The (slightly) easier way to learn German adjective endings

Learning the right endings for German adjectives is probably one of the most difficult challenges in tackling the language.

Why?

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:

“TYPE” ==>
Case
PERSON
Nominative
Accusative
Dative
Genitive
After “DER”-words
M F N PL
-e -e -e -en
-en -e -e -en
-en -en -en -en
-en -en -en -en
After “EIN”-words
M F N PL
-er -e -es -en
-en -e -es -en
-en -en -en -en
-en -en -en -en
Unpreceded
M F N PL
-er -e -es -e
-en -e -es -e
-em -er -em -en
-en -er -en -er

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.

Step 1

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.

Step 2

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.

Examples:

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

Got it?

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:

Table 2.1

Weak declension singular

SG. Masculinum Feminum Neutrum
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

Table 2.2

Weak declension plural

PL. Masculinum Feminum Neutrum
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

Step 3

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.

Examples:
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.

Step 4

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.)

Step 5

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.

Mir geht’s gut

If only I had a Euro for every time I asked “Wie geht’s dir?” (or even “Wie geht’s, wie steht’s?”) and received one of the following replies: Ich bin gut. Ich gehe gut. Or even worse: Ich geht’s gut.

In German we generally don’t say “I’m fine, thanks” but “Me goes well”. Does it make sense? Probably not, so just accept it as it is and remember that the proper replies are in the Dativ e.g.

Es geht mir gut.
Mir geht’s gut.
Mir geht es gut.
Danke, mir geht’s super.
Meinem Bruder geht es gut.
Meiner Schwester geht es gar nicht gut.
Meinen Eltern geht es schlecht.

Forming the German plural

QUESTION (received through my Facebook page):

“Well….I have a lot of problems with plurals, specially with those that don’t change (der Fahrer, die Fahrer) and those that change in a weird way (der Saal, die Säle)…and with the singular Tantrum (der Glanz)…since I’m assuming I’ll have to learn them by heart, it would be great to have a list (I am working on my own already, but if I can take advantage of the work of someone else…well, gerne!”

ANSWER:

That is a great question!

Whereas in English we generally just add an -s to the noun to form the plural (though try explaining to a German pupil learning English why it is “children” not “childs”!) German has about a dozen different ways to form the plural and in a lot of cases there is no proper rule for that that’ll cover all the forms. Instead you have more general rules of thumb that’ll cover a large number or some of the cases.

The good news is that you’re in good company. Even well educated Germans at some stage in their lives will come across a plural form they need help with. Just the other day a German Twitter buddy asked what the plural of “Plenum” is. It is “Plenen” though the original Latin plural form “Plena” apparently is also acceptable.

The moment you start learning German you are confronted with plural forms. You cannot form a sentence without using a noun so from Day 1 you need to find a way to learn the relevant plural forms. Given the large number of possible forms, it is best to simply memorise the right one any time you learn a new noun. So rather than just to learn: “das Fahrrad”, learn “das Fahrrad, die Fahrräder”. There really is no quick fix or short cut. (Sorry.)

Especially if you’re at an early stage in your studies, trying to understand possible rules is just going to confuse you unnecessarily. After all most Germans aren’t aware of those rules themselves and as children they also learned the plural forms one by one by trial and error. You could actually go through your whole German studies without ever needing to know the rules but if you have reached a level of expertise where you may want to learn a bit more about those forms, this is what you could do next.

First of all drop over to About.com to see a list of all the possible plural endings to get you started and give you a quick overview.

Unfortunately on those pages there is little in regards to theory so for this go to this Vistawide German page. They provide some additional info with regards to some of those forms.

Read through them all and specifically focus on the likelihoods mentioned in the text. Celebrate rules such as

“All feminine nouns ending in -ei, -heit, -keit, -schaft, -ung have the plural suffix or -en. Feminine nouns ending in -in add -nen in the plural form. These never add an umlaut.”

as they apply to all the nouns in question.

If you read that

“Approximately 89% of masculine words, 74% of neuter words, and 25% of feminine words have the plural form -e or -¨e.”

then you know that when in doubt you could make a well informed guess with the masculine words (and possibly also the neutral ones) but that the odds are against this ending for the feminine nouns.

Needless to say those rules will help you when you have some time to think about the answer e.g. when you’re writing an essay. Of course, when you’re in the middle of a heated discussion you won’t have time to stop and analyse what possible prefix may make whatever plural form necessary or what the odds are that a specfic noun has an -e as their plural but as an extra bit of info to help you choose the right forms these rules can be quite helpful once you are past the Beginner stage.

