German adjectives really aren’t that hard; they just look that way

Date:April 4, 2006 / year-entry #120
Orig Link:
Comments:    19
Summary:I may have scared a bunch of people with that chart of German adjective endings, but as several commenters noted, native speakers don't refer to the charts; they just say what comes naturally. (Well, except for Leo Petr, who claims that native Russian speakers actually study these charts in grade school.) Commenter Helga Waage noted...

I may have scared a bunch of people with that chart of German adjective endings, but as several commenters noted, native speakers don't refer to the charts; they just say what comes naturally. (Well, except for Leo Petr, who claims that native Russian speakers actually study these charts in grade school.) Commenter Helga Waage noted that one quickly sees patterns in the charts that make them much easier to digest. And that's true. But I taught myself the German adjective endings a completely different way. If you're a student of German, you might find this helpful. If you're not, then you probably just want to skip the rest of this entry.

As a side note, you have to make sure you put the columns in the right order. In many textbooks, the columns are ordered as "masculine, feminine, neuter, plural", but this fails to highlight the strong similarity between the masculine and neuter genders. From a grammatical standpoint, German neuter nouns are "90% masculine, 10% feminine"; therefore, it's more natural to put the neuter column between the masculine and feminine columns. I therefore prefer the order "masculine, neuter, feminine, plural", which as it so happens appears to be the order that Germans themselves use.

I'm going to do away with the terms "strong", "weak", and "mixed". Instead, I'm going to reduce it to the question "How much work does the adjective have to do?" which breaks down into two inflections. In my mind, I don't have terms for these two inflections, but for the purpose of this discussion I'll call them "hardworking" and "lazy".

We start with the lazy inflection, which is used when the definite article or a word that has the same ending as the definite article is present. The lazy inflection is simple: In the singular of the nominative and accusative cases (the "easy cases"), the ending is "-e". In the plural and in the genitive and dative cases (the "hard cases"), the ending is "-en".

M N F   P
Nom   -e   -en
Acc -en
Dat -en

There is only one exception to this general rule, which I highlighted in the table above. But even that exception is natural, because the masculine gender is the only one whose articles change between the nominative and the accusative, from "der" to "den" and "ein" to "einen", so you're already used to sticking an extra "-en" in the masculine accusative singular.

(By the way, I call the nominative and accusative the "easy" cases since most textbooks teach them them within the first few weeks, which means that you've quickly become familiar with them and treat them as old friends. On the other hand, the dative and genitive are not usually introduced until second year, thereby making them "hard" due to their relative unfamiliarity.)

The hardworking inflection is even easier than the lazy inflection. You use the hardworking inflection when there is no word that has the same ending as the definite article. In this case, the adjective must step up and take the ending itself. (I've included the definite article in the chart for reference.)


Hey, wait, I left two boxes blank. What's going on here?

Well, because in those two cases, even if there is nothing else to carry the ending of the definite article, the noun itself gets modified by adding "-s". For example, the genitive of the neuter noun "Wasser" (water) is "Wassers" (of water). The word that carries the ending of the definite article is the noun itself! That's why I leave the boxes blank: The scenario never occurs in German.

It is those empty boxes, however, that always trip me up. When it comes time to decide what ending to put on the adjective, and I'm in one of those two boxes, the word with the ending of the definite article hasn't appeared yet so I think I'm in the "hardworking" case. And then when I get around to saying the "-s" at the end of "Wassers", I realize, "Oh, crap, there's that indicator. I should have used the lazy form." But it's too late, I already said the adjective with the wrong ending. I could go back and fix it, but that would interrupt the flow of the conversation, so I usually decide to let it slide and take the hit of sounding stupid. (Or, more precisely, sounding more stupid.) If you listen carefully, you may notice me pause for a fraction of a second just as I reach the "-s" and the realization dawns on me that I messed up again.

