
- In German, these words share the same bases with possessive pronouns.
- These base-words (e.g. mein-, dein-, sein-, etc.) must have declensions in order to use them!
- Declensions are just single-letter additions (-m, -r, -n, -s, -e) to the ends of possessive adjectives that signal or ‘flag’ the gender & case of the following noun (e.g. meine Katze)
- To use possessive adjectives, you need to put on the strong declension for matches up with the gender of the noun and the case it is in.
- Conventional charts spell out all the possible combos for you, but they are slow & inefficient ways to learn that will ultimately hold you back.
- It’s smarter to learn with a simplified, condensed chart that requires you to do a little of the work yourself — but it pays big dividends to learn this system (because it applies to many, many other charts beyond just for possessive adjectives)
- There is also a much better term for possessive adjectives: possessive determiners. This is a time when the grammar terminology actually matters because it reflects how you use these words correctly in German!