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German adjective endings - simple logic

I've tried really hard to understand 'why' adjective endings are so complicated, because I hate memorising tables. As a beginner I also didn't understand grammatical terminology very well, so even when I found explanations they didn't really make sense to me. Eventually, I felt like I understood it! Since then, it's only become clearer in my head, so I thought I'd offer my latest condensed explanation:

Articles and adjectives work together to give a "grammatical signal" about the noun. That "signal" is basically "the ending that a definite article (der/die/das/etc.) would have in this situation".

Think about plurals without an article: gelbe Blumen. Because there's no article to give this signal, the adjective gets an -e ending because that's the signal corresponding to the ending of die, which is needed for plurals (in nominative and accusative case). For other situations where the article doesn't have an ending, it also 'gives no signal' so the adjective needs to have it: ein roter Hund shows -er on the adjective, corresponding to der that would be needed for a masculine noun in nominative case because the article ein doesn't give any signal.

With an article, there are then only two possibilities:

  1. The signal given corresponds to "der" for singular masculine nouns, "die" for singular feminine nouns or "das" for singular neuter nouns. These are the three 'entirely normal' situations. In these situations, the adjective just gives a signal that says "everything is normal". That signal is -e. Notice that these 'normal' situations are only for singular nouns.

  2. The signal given is something else (for example corresponding to den for masculine accusative, dem for neuter dative, anything plural with an article, or a modified noun for example s-declination for masculine/neuter genitive singular). Then the adjective just gives a signal that says "something is strange". That signal is -en.

This is the logic behind adjective endings.

Please feel free to try to write some examples in the comments if you want feedback on whether you understood it or not :)

February 27, 2017



The easiest explanation I've found so far is this. There's a little graphic that summarizes it all in a few steps. So helpful and simple I actually printed and taped it to my computer. I think everybody should do the same!


What is the translation of "hot water" in the genitive case? I don't think your linked explanation gets it right.


Exactly. I had previously used that flowchart a lot, on the way to how I understand it now. Of course, each can use the method that works best for them, but I find my method more complete and simpler. This is my current flowchart:

This flowchart makes the most sense with the explanation above

There's an 'exception' to my method, though, that I'm waiting for someone to point out.


Do you mean by "signal" the article? And how does your flowchart reflects the plural or the -er, -es endings when there's an article? Please explain 'cause I might replace my flowchart with yours!


As explained in my original post, the 'signal' to which I refer is "the ending that a definite article would have in this situation".

How does my flowchart explain the plural, -er and -es endings when there's an article? I suppose you mean an indefinite article about the last two. Well, here are some examples:

  • Die gelb__ Blumen. Here, we have an article - a definite article. They always give a signal, because the definition of 'a signal' here is "the ending a definite article would have". So, the ending of it is -e - that's the 'signal' here. So in my flowchart the first answer is "Ja - es gibt ein Signal". Now the flowchart asks if it's 'normal' or not. See the explanation in my original post for what I mean by this: Does it "correspond to "der" for singular masculine nouns, "die" for singular feminine nouns or "das" for singular neuter nouns"? No - although it's die, it's not for a singular feminine noun. So the answer to the second question is "Nein" and we end up requiring the ending -en. Hence, die gelben Blumen.

  • Ein schwarz__ Hund. Here, we have an article - an indefinite article. This particular indefinite article doesn't have an 'ending' on it - it's 'blank'. This means it doesn't give us a 'signal'. We know Hund is masculine, and the simple sentence is in nominative case, so the corresponding definite article would have been der. The ending of this is -r. This is the signal we require here, and ein doesn't show it. That's what the first question of the flowchart means: There's no signal, so we need to give it. We end up with ein schwarzer Hund.

  • It's similar for a neuter example, although here we have the 'blank' ein for both nominative and accusative case. So let's use an accusative example this time: Ich sehe ein weiß__ Haus. It would have been das Haus (neuter noun, accusative case), which means the required signal is -s. The article doesn't show it, so the adjective must: Ich sehe ein weißes Haus.


I think I know what the problem might be (and I would appreciate if other people step in since I'm not that acquainted with the genitive). I searched the web and couldn't find an example of the genitive that doesn't have some form of article in front of the noun. If it's true that the genitive is always accompanied by an article we wouldn't be able to just consider "hot water" as genitive case.


"We need pure water." => "Wir bedürfen reinen Wassers."

I think that's grammatically correct. But "bedürfen" is a bit of a formal verb, so I'm not sure whether any modern German speaker would actually say this!


It does turn up sometimes, for example with uncountable mass nouns that are grammatically masculine or neuter singular. These don't need an article, but can have an adjective. 'Stoopher' gave an example using a genitive verb (which, for the record, I never knew existed...).

This site has other examples, using genitive in the typical way of meaning 'of'. For instance:

Die Produktion deutschen Weines hat in den letzten Jahren wieder zugenommen = "The production of German wine has increased again in recent years"

Der Absatz deutschen Bieres ist seit Jahren rückläufig = "Sales of German beer have been declining for years"

So here, the -en adjective endings are used because the 'grammatical signal' is already given by the 'genitive -es' on the end of the noun, and it's not one of the three 'standard' signals, to use my terminology.

For a feminine (or plural) noun in the same situation, there's no signal on the noun, and so the adjective needs to give the signal (which is -er, corresponding to der for feminine singular (or plural) nouns in genitive case):

Eine Firma aus Bayern beliefert den afrikanischen Markt täglich mit rund fünf Tonnen deutscher Wurst = "A company from Bavaria supplies the African market daily with around five tonnes of German sausages"

In der Schule lernen wir über die Taten großer Männer = "In school we learn about the deeds of great men"


Cool! I didn't know either that genitive verbs were a thing. So, I'll keep my chart since it's been so good to me and keep an eye for the genitive. If it's true that the genitive is not used much nowadays I should be fine.


Oh, the genitive is used very often! Some people avoid it when speaking (except for simple constructions), but any kind of writing more 'formal' than a text message will use it often.


I wouldn't know though I keep hearing people saying that, including my former German professor ("people don't even use that!").


The way I remember that bedürfen takes the genitive:

Wir bedürfen reinen Wassers. We have need of pure water.


So if I understand correctly, the following examples follow your rules 1. Das kleine Kleid 2.Kleines Pferd 3. Ein kleines Pferd 4.Die Kleinen Pferd


All correctly declined, except you forgot the plural Pferde in the last one.

  1. das kleine Kleid = "the small dress"
  2. kleines Pferd = "small horse"
  3. ein kleines Pferd = "a small horse"
  4. die kleinen Pferde = "the small horses"


This is great- thanks for posting.


This is very helpful. Thanks.


Is it correct to say "this is the logic behind adjective endings"? Fair enough, it may be how you remember it, but that's not quite the same thing.

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