If you compare my charts to the official charts with strong, weak and mixed inflections, you'll see that my "lazy" inflection matches the weak inflection exactly, and my "hardworking" inflection matches the "strong" inflection except for those empty boxes. (Because, under my rules, those empty boxes are lazy.) The mixed inflection matches the "lazy" inflection except in three places, which I count as "hardworking" because the indefinite article "ein" does not take an ending in exactly those three places.

Anyway, so there's how I remember my German adjective endings. Mind you, I don't work through the details of these rules each time I have to decide on an ending. I just have to make the simple note of whether the definite article ending has already appeared (or in the case I always forget: will soon appear). If not, then I put it on the adjective.

Comments (19)
  1. if i had to learn german (i am from austria) which that rule sheet, i would be still quiet.

  2. Mike Dunn says:

    If you feel down about the "they just say what comes naturally" part, just remember that "coming naturally" only happens after hearing the language every waking moment of one’s life for several years. The brain eventually works out all the rules on its own.

    For students, who have 1-2 hours a day of exposure, charts make learning a heckuva lot faster.

  3. Rob says:

    When I was young, I watched a lot of german television(I’m from Holland). But kids understand foreign languages without being able to translate it.

    These days I write german using one simple rule: "does it feel right/natural this way" and not trying to remember the rules I learned at school.

    The dutch order btw is Nom, Dat, Acc, Gen. So the table looks almost like it was at school.

  4. Schwallex says:

    @Rob (and Raymond):

    the German (and Russian) order is Nom-Gen-Dat-Acc. (Actually, I have never seen the Nom-Acc-Dat-Gen order before. Looks pretty weird to me.)


    I have to disagree. No matter how hard I try, I just can’t see that memorizing such charts and tables is in any way or manner useful when learning a language. If anything, they are distracting, misleading, and scary.

    So I’ll definitely second Rob on this.

    I learned German for two years at school. Now, that school was in Moscow where, as several people have pointed out before, we had these stupid charts and tables all over the place, and we learned a heck of a lot of them by heart.

    But guess what. It was a complete waste of time. It gained us nothing. Zero, nada, nix, ни фига.

    At age 14, I moved to Germany. For the first year, I barely spoke a word. I didn’t understand the teacher (or any_one, for that matter). I kept getting F grades in German, History and Ethics. It was a nightmare.

    Fast-forward one year later, things started to slowly sink in. I had long forgotten all those stupid ending tables I had been taught in Russia. I erased everything I had known about German morphology, syntax or pronunciation from my memory. Instead, I just listened to the people around me.

    (And I watched TV. More precisely, TV commercials. Lots of them. Tellya what, TV commercials are the cat’s whiskers, the _freaking_best_tool_ever to learn a foreign language. The sentences are short, clearly structured, and clearly articulated. And, most importantly, you can listen to them over and over again. If you miss something, you just wait until the next commercial break.)

    Anyway, one bright sunny day, all of a sudden, I started to talk. I don’t know why or how, but it just happened. I guess it just made "click" somewhere in my brain.

    Now, my German wasn’t excellent by any measure. But it was correct, fluent, and almost accent-free. And it only kept getting better from then on.

    Today, ten years later, I consider German my second mother tongue. I think in German. I dream in German. I keep a diary in German. I speak English with a German accent.

    But I still don’t give jack about those rubbish adjective ending charts (sorry, Raymond).

    I mean, for those who’ve already mastered the language, they are actually quite funny. But for those who want to learn the language, they are useless, useless, scary, and useless.

    As Hannes, Rob and others have correctly pointed out, if you’re really serious about learning a language, you have to develop a gut feel for it first. And you can’t do that by staring at adjective charts. No matter how hard you stare.

    You can only develop a gut feel for a language by being confronted with it in your everyday life. You have to have to listen to it. You have to have to use it, day in, day out.

    I bet anything, Raymond, that each of your trips to Germany or Sweden has taught you a zillion times more than any freaking adjective table ever could.

