Here's a truth about learning German: nearly everyone struggles with German adjective endings.
Every textbook seems to contain endless tables and charts depicting similar adjective endings, seemingly chosen at random. Sound familiar?
Time to stop tearing your hair out! In this post, I'm breaking down German adjective endings into simple terms that you can understand.
I've also compiled all the information you need to know into one concise table. Finally, I'll show you how to choose the correct adjective ending in four easy steps.
By the way, if you're getting started in German, my recommendation is story-based learning and that's exactly what you'll find in German Uncovered, my immersive and innovative beginner course.
Adjective endings are a strange concept for English native speakers like you and I. However, for Germans, these endings fulfill a very specific purpose.
To understand, I want to show you how the English and German language compare.
Adjective endings don't exist in English, so why do you need them in German?
In English, we use word order to indicate who and what is the subject, direct object, and indirect object.
By changing the word order, you change the meaning of the sentence. In some cases, changing the word order can turn a sentence into nonsense, like in the 3rd example.
In German, you can change the order of words around without changing the meaning of a sentence.
Take a look at the same sentences in German:
You might think that each sentence has a different meaning.
However, each sentence means the same thing: “The old woman is giving the young child a large piece of cake.”
In German, adjective endings tell us who or what is the subject, object, and direct object, not the word order.
You might remember that we can determine the role of a noun in a sentence according to the case.
You'll understand better when I break down the sentence from above.
Notice how I've marked the definite articles, indefinite articles, and their corresponding adjective endings in bold.
Don't worry about how to choose the right ending yet. After my explanation, you'll have a much easier time understanding the consolidated table at the end.
As you can see, the nouns themselves don't tell you which case they are.
Instead, the adjectives and preceding articles, or determiners, tell you which case you're using.
In German, both determiners and adjectives take endings, also known as declensions or inflections, that indicate the noun's case.
Without these endings, you wouldn't know who was who or what was what.
I know what you're thinking: how will I ever make sense of the German language when the entire meaning of a sentence comes down to a single letter?
I admit, the system will take some getting used to in the beginning.
But, once you grasp the concept, you'll be surprised how much fun it is to change the word order around in German.
In addition to figuring out the gender, number, and case of a noun, you'll also have to know whether the ending is strong, weak, or mixed.
I know these facts might sound intimidating. But remember, there are only five possible endings altogether: -e, -er, -es, -en, and -em.
The tables below will help you understand how strong, weak, and mixed endings work. However, you don't need to memorize these.
You'll find a single simplified chart at the end to use as a reference guide.
Use a strong ending when the noun has neither a definite nor indefinite article.
If you're already familiar with the German cases, you'll recognize that strong endings follow almost the same declension patterns as der, die, and das.
Only the genitive case is different in the masculine and neuter cases. Instead of the expected -es ending, you use an -en ending.
Here, there is no article before the adjective, and I have a neuter noun, so I'll need an -es ending.
Choose a weak ending after a definite article.
Notice that you only have to choose between an -e or -en ending. Plural, dative, and genitive always have -en endings.
The nominative and accusative cases always take an -e ending. The masculine accusative case takes an -en ending.
Here, I have a definite article, das, and a neuter noun, so I need an -e ending.
Use mixed endings after indefinite and possessive articles.
Mixed and strong endings are the same in the nominative and accusative. However, this only applies to masculine, feminine, and neuter words. Use an -en ending for the dative, genitive, and plural cases.
Here, I'm dealing with an indefinite article, ein, and a neuter noun, so I'll take the -es ending.
Did you see all the similarities between the three tables?
Instead of memorizing several different charts, I've put together a single table that you can use as a reference to determine the correct adjective ending.
Note how the feminine and plural cases are the same for weak and mixed endings. The masculine and neuter endings are the same for weak and mixed endings in the dative and genitive cases.
Strong and mixed endings are the same for both masculine and neuter words in the nominative or accusative case.
Next, I'll guide you step-by-step on how to choose the correct adjective ending when building a German sentence.
Step 1: Is the noun masculine, feminine, or neuter?
First, determine the gender of the noun. Let's use the first example sentence again – The old woman is giving the young child a large piece of cake.
In German, “the woman,” or die Frau, is a feminine noun.
Step 2: Is the noun singular or plural?
In the example sentence, there's one woman, so it's singular. Now, I've narrowed down my search for the correct ending to two columns.
Step 3: Are you using a definite (the), indefinite (a), or no article?
This information will help you decide whether to use a strong, weak, or mixed ending. My sentence has a definite article, so I need a weak ending. Now that I have the right column, I still have to choose the correct row.
Step 4: Do you need the nominative, accusative, dative, or genitive case?
Finally, you need to know what case you're using. You may have to identify the subject, direct object, indirect object, and possessive object first.
In my sentence, die Frau, is the subject, so I'll use the nominative case.
Now, I'm left with one column and one row that reveal that I need an -e ending. I can add this ending to any adjective between die and Frau.
You can repeat this process for each noun in your sentence to figure out the right adjective ending.
When you have multiple adjectives, use the same ending for each one.
Learning German adjective endings requires repetition and practice. So don't give up on your German learning dreams just because of some pesky grammar!
When in doubt, you can always just add an -e. German speakers will still understand you. And eventually, you'll develop a feeling for the right ending.
Adjective declensions are one of the more complicated concepts that you'll learn in German. So don't be discouraged if you can't always identify the gender or case of a noun.
Just keep on immersing yourself daily in German through stories, podcasts, movies or TV shows. It's this daily, regular contact with the language that will help you get familiar with the adjective endings over time.
And that's how you'll start using them the right way when you speak German.