So let’s look at your individual queries:

der Fahrer – die Fahrer

This falls under the category of
“Nearly all masculine and neuter nouns that end in -er, -en, -el, -chen, -lein & collective neuter nouns beginning with Ge- have plurals that are identical to their singular forms or that simply add an umlaut.”
“der Fahrer” is masculine and with an -er ending. Hence the form doesn’t change in the plural. Mind you: As the text indicates there are a few exceptions such “der Bauer – die Bauern” but when in doubt rely on the fact that the odds are stacked heavily in your favour that nothing changes for the vast majority of those nouns.

der Saal – die Säle

This belongs to
“Approximately 89% of masculine words, 74% of neuter words, and 25% of feminine words have the plural form -e or -¨e. Feminine nouns with the plural -e always take the umlaut. Masculine nouns often take the umlaut, but not always. Neuter nouns that have the plural -e rarely take the umlaut.”
So this is masculine meaning that it has a high likelihood of a) an -e plural ending and b) adding an Umlaut. If you were just speaking the word out aloud you’d have come up with the right solution just from this rule alone.
What is special about this though is that one of the vowels drops and we don’t write “die Sääle”. Generally we just don’t have two Umlaute in a row so this you just need to remember on an individual basis. Again, you are in excellent company about this. There are numerous threads about this on the Internet – one is here – from German natives wondering about this particular form as well.

der Glanz (the gloss, the shine)

You are right: this as well as some other words do not even have a plural form. Other examples are:
die Milch, die Erziehung, das Publikum, das Obst, das Gemüse, die Ruhe, die Stille.
These are by and large collective nouns or abstract terms where it just wouldn’t “feel” right to use the plural and in a lot (but not all) of the cases the English translation would also not carry a plural.

im am um

im, am, um: Three German words that often get mixed up when used in the context of time.

So here’s a quick run down….

um is used when referring to a specific time on the clock e.g.

Ich treffe Petra um 8 Uhr. ( I’ll meet Petra at 8 o’clock.)

im is used in reference to a specific month or season e.g.

Ich habe im September Geburtstag. (My birthday is in September.)
Wir fahren im Sommer in den Urlaub. (We’ll go on vacation in the summer.)

am refers to a specific day which can either be a weekday or a specific date e.g.

Wir planen am Sonntag die Eltern zu besuchen. (We’re planning to visit the parents on Sunday.)
Weihnachten wird in Deutschland am 24. Dezember gefeiert. (Christmas is celebrated in Germany on December 24.)

Watching German television online

The subject came up during one of my lessons: Is it possible to watch German television online?

I definitely recommend to immerse yourself fully with anything German (listening to online radio shows, checking out German language YouTube clips, reading German language newspapers and magazines) so watching German TV would be a huge benefit for any student regardless of their skill level.

In actual fact, even if you are a complete beginner it would be helpful regardless of whether or not you understand the entire program: There will always be certain words and phrases that are being repeated and that will stick in your memory.

The good news is that it is indeed possible to view German TV programs online and from what I can tell (living in Ireland) there do not appear to be any restrictions in viewing those from a foreign internet connection.

Both of the main public TV channels have their online players if you missed a show:

The ZDF is the most easily accessible one. Just click on this link and all the programs are showing up for the previous week. Some (all?) of their programs also have German subtitles (“Untertitel”) available. Just click on the link underneath the screen that show an ear with hearing aid. This really beneficial if your German is not yet up to scratch to catch it all without this aid.

The ARD as well as all the regional channels associated with it also have their own player. Once you access this website you will see a heading that says “Sendung verpasst?”. Click on this and it gives you the option to sort the shows by “Sendedatum” (date) and by name (“Sendungen A-Z”). Once you choose which show you want to watch you then also have to click the camera icon. It takes a bit getting used to but once done, you should be flying.

The private stations I checked only appear to show clips of their shows and are often introduced by commercials but if you really can’t wait for the next season of I’M A CELEBRITY feel free to view clips of the German equivalent and marvel at how stiffly the presenters are trying to be funny. Ant and Dec they sure ain’t.

Looking for Freedom on the Road South

OK, time to switch off your taste buds, but recently I discussed with an Irish friend of mine who is fluent in German how helpful some of the 1970s German Schlager (pop songs) are when it comes to learning the lingo. They can be pretty annoying, but because they quickly burn their way into your memory will help to remember certain phrases much easier than if you just tried to remember the individual words and sentences. (Also check out Daliah Lavi’s OH WANN KOMMST DU? for learning the days of the week amongst other things.)

He mentioned Tony Marshall’s Auf der Straße nach Süden, a song I hadn’t listened to in ages, and then emphasised that this was quite clearly the model that David Hasselhoff’s Looking for Freedom was based on.

Of course, he was spot on. How could I never have noticed the fact that both songs sound virtually identical? Judge for yourself: Look at the first video from 1978. Marvel at the fact that singers as tone deaf as Tony Marshall became Schlager Stars. Then notice how badly the audience clap to the rhythm and tell yourself: “That explains a lot.” Do not, however, forget to also have one ironic eye scan the lyrics that are also printed on the YouTube page as they will help you e.g. with some of the prepositions (“Auf der Straße nach Süden/mit der Sonne als Ziel”) as well as with some general vocabulary.

