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A Beginner's Guide to Adjective Declensions in German

Embarking on the exciting journey of learning German opens doors to a rich and expressive language. As you delve into the nuances of German grammar, one aspect that may seem challenging initially to beginners is adjective declensions. Fear not, as this beginner's guide aims to unravel adjective endings in the nominative and accusative case, making your language learning adventure more enjoyable.



Preliminary Thoughts on Adjectives, Articles and Cases in German


If you have recently started to learn German in one of our beginner German courses or elsewhere and are confused about adjective endings in German, you might want to check my beginner's guide on the nominative and accusative in German and my introduction to German gender rules first before you continue reading this post. The reason is that the distinction between the two cases serves as the backdrop to adjective endings. Unlike English, where adjectives remain unchanged regardless of their position, German adjectives take on certain endings if they precede the noun. However, when adjectives come after the noun in German, they remain unchanged as well.


  • Das Haus ist groß. (The house is big.)

  • Das große Haus. (The big house)

  • Es ist ein großes Haus. (It is a big house)


The aim of this blog post is to explain the differences between adjective endings followed by definite articles (der, die, das) and indefinite articles (ein, eine, ein). Before we proceed, we should clarify what articles are meant to do in German. The answer is rather straightforward: they are supposed to reveal the gender and the case of the noun that follows them. It's important to emphasise this point as it will allow you to understand why adjectives take on different endings, depending on whether they are used with definite or indefinite articles.


The Difference between Definite and Indefinite Article Adjective Declensions


The definite articles in German are gender specific. "Der" is only used for nominative masculine, "die" only for nominative feminine, and "das" only for nominative neuter. Since they clearly display the gender of the noun that follows, the adjective ending for three is the same and it is an -e.


On the contrary, the indefinite article "ein" is used for both masculine and neuter in the nominative case. In other words, the indefinite article doesn't do the job that it's supposed to do, i.e. tell you the gender of the noun in a clear and precise manner. This has important repercussions as far as adjective endings is concerned because they now need to disambiguate the gender of the noun that follows. They do so by adding the ending -er for masculine nouns, -e for feminine, and -es for neuter nouns. Those endings are no coincidence as they come from the definite articles der, die, das. The only reason why German uses -es rather than -as for neuter is because it is easier to pronounce.


What about the accusative case? Here, the picture is very similar because feminine, neuter and plural always use the same articles for both nominative and accusative case. Logically, then, their adjective endings follow suit. Only in the masculine are things a bit more complicated as the definite and indefinite articles change to "den" and "einen", respectively. However, since both gender and case are clear, their adjective ending is simply -en for both definite and indefinite articles, thus mirroring the articles.


Let's now look at the following table to exemplify all of the above.



Masculine

Feminine

Neuter

Plural

Nominative

der große Mann ein großer Mann

die große Frau eine große Frau

das große Auto ein großes Auto

die großen Autos keine großen Autos

Accusative

den großen Mann einen großen Mann

die große Frau eine große Frau

die große Frau eine große Frau

die großen Autos keine großen Autos


As you can see, I used the colour red to indicate that the endings for adjectives preceded by indefinite articles are not the same as they have to reveal the gender of the noun, while I used the colour green to show that the endings for adjectives preceded by definite articles are the same. Since indefinite articles don't exist in the plural, I used the negative articles instead.


If you are already familiar with dative and genitive case in German and want to learn about German adjective declensions in all cases then check our post for more advanced learners.


So, in summary, it's all a matter of clarity regarding the gender of nouns.









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