  5. Actually, I didn’t learn squat during my trips to Germany since my first was a class trip in high school and my second was for just a few days – at no point did I have a conversation in German with anybody, just a sentence or two. I did read a lot of signs though.

    I’m a prescriptivist. Charts work for me. I think that’s one factor why Mandarin is such a struggle. The language is too fluid.

  6. Tobi says:

    @Schwallex: Very interesting point of view regarding commercials. I mean, meanwhile I hate TV and moreover can’t stand commercials, but you may have some point there.

    Currently I’m trying to learn Japanese (although not too hard; just everytime I can’t concentrate on my exams ;) mainly by cliche, erm, I mean by watching Animes. They share some of your positive points about commercials – they are dubbed by highly professional speakers and the content is not too complicated, while broad enough and sometimes repetitive, which isn’t the worst thing for learning the language as you pointed out. (And at least they are less stupid than our german commercials by orders of magnitude!)

    But after all I don’t think that grammar tables are useless. At least they allow you to verify or look up some details you are not sure about. If you can memorize them, you are lucky. But just as a reference they are useful enough.

  7. Michael J. says:

    Now, that school was in Moscow where,

    > as several people have pointed out before,

    > we had these stupid charts and tables

    > all over the place, and we learned

    > a heck of a lot of them by heart.

    I think Leo meant tables for Russian language taught to Russian schoolchildren ;-) A lot of them, because in addition to Nom-Gen-Dat-Acc Russian language also has Instrumental (make with what?) and Prepositional (to speak about what?). And don’t get me started with verbs.

  8. Name required says:

    Hannes, there are some who would say that if you are from Austria you /do/ need to learn German :-)

    Rob – N/A/D/G is simply the order in which English speakers are taught the cases when learning German, maybe because there is little to hang the latter two on from knowing English (yes, "whom", but it is rarely used in common speech, and in fact is used in different ways – consider "for whom the bell tolls"/"Für wen die Glocke schlägt").

  9. sebmol says:

    Name required: The problem with reordering the cases is that, in Germany, they are often referred to by number. So when soembody’s talking about the 2nc case in Germany, it’s always the Genitive. Granted, that’s probably not much of a concern for somebody starting to learn German, but it needs to be pointed out somewhere.

  10. Sudsy says:

    When I lived in Sweden and was trying to learn Swedish I found that watching children’s TV shows was the best way to get started. Back in the mid 70s when I was there, there weren’t any commercials so I couldn’t watch them, but I would think that they’d be a little tough to start with  because they’re geared toward older people with a better command of the language than children (and  I) had.

  11. hsy says:


    >> Anyway, one bright sunny day, all of a sudden, I started to talk. I don’t know why or how, but it just happened.

    I just loved this description of how you started speaking German. I’ve always hoped for this type of "13th Warrior" effect for my own German (you’ll know what I’m talking about only if you’ve watched the movie 13th Warrior).

    I can use any suggestions for achieving this such a ‘click’. I live in the US, though…

  12. B.Y. says:

    Let’s see, with "masculine, feminine, neuter, plural", you’re a man first, then a woman, then you get neutered, then you have multiple personalities. Kind of twisted.

    But with "masculine, neuter, feminine, plural", you are a man first, then you get neutered, become a woman, and have multiple personalities. OK, a much smoother transition, I like it.

  13. Roland says:

    That’s why language learning books should be written by programmers: They figure out smart algorithms how to easier learn and remember the rules.

    BTW, it’s amazing how the German grammar checker in Word has finally improved. I remember that in Word 2000, many adjective endings errors were not discovered. Word 2002 brought enormous improvements. For example, Word 2002 and 2003 now find the error in the sentence "Die Temperatur des Wasser steigt." Writing a German grammar checker must be much harder than writing an English one.

  14. Lukas says:

    Roland: I think an English grammar checker is very hard to write. Consider "time flies like an arrow, fruit flies like a banana" or "the cotton socks are made of grows in Egypt".