Then listen to The Hoff’s video and salute the man who was single handedly responsible for bringing the Berlin wall down. (You did know it was him, didn’t you?)

Easy German on YouTube

The fun videos on YouTube are teaching (or better: demonstrating) the use of practical German. They were created by Solarnet.tv and are meant to complement any regular German language course. They were filmed in Muenster and are bringing back memories from my own time in the university there. In case you’re wondering: Lesson 5 appears to have been deleted by YouTube.

Common Mistake #2 – Incorrect translation of “when”

One thing that I hear time and again by even my more advanced students are sentences like: “Ich werde dich besuchen, wann ich wieder in Irland bin” or “Wenn ich 10 Jahre alt war….”.

The English word “when” has three different translations in German.

The most well known is wann.

“Wann” is only ever used in questions?

Wann kommst Du mich wieder besuchen? (When will you visit me again?)

Wenn of course looks and sounds very similar and can therefore easily be mixed up, but is used in sentences (not questions) for future events or when talking about regular occurences:

Wenn ich nach Dublin fahre, werde ich dich auch besuchen. (When I travel to Dublin I will also visit you.)
Immer wenn ich Kopfschmerzen habe, nehme ich eine Tablette. (Whenever I have a headache I take a tablet.)

Last but not least we have als which again is used in sentences when discussing past events such as:

Als ich 10 Jahre alt war, habe ich erstmals in einem Flugzeug gesessen. (When I was 10 years old I sat in a plane for the very first time.)

So make sure to become aware anytime you want to use the English “when” and use
*Wann in questions
*Wenn in sentences discussing the future or regular occurences
*Als in sentences discussing the past

Common German mistakes # 1 – Improper use of the tenses

I’d like to start a little irregular series of blog posts about common mistakes often made by English language speakers learning the German language.

One of the most common though erroneous conceptions is that everything can be translated 1:1 from one language to the other. False Friends are an area in this regard that we have already explored.

What tenses can be used at what times in a way also falls into a similar area as the main tenses are available in both the English and the German language and it is therefore assumed that the usage will be identical, however, there are a number of discrepancies.

So let’s have a look at those.

PRESENT

The good news is that the English Present tense is also translated with the German Present.

The car is fast.
Das Auto ist schnell.

FUTURE

One way of translating the English Future tense is by using the correct form of werden plus the Infinitive.

Tomorrow we will drive to Dublin.
Morgen werden wir nach Dublin fahren.

This is a very easy form to learn and is generally considered to be the only way to handle that tense, however, there is a second way. Have you ever heard German language speakers use the English present tense to describe events in the future (“Tomorrow we drive to Dublin.”)? That is because they make the error of translating the proper German equivalent incorrectly into English as in German it is quite normal to use the German Present tense to translate the English Future!

Morgen fahren wir nach Dublin.

This way of describing the future in German is generally used when it is quite clear from the context (Morgen) that we are talking about future events. The werden form of the future is used primarily if this is not clear from the context or if we really want to emphasise that we *will* definitely be doing something.

SIMPLE PAST

So what’s the score on the English Präteritum?

He went to the cinema last night.

It can be translated as either a German Präteritum (Er ging gestern Abend ins Kino.) or a German Perfekt (Er ist gestern Abend ins Kino gegangen.)

The difference is that the German Präteritum is primarily used in the written language (e.g. journalistic, non-fiction etc) and the German Perfekt mainly in normal everyday spoken language (incl “quoted” text in narratives). The only exceptions are the German modal verbs (dürfen, können, müssen, mögen, sollen, wollen) that are generally always translated with the German Präteritum.

PERFEKT

The English Perfekt tense through the use of since or for generally describes events that started in the past and continue into the present, e.g. I have been living in Ireland for six years indicates that this started six years ago and continues to this day.

In order to express the same in German you will need to use the German Present tense.

Ich lebe (schon) seit sechs Jahren in Irland.

If you were to use the German Perfect tense form instead (Ich habe sechs Jahre lang in Irland gelebt.) you would indicate on the other hand that you lived in Ireland for six years, but now no longer do.

PLUSQUAMPERFEKT

I don’t want to go too much into this tense. Though not too complex, it is one of the last tenses you’d learn when studying German and the good news is that the usage is the same in both languages.

Mark Twain on learning German

While preparing some material for a lesson I came across a piece by Mark Twain about learning the German language and got sidetracked reading it. The title of it, The Awful German Language, will already reveal some lines of his thought. It is often painfully funny. Don’t read it if you haven’t started learning German yet (it just may discourage you), but do read it when you already had a few lessons. I’d be very surprised if his line of reasoning doesn’t ring a bell or two with you.