What does it mean to “decline” an adjective?

Hello, and welcome to “the fun part”: German adjective declensions. If you’ve read our post about different types of adjectives, you might remember that "attributive" adjectives (the ones that go right in front of a noun) are trickier to use than other types.

That’s because we have to stick different endings on these kinds of words, like Legos. 

When you read or hear them, the endings alone aren’t unique enough to really tell us what’s going on, that would be way too easy!

You still have to know exactly what’s going on in the sentence to choose the right one, though. That means knowing the case, gender, plurality (how many), and the definiteness ("a" or "the") of the noun you’re modifying. 

Geez Louise, that’s a lot of stuff to think about just to say something! So, let’s break it down and take a closer look.

How do we organize German adjective declensions, and why?

Adjectives could be organized in many different ways, but grammar-type people decided that the "easiest" way is to use definiteness. We do that by focusing on the articles.

Nouns can appear with:

  • a definite article (like der, die, das)
  • an indefinite or possessive article (like ein, eine, sein, mein)
  • with no article at all.

That gives us 3 categories for adjectives in each type of situation. Definite articles go with weak adjective declensions, indefinite articles go with mixed adjective declensions, and no articles require strong adjective declensions.

weak, mixed, and strong declensions for adjectives in German

Now, I know what you’re thinking, but that’s not because one kind of declension can bench press more than the others. Strong declensions are just more specific than mixed or weak declensions. They fill in the information we don't get from indefinite articles, or when there is no article. 


Weak Declensions for definite Articles

Definite articles (such as der, die, das, den, dem, etc…) give us a lot of information about gender, plurality, and case, so the endings don't have to do much.

After a definite article, an adjective will only have one of two endings: -e or -en.

That makes definite articles the easiest to deal with.

-e is used for all Nominative singular nouns

  • Die schwarze Tasse ist auf dem Tisch. (The black cup is on the table.)
  • Der neue Tisch hat eine Macke. (The new table has a dent.)
  • Das frische Brot schmeckt gut. (The fresh bread tastes good.)

-en is used for all plurals, and Accusative, Genitive, or Dative nouns

  • Die schwarzen Tassen sind in dem großen Schrank. (The black cups are in the big cupboard.)
  • Katie sitzt auf dem neuen Stuhl. (Katie is sitting on the new chair.)
  • Bobbi gießt den heißen Tee ein. (Bobbi pours the hot tea.)

Mixed declensions for indefinite (and possessive) Articles

Indefinite and possessive articles (ein, mein, dein, eine, meine etc...) don’t tell us as much about the case and gender of the noun.

Here, the adjective jumps in to fill the gap. To do that, we need a few more endings: -er, -e, -es, and -en.

-er is only used for singular masculine nouns in the Nominative case.

  • Ein alter Mann sitzt auf der Bank. (An old man is sitting on the bench.)
  • Heute war ein schöner Tag. (Today was a beautiful day.)
  • Teddy ist ein lieber Hund. (Teddy is a nice dog.)

-e is used for singular feminine nouns in the Nominative and Accusative cases. 

  • Meine kleine Maus hat eine spitze Nase. (My little mouse has a pointy nose.)
  • Die junge Katze sieht die Maus. (The young cat sees the mouse.)
  • Bobbi holt die neugierige Katze herein. (Bobbi brings the curious cat inside.)

-es is used for singular neuter nouns in the Nominative and Accusative cases.

  • Ein hungriges Mädchen geht nach Hause. (A hungry girl goes home.)
  • Sie isst ein belegtes Brot. (She eats a sandwich.)
  • Sie hat daheim ein bequemes Sofa. (She has a comfortable sofa at home.)

-en is used for everything else (when describing singular masculine nouns in the Accusative case, as well as all Genitives, all Datives, and all plurals.)

  • Katie und Bobbi fahren in den Urlaub. (Katie and Bobbi go on vacation.)
  • Sie hat den Kofferraum des alten Autos voll gepackt. (She packed the trunk of the old car full.)
  • Er kennt einen schönen Strand ohne Touristen. (He knows of a nice beach with no tourists.)

When there is no Article

Adjectives usually have some kind of article in front of them. But what about when they dont?

For example, we don’t use indefinite articles with uncountable nouns (things that you can’t count, such as water, grass, or sunshine). It’s like a holiday for articles.

Unfortunately, it’s not a holiday for you, my sunny learner. No, it’s time to learn another, even more complicated, set of adjective endings. They are -er, -e, -es, -en, and -em.

-er is used when describing:

1.) Singular masculine nouns in the Nominative case

  • Nach dem Urlaub ist noch lange überall feiner Sand. (After the vacation, there is still fine sand everywhere for a long time.)
  • Kalter Kaffee schmeckt nicht. (Cold coffee doesn’t taste (good).)

2.) Singular feminine nouns in the Dative and Genitive cases

  • Katie kommt immer mit guter Laune nach Hause. (Katie always comes home in a good mood.)
  • Bobbi fährt auf eisiger Straße immer vorsichtig. (Bobbi always drives carefully on an icy road.)

