Learning the right endings for German adjectives is probably one of the most difficult challenges in tackling the language.
Well, if you need to learn e.g. the cases of German nouns you need to know which of the four cases you have to use and then choose the right form depending on whether the noun is masculine, feminine or neuter and if we have a singular or plural form.
That means you have to come to terms with 4x3x2=24 possible case forms. Quite a lot, eh?
When it comes to adjectives you have to consider all those options plus three more as the endings differ whether you are dealing with a definite, an indefinite or no article at all. So all of a sudden you have 72 possible endings. As it doesn’t really matter in the plural forms what gender the noun is (we come to that later) the list can be reduced to “just” 48 endings but – Wow! – that’s still quite a handful to learn.
All possible endings are reproduced in many a text book and all over the internet. Here is one from here:
For generations students of the German language have memorised these forms by rote. Nothing wrong with that. It works but can be quite time consuming. It also results in that strange phenomenon of looking absent mindedly at the ceiling halfway through a conversation and silently mouthing the endings chart until the correct ending is reached.
There must be an easier way to learn those endings.
And there is.
Apronus.com published a list of Three Simple Rules. As it stands right now the site only lists those rules without any comment. (I seem to recall that a previous version of that site had some more info.) As much as I love those charts, especially for beginners or even intermediates they require quite a bit of head scratching before they’re fully understood. And it doesn’t help that those lists start with the most difficult and complex scenario (strong declension) and then work their way through to easier examples.
In order to make it easier for students to properly study these rules I suggest the following approach.
Holger’s patented 5 step programme to learning German adjectives
Before we start a word about this study approach. The best way to study these steps is by doing so one step at a time. Try and fully comprehend and practise the steps before going on to the next. So before trying to digest Step #2 make sure you have spent time using Step #1 and are fully aware of it. Then wash, rinse, repeat and move on to the next step. The first three steps are fairly straight forward, the last two a bit more complex.
German adjectives with a definite article only ever have the endings -e or -en.
Got that? Pretty simple, isn’t it. Of course this rule doesn’t yet tell you when to use the -e or -en ending but at least you now know that the next time you say something like “Ich traue dem altem Mann nicht” you better give yourself a little slap on the wrist as you just used an -em ending when you damn well know by now that this ending doesn’t exist for adjectives with definite articles. (For the record the correct form is: Ich traue dem alten Mann nicht.= I don’t trust the old man.)
At this stage don’t worry too much about the correct use of the endings -e and -en and just accept that no other endings should be used in this case. Once you understood this rule and practised with it, move on to the next step where we will give an explanation when to actually use which of those endings.
With definite articles the -e is used in the Nominative (singular) and in all singular forms where the article “looks” like the Nominative.
Just to clarify: When does the definite article “look” like the Nominative? In the Accusative for the feminine (die) and neuter (das) forms where the articles don’t change. They remain “die” or “das”. (In contrast the masculine “der” changes to a “den” in the Accusative.) In all other instances the definite articles change and require the adjective ending -en. And yes, the -en is also automatically used in all plural forms.
So: If it’s the Nominative (singular) or looks like it, it’s an -e. In all other cases an -en.
Der alte Mann schaut auf das Meer. (The old man looks at the sea.)
This is a Nominative form, hence the -e.
Die Frau kauft das elegante Kleid. (The woman buys the elegant dress.)
This is an Accusative form (das) where the Nominative and Accusative “look” identical, hence the -e.
Kennst du den frechen Jungen? (Do you know the naughty boy?)
“den” doesn’t look like the Nominative, hence the -en
Ich spreche mit der netten Lehrerin. (I am talking with the nice [female] teacher.)
The feminine form “die” has changed to a “der”, therefore it is not identical with the Nominative and is -en.
Mercedes baut die besten Autos. (Mercedes builds the best cars.)
This is a plural form so no need to even think about the case. It is by default an -en
Congratulations! You have just mastered all the adjective endings for definite articles. You can now move on to the next step.
