The logic behind German adjective declension/endings :)

This finally 'clicked' for me the other day, while trying to explain it in a comment buried in one of the discussions. Since it was so helpful for me to see it written out, I thought I'd share the explanation here too! It might be useful for you if you learn better by 'understanding' rather than memorising the many declension tables.

The logic that I use, is something like:

"The gender/case/number has to be shown somehow, and if it's shown ambiguously then the adjective needs to help out. Otherwise the adjective can relax."

  • Following this logic, the three standard singular nominative definite articles (der/die/das) all clearly show gender/case/number, so any following adjectives can relax (they get a simple -e ending).

Note: Because these 'normal' articles are also used in accusative case for feminine and neuter nouns, this rule also applies there: Ich sehe das schwarze Buch.

This also applies if eine/deine/etc. is in front, because it shows the singular feminine 'signals' correctly. All the other indefinite articles or possessive determiners are covered in the other rules below.

  • In situations where an article is present but modified from any of those three (i.e. den/dem or einen/einem, or die when referring to plurals, der/einer when used for feminine articles in dative case, etc.) then the adjective needs to signal that 'something's wrong': It does this by getting an -en ending.

Note: This also applies to the situation for masculine/neuter nouns in genitive case where the noun is declined (just think 'the ending is modified'), even if there's no article in the genitive part: Die Farbe blauen Himmels.

It also applies to plurals using the negative indefinite article (keine) or posessive determiner (meine/ihre/etc.) because they're still using the die ending for something that's not feminine singular: Er hat keine guten Freunde, or Wir haben ihre alten Schuhe.

  • When there's no article, or there's a 'blank' article like ein, then the adjective needs to do all the work. It gets the ending that the definite article would have had in the same situation. So if that's nominative neuter: ein gutes Buch (would have been das Buch). Accusative masculine: Ich sehe weißen Sand (would have been den Sand). Etc.

Note: Don't forget the genitive bit in the previous paragraph, though, even if it doesn't have an article.

This also applies if there's a mein, dein and even ihr, etc. in front - all the 'endingless' possessive determiners, even though they're not technically articles.

Each time I explain that, it becomes clearer in my mind. So, if it's oversimplified and someone notices something missing, please offer a correction!

Greg's blog
German is Easy blog
jess1camar1e's post

April 16, 2016


Initially, I had a little difficulty with your first bullet. But I think I've got it sorted. The bit I got slightly confused over was that your explanation seems completely centered around the articles, with little to no mention of the nouns' involvement. Articles alone aren't enough to declare gender/case/number, because their impact varies (like so many things in German) depending on the words they're paired with.

In all cases that I'm aware of (though I'm not very far along yet), "der" and "das" reliably indicate singular. However, "die" in particular is not so consistent.

Compare Frau/Frauen to Mädchen. For Frau/Frauen, the same article (die) is used despite one being singular and the other plural - the distinction is in the nouns themselves. For Mädchen, on the other hand, the article is essential to distinguish singular (das Mädchen) from plural (die Mädchen).

Thus, without consideration of the noun, it is often times difficult - if not impossible - to reliably derive meaningful information from the article.

April 18, 2016

    Yes, this method does rely on knowing which article to use for the noun. In fact, you need to know the article it would 'normally' have (in nominative case), and the article it would have in whichever case you're actually using it (even if you don't actually use the article in the sentence). And to know both those things, you need to know the gender of the noun, the plurality of it (whether it's singular or plural), and which case it's in. So, this method only seems 'logical' if you can already do that (or can look it up). You still need to understand the grammar and have a good vocabulary including genders and singular/plural forms.

    So you're right - you can't get all that information from just looking at the articles. But if you think about it, based on how the articles and the adjective endings work with each other (and maybe looking at the verb conjugations too), you should now often be able to work in the other direction and derive some information about the gender or case of a noun based on the articles and adjective declension.

    (By the way, die is not the only definite article that gets recycled in other situations. Actually, they all get used for more than one combination of case/gender/plurality. I just defined der/die/das in nominative singular as the 'fundamental form' for the purpose of developing the logic.)

    April 18, 2016

    Man, you have a point here. Poin which I find myself stuck onto right now.

    February 1, 2018

    Thank you!

    April 16, 2016

    Thanks so much!

    April 16, 2016

    Quirky and quite useful

    April 17, 2016

    This is excellent. I came up with something sort of like this while trudging through a German grammar book a while ago, but this is much better laid out! Thanks!

    April 17, 2016

    I was having trouble understanding your post initially, but I found a great page from University of Michigan that explains it in a very similar way. They split the world into "nouns with determiners" and "nouns without determiners." Determiners are der/die/das and ein+(ending). Non-determiners are ein, kein, mein... all things that are ambiguosly used for masculine and neutral nouns. Anyways, I loved this initial post and because I didn't understand the concept fully from the brief explanation, I found this additional resource that explained it in a very similar way. Bonus: it has a lot of drills you can use to help learning.

    May 13, 2016

      Thanks! That page is very thorough, with great practice exercises and good explanations on its examples.

      Something to note, though:

      "Please note that you will not generally find this terminology oustside of this webpage, e.g. in German textbooks or on other websites. The term "determiner" is occasionally used in some textbooks, but usually in a slightly different sense than here, so be careful!"

      May 19, 2016

      Thank you. I always struggle with adjective endings. This will be helpful.

      April 17, 2016

      This is extremely useful! Thanks !

      April 18, 2016

      the Greg's Blog link has a great table for endings as well.

      April 18, 2016

        Yes, that's why I linked to it. It was one of the first explanations that I found that started to 'simplify' the many tables (e.g. from Wikipedia). If you like remembering tables I recommend it. But I wanted to go further toward understanding it rather than memorising it!

        April 18, 2016

        Thank you!! I'll try to apply this from now on!!

        April 22, 2016

        es ist wirklich hilfreich.

        May 27, 2016

        Wow this really helps break it down in simple English. Have a Lingot and a great day. Thank you!

        February 10, 2017

        Dies ist doch sehr hilfreich! Du hast das mir ganz einfach erklären, Danke schön! :)

        February 11, 2017


        February 2, 2018
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