  15. mpz says:

    I think of language learning as pattern matching. Trying to rote memorize rules and apply them in realtime is humanly impossible. Reading huge amounts of text or listening to native speech and picking up rules subconsciously seems to work much better. I don’t completely dismiss the value of learning some rules, especially if they are clear and unambiguous ones, but patterns is a much too unresearched area in language learning. (Or if there is research concerning it, nobody seems to put it into practice when teaching languages)

    I think this will be exemplified shortly by Google’s approach to language translation. They don’t bother with rules that much, instead they have huge corpuses of text in different languages and smart algorithms that match text and translate it that way. I don’t expect the results to be perfect; but I do expect them to be better than the current crop of translation engines. Even moreso for languages that are structurally apart like English and Japanese. Translating within the Indo-European language family is not so much of a problem these days, because they are all so similar.

  16. fauigerzigerk says:

    mpz, I don’t think it’s as simple as that. Take music for example. Many people recognise a song they know within a few seconds and most people are able to tell if a piece of music should be categorised as latin or heavy metal. But ask them to create a small piece of rhythm or melody that highlights the major differences between the two genres. Most people are unable to do that despite the fact that it takes only a handful of rules to describe the most important differences. Rules that anybody can learn to apply within an hour.

    Similarly, there is a large number of migrants who seem to be unable to form even a single reasonably correct sentence after 30 years of living in a country. Surely they must have heard many of those simple patterns very frequently. And with regard to pronunciation, we’re all on that basic level. We never lose our accent, no matter how hard we try.

    I read about another interesting observation some time ago. Small children who learn to make drawings don’t usually draw what they see, rather they draw what they know. They know a human has a head and arms and feet but the rest, they don’t remember, so they draw a head with arms and feet directly attached to it. Also, they draw animals with four feet even though only two or three may be visible from a particular angle.

    My conclusion is that the relationship between rules and fuzzy patterns is a very complex one. And that it is a wholy different thing to learn to passively perceive something than to actively generate the same thing. Sometimes a few rules are enough to enable you to discern the relevant entities within a complex structure and only when you know those fundamental structural entities are you able to use your intuition effectively. Sometimes it boosts our intuition and our ability to perceive patterns if someone tells us a few rules about how to listen, how to look at things and what to be aware of.

  17. mpz says:

    You’re right, patterns alone will not help you to become fluent. I suppose that there is a basic level of grammar you should attain by learning rules before trying to discern the patterns. But trying to learn a complete language based on rules alone is suicide.

    I didn’t particularly think of immigrants when I said what I said, I was mostly just thinking of normal language learners who are doing it for fun or for eventual benefit. The problem is, some immigrants tend to stop caring when they reach a functional level (which is a huge pity). If you can live your daily life with broken English and have no shame, there isn’t much incentive to become perfect at it. *I* would be ashamed of speaking broken English (or whatever other language) though..

    Accents are an interesting issue as well. We know that people can be trained to have a certain accent (I saw a documentary about call centers in India, they have schools where proper American English or UK English accent is taught), and there are a lot of non-native English speakers with perfect American or UK accents. I think it’s just a matter of practice and listening to native speech a lot. Motivation is the key; plenty of people just don’t care if they sound a bit foreign and consequently don’t put the necessary effort into it.

  18. Donderwolkje says:


    just to confirm that N/A/D/G is also the way it gets thaught in Belgium Holland France and Spain,.. All my german friends usually have no clue about which adjective causes you to use a akkusativ or dativ. really funny. ausbeimitnachseitvonzuausergegenüber… no german knows this. hehehe.

    i had three years of german in high school and i hated it, seriously really hated it. but then i graduated from university and just started speaking. i totally had the "13th warrior" effect. a few years later i moved to spain without knowing anything and like 2-3 months after my move i had the "13th warrior" all over. needless to say i have no clue about grammar and such. but hey it works!

  19. Sports Arena Island.

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