And for the record: These two steps are represented in the following diagram from my initial source:
Weak declension singular
|Nominativ||der Wein||die Wurst||das Bier|
|der kalte Wein||die kalte Wurst||das kalte Bier|
|Genitiv||des Weines||der Wurst||des Biers|
|des kalten Weines||der kalten Wurst||des kalten Biers|
|Dativ||dem Wein||der Wurst||dem Bier|
|dem kalten Wein||der kalten Wurst||dem kalten Bier|
|Akkusativ||den Wein||die Wurst||das Bier|
|den kalten Wein||die kalte Wurst||das kalte Bier|
Weak declension plural
|Nominativ||die kalten Weine||die kalten Würste||die kalten Biere|
|Genitiv||der kalten Weine||der kalten Würste||der kalten Biere|
|Dativ||den kalten Weinen||den kalten Würsten||den kalten Bieren|
|Akkusativ||die kalten Weine||die kalten Würste||die kalten Biere|
With indefinite articles (incl. all forms of kein, mein, dein etc) the ending is -en in exactly the cases where we also have an -en with definite articles (see Rule #2).
Couldn’t be simpler. If you have an -en in Rule #2 you also have an -en with the indefinite articles.
Ich spreche mit einer netten Lehrerin. (I speak with a nice [female] teacher.)
Fiat baut keine guten Autos. (Fiat doesn’t build good cars.)
In both of these examples we have similar situations to Step #2 but instead of a definite article we now used an indefinite article.
Again, take as long as you need to fully understand and practise this rule. Only then move on to the next one.
Here’s where it starts getting trickier though by now you have already mastered the majority of the forms and the finish line is near.
Most of the adjective endings for indefinite articles have been covered in Step #3. What is left are the three Nominative endings and the feminine and neuter Accusative forms. In other words examples such as these:
Das ist ein alter Mann.
Das ist eine junge Frau.
Das ist ein kleines Kind.
Ich sehe eine junge Frau.
Ich sehe ein kleines Kind.
So why is it “ein alter Mann” but “ein kleines Kind” or “eine junge Frau”?
The best way to help you memorise these endings is to take a step back and remember what the definite articles in this case would have looked like:
der Mann, die Frau, das Kind
Do you notice the similarities (in bold) between those definite articles and the correct adjective ending?
Or to make it more obvious:
dER Mann => ein altER Mann
diE Frau => eine jungE Frau
daS Kind => ein kleinES Kind
So if unsure about the ending, just try and remember what the definite article would look like and choose an ending that reminds you of it.
Steps #3 and 4 are represented in diagram 3.1. (Until you’ve mastered Step 5 only look at the second lines that actually feature an indefinite article.)
I hope you’re still with me. So far you have learned the adjective endings for all the definite and indefinite articles in four steps. We now come to the last scenario: Adjective endings when we do not have any article at all, e.g. Ich mag roten Wein.
These endings are the trickiest but the good news is that in reality these scenarios are also the rarest to come across in practical German. The endings you are already familiar with for the definite and indefinite articles are by far more common in everyday speech than the endings in this final step. So the easier the adjective rule the more often you’ll come across it in real life.
The rule of thumb for these is similar to what you already learned in Step #4. In other words, if unsure about what the correct ending needs to be, remember what the definite article in question would look like and then take a similar ending:
der => -er
die => -e
das => -es
den => -en
dem => -em
des => -en
But hold on! What is this I see?
des => -en
This refers effectively to the masculine and neuter forms of the Genitive (singular) and yes, all our rules of thumb are thrown across board. There is no visible relation between the definite article and the ending. You just gotta remember that the Genitive is an exception that needs to be learned separately. It also is a form that you are only ever going to use in the rarest of circumstances so you really don’t need to waste too much time focusing on it. In the big scheme of things knowing the first couple of steps properly is far more important than mastering this last piece of the puzzle.
So here you are: You have worked your way through three relatively simple and two slightly trickier rules and by now have mastered what was initially a very complex and daunting aspect of the German grammar. Rather than learn 72 (or at least 48) different endings you only have to remember a set of five rules. So give yourself a very well deserved pad on the back.
N.B. While I was writing this I came across this article that also takes a similar approach to mine for the learning of the adjective endings and is well worth reading.