So far we've only talked about predicate adjectives, adjectives which appear after a verb like sein and not immediately before a noun. Now it's time to talk about how use adjectives which do come before a noun. We've been putting this off, which seems to be the trend in German grammar books, because these adjectives must be declined, and the declension pattern is complex even by German standards. The good news here is that there only a few irregular adjectives, and these are mostly only irregular in the formation of comparisons. So once you have learned and understood how to decline one adjective, you can do almost all of them with no annoying exceptions.
The usual way to handle this topic is to break down declension by gender and number, which gives four distinct "classes", then by the four cases, and then according to "strong, weak, and mixed" categories which are determined by the word before the adjective. It takes a table with 48 entries to keep track of all these combinations, and the student faced with trying to memorize this table will be justifiably concerned.[note 1] Fortunately, some relatively simple rules can reduce the load on memorization considerably.
We'll try to minimize our use of the terms "strong, weak, and mixed" here. For one thing, as we've mentioned before, the terms "strong" and "weak" are already used for verb conjugation. For another, it gives the impression that there are three different patterns in use here when really there are only two.
As we mentioned in the section on uninflected adjectives, we distinguish between predicate adjectives, adjectives which occur after a verb like sien, and attributive adjectives, adjective which are placed before the noun they modify. Attributive adjectives are used either to clarify which noun you're referring to, or to mention information aside from the main point of the sentence. Only attributive adjectives are declined in German.
A fundamental principle in German grammar is that when two words of certain types occur together, if the first word is fully declined then the second one doesn't need to be, at least not fully. The idea is that the gender, number and case information is carried by the first word, so there's no need to repeat it in second word. This is in contrast to Romance languages where the principle is congruence, meaning all the words must be declined the same way. For example, in the Spanish phrases:
- Una muchacha linda. — "A pretty girl"
- La muchacha linda — "The pretty girl"
all the words end with -a, the feminine ending. In the German phrases:
- Ein schönes Mädchen — "A pretty girl"
- Das schöne Mädchen — "The pretty girl"
The adjective endings are different. In the first phrase, the *ein* does not tell you the gender of the noun (neuter) so an -es ending must be added to the adjective to signify that we're dealing with a neuter noun. In the second phrase, the das already tells you that the noun is neuter, so there's no need to include this information in the adjective as well. So the fully declined schönes is replaced by a partially declined schöne, with an -e ending. In the undeclined form, the adjective has no ending and appears as it would in a dictionary, for example:
- Das Mädchen ist schön. — "The girl is pretty."
This principle will not completely fill in the declension tables for you, but hopefully it will help you to make sense of them. When you understand some of the patterns hidden in the tables, memorizing them is much less of a chore.
Other terms for declension sharing are sparingness and monoflection.
Full and partial adjective declensionsEdit
So German predicate adjectives aren't declined at all and appear as they do in a dictionary. Meanwhile attributive adjectives are either fully or partially declined depending (at least in principle) on whether the preceding word tells you the gender and case of the noun that follows.
In order to make this idea work in practice, we'll need to distinguish between two types of determiner. Those that carry enough declension information to share with an adjective we'll call specific, and those that don't we'll call generic. Specific determiners include all der words, including definite articles, and those ein words which have an ending. This includes all indefinite articles except ein, and the corresponding ein words. Remember that contractions with prepositions, am, ans, zur, zum, etc., all include a definite article, and so count as specific as well. But ein, and the corresponding words mein, dein, kein, etc. are generic because they don't actually have an inflection ending.
Adjectives preceded by a generic determiner or no determiner at all are fully declined since they carry the "declension load". The endings for fully declined adjectives are:
Most of the time, only the first two rows (nominative and accusative), and the last column (plural), are applicable. For the dative and genitive case, an undeclined ein is never used. And for most nouns, some article or determiner is required in the singular. Substance nouns such as Brot — "bread", Papier — "paper" and Glück — "luck" are exceptions.
This table is not hard to learn since almost all the endings match the corresponding definite article. For example the definite article das for the neuter nouns in the nominative and accusative cases becomes the -es ending for adjectives applied to neuter nouns in the nominative and accusative. Thus ein schönes Mädchen as in the example above. The definite article for masculine and neuter nouns in the genitive case, des, breaks this pattern though, and the corresponding adjective ending is -en. These entries are in bold in the table. This exception does not come up very often though, since genitive is least common case and, as mentioned above, these entries mostly only apply to substance nouns.
The only possible endings in the partial declension are -e and -en. For plurals, and the dative and genitives cases, the ending is always -en. Otherwise the ending is -e with the exception of masculine nouns in the accusative; these get the -en ending, just as ein becomes einen for the indefinite article. (The masculine accusative -n is a feature of all German declensions where it applies.) So the declension table is:
- Brauner Reis ist nahrhaft. — "Brown rice is nutritious.
- Rote Farbe ist bunt. — "Red paint is colorful.
- Frisches Heu ist gut für die Tiere. — "Fresh hay is good for animals.
- Rote Äpfel sind lecker. — "Red apples are tasty.
In these cases there is no determiner so you must use the full declension. Note that, except for the plural Äpfel, all the nouns here are substance nouns.
- Er isst einen roten Apfel. — "He's eating a red apple."
- Here, because Apfel is in the accusative case, it gets the indefinite article einen. This has the -en ending so the adjective rot gets the partial declension, which happens to have the same -en ending as einen, and so becomes roten.
- Das schöne Mädchen steht da. — "The pretty girl is standing there."
- Here, the definite article carries the declension, so partial declension (without the -s ending) is used.
- Ein schönes Mädchen steht da. — "A pretty girl is standing there."
- In this case, the indefinite article has no declension ending, so the full declension (with the -s ending) is used.
- Das Aroma frischen Heus ist entspannend. — "Fresh hay's aroma is relaxing."
- This is an example where the full genitive ending, -en, does not match the definite article, des.
Adjectives in tandemEdit
Although articles and other determiners can take the declension load for adjectives, adjectives can't take the load for each other, so when several adjective appear together they are declined the same way:
- Er ist ein kluger junger Mann. – "He is a clever young man."
There are two adjectives, hoch — "high, tall" and teuer — "dear, expensive", whose attributive stems are different than the predicate forms. The differences are small though and the purpose seems to be to make the words flow better. The stem for hoch is hoh-, so:
- das hohe Gras – "the tall grass"
The stem for teuer is teur-, so
- das teure Auto – "the expensive car"
Other adjectives ending in -er may also drop the e in the stem, but this seems to be optional at best. You may recall that German tends to slur the letters -ere- so this change might be seen as a contraction rather than an irregularity.
- ↑ Mark Twain, who we've mentioned earlier in the section on noun gender, was a serious student of German. But he was particularly exasperated by German adjectives, remarking: "Now let the candidate for the asylum try to memorize those variations, and see how soon he will be elected." and "I heard a Californian student in Heidelberg, say, in one of his calmest moods, that he would rather decline two drinks than one German adjective."
German – Lessons: Level I • Level II • Level III • Level IV • Level V
Grammar • Appendices • About (including print versions) • Q&A • Planning