3.) Plural nouns in the Genitive case

  • Katie mag den Geruch frischer Blumen. (Katie likes the scent of fresh flowers.)
  • Der Bürgermeister will das Bauen neuer Häuser verhindern. (The mayor wants to prevent construction of new homes.)

-e is used when describing:

1.) Singular feminine nouns in the Nominative and Accusative cases

  • Deutsche Höflichkeit legt viel Wert auf Zeit. (German politeness puts a lot of value on time.)
  • Man muss genaue Pünktlichkeit üben. (You have to practice exact punctuality.)

2.) Plurals in the Nominative and Accusative cases

  • Bobbi räumt schwarze Tassen in den Schrank. (Bobbi puts black cups into the cupboard.)
  • Späte Abende sind bei Gogo normal. (Late nights are normal for Gogo.)

-es is used when describing singular neuter nouns in the Nominative and Accusative cases

  • Nasses Wetter hat die Straße überflutet. (Wet weather has flooded the street.)
  • Gogo muss durch kaltes Wasser waten. (Gogo has to wade through cold water.)
  • Selbst warmes Schuhwerk wird dabei nass und kalt. (Even warm footwear gets wet and cold there.)

-en is used when describing:

1.) Singular masculine nouns in the Genitive and Accusative cases

  • Gogo mahlt morgens immer frischen Kaffee. (Gogo always grinds fresh coffee in the morning.)
  • Katie mag den Geruch frisch gemahlenen Kaffees. (Katie likes the smell of freshly ground coffee.)

2.) Singular neuter nouns in the Genitive case

  • Bobbi liest den Titel des alten Buches. (Bobbi reads the title of the old book.)
  • Alle genießen den Geschmack frisch gebackenen Brotes. (All of them enjoy the taste of freshly baked bread.)

3.) Plurals in the Dative case

  • Gogo und Katie starten den Tag immer mit frischen Brötchen. (Gogo and Katie always start the day with fresh rolls.)
  • Von alten Backwaren wollen beide nichts hören. (Neither want to hear anything about old baked goods.)

-em is used when describing singular masculine and neuter nouns in the Dative case:

  • Die Wohnung riecht morgens immer nach frischem Gebäck. (The apartment always smells like fresh baked goods in the morning.)
  • Der Nachbar geht immer mit altmodischem Hut spazieren. (The neighbor always goes for walks with an old-fashioned hat.)
  • Der Hund schwimmt gern in kaltem Wasser. (The dog likes to swim in cold water.)

Charts for German adjective declensions (and why you shouldn’t rely on them)

Alright, time out! You might be wondering: Why don’t we just give you a nice big chart to conveniently organize all of that information in one place? What’s with all of these examples? 

Well, buckle up, because here come the charts. 

german weak adjective declensions table

german mixed adjective declensions

german strong declensions table

A chart can help us get a nice overview, but you probably won’t be able to easily memorize and use that information when you’re trying to talk. People (that means you!) are very good at remembering phrases, not charts and rules. Just think about all the movie quotes, jokes and song lyrics that you’ve accidentally memorized. 

That’s why we want to encourage you to focus on the examples more than the grammar rules and the system behind it. Still, knowing the rules and the system is useful. Also, charts are neat to look at. Just remember what’s more important.

Bonus Lesson: Using Adjectives as nouns!

I know, I know. This sounds like something that belongs in a post about nouns. Bear with me, though, because these kinds of nouns are all about those declensions we just learned!

When using an adjective as a noun, it keeps its adjective ending exactly as if it was an adjective placed in front of a sneaky invisible noun. That sneaky noun can be guessed from the context, and it tells us what kind of ending to use.

Sounds confusing, but that’s why we have examples:

  • Katie hat Gummibärchen gekauft und Gogo hat die roten alle gegessen. (Katie bought gummy bears, and Gogo ate all the red ones.)

→ The noun “roten” (red ones) is really talking about red gummy bears. Because of that, it has the same adjective ending as if it were still an adjective and we had put “Gummibärchen” after it. Really, it’s almost as if we just deleted the extra noun.  

Let’s look at another example:

  • Katie fragt Gogo, was mit den fehlenden passiert ist. (Katie asks Gogo what happened to the missing ones.)

→ Here, “Gummibärchen” doesn’t show up in the sentence at all. However, we still know that’s what we’re referring to, so we can just use “fehlenden” as a noun instead of “fehlenden Gummibärchen.”

Of course, we can always change the context with a new noun, so that our adjective refers to something else, like this:

  • Gogo hat keine gute Ausrede, also verwendet er eine schlechte. (Gogo doesn’t have a good excuse, so he uses a bad one.)

Makes sense, right? 

And that’s it for adjective declination in German. Congratulations for making it all the way through! Make sure to reread those examples a few times to help you get used to the different ways we use adjective endings.

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