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The nightmares of declining in German

“I heard a Californian student in Heidelberg say, in one of his calmest moods, that he would rather decline two drinks than one German adjective.” Mark Twain “The Awful German Language” http://german.about.com/library/blmtwain01.htm

Years ago I studied German at school as a second foreign language. I had a nice modern textbook (Deutsch nach Englisch), a young inexperienced teacher, and it was mostly fun… until the dreaded topic “Adjective declension” came up. Articles were easy, nouns were kind of a small challenge, but remembering 4 tables of adjective endings and the fact that they depended not on the word or object itself but its surroundings… Every sentence became a word-by-word struggle, I felt with each and every Mark Twain's German language quote, and learning stopped being fun whatsoever.

Years later, when I forgot nearly everything and immersed into Duolingo, I started grapsping the logic behind the nightmare of German declension. And then I found a really neat grammar book with no tables whatsoever, but a series of simple rules. It is much easier, it seems, if you view the group article+adjective+noun as a whole instead of declining every word separately. Here's a short simplified summary.

I. Cases

There are 4 cases (lucky you! there are full 6 in Russian!). Here they are and their most common uses:

Nominativ: just your regular basic form, nothing new here


a) for a direct object; b) with prepositions when movement is implied; c) with prepositions um, durch, entlang, gegen, fuer, bis, ohne: just imagine that there's some change of state implied by these as well. You can use some mnemonics.


a) for a recipient; b) describing static location in time and space; c) with prepositions mit, nach, aus, zu, von, bei, seit, ausser, gegenueber, ab, neben: again, imagine a point of time/space implied by these


a) to indicate posession; b) with other prepositions which are more rarely used. If it indicated some relation (causal, posessive etc), it's certainly Genitiv.

II. Articles

You can either: learn all the articles by heart (which is easy and impossible to forget later on. Tell me “das” years after school and I would recite “des-dem-das” without ever waking up) or use some general rules like:

N: der (m), das (n), die (f); pl: die — just remember

A: der -> den, all the others do not change

D: for whoM? weM? der, das -> deM; female does a gender swap: die -> der; plural becomes den (guess you just have to learn that one, you'll meet it again in nouns)

G: whoSe? weSSen? der, das -> dES; all the die -> der

This is the basic stuff on which everything is based. Pronouns are declined with the same endings (ihr, ihm, ihn). Indefinite article and posessives use the same endings as well.

III. Nouns

German “women” are bold and unbending. Declining is for everyone else.

For most of the other cases, you just get to remember two article endings that the noun shares:

  1. Genitiv singular: -s

  2. Dativ plural: -n. Those already ending with -n or -s don't do it.

There is a group of “weak” nouns which have specific endings, but you can remember that these are most of the masculine nouns which get a feminine ending -en in plural. A man which acts like a woman = a weak man, apparently by German logic. Unlike bold German women these weak men succumb to the cases and get an -en ending almost everywhere. I guess they just kind of got used to it.

And then there are “greedy” nouns that get all the possible endings. The only neutral word is “das Herz”, and you can count the others by fingers: der Name, der Buchstabe, der Funke, der Fels, der Friede, der Glaube, der Gedanke, der Same, der Wille. These are short weird men (mostly ending with -e), and they sound better this way.

IV. Adjectives

The definite articles goes its way to do a great job of providing important grammar information about the noun. So when you look at the group Article+Adjective+Noun, the implied grammar info stays mostly the same but is divided between the three.

To understand the logic, divide all the situations into two: 1. when the def. article stays the same (N and A except masc.) and 2. when it changes.

  1. In the case when the article is not changed, its ending has to be somewhere to indicate the gender and number. So, when the definite article (or its synonims) is not present, the adjective gets the work done and takes its ending. When the article is there (an indefininte one doesn't count!), the adjective can relax and have a neutral -e ending. The only article that does its job poorly here is the plural “die” — you cannot distinguish it from feminine by the article alone — so the adjective gets an -en ending.

  2. if there is (or implied) an article that has changed its form, you get the -en ending (chaNged) almost everywhere.

  3. When there's no article whatsoever or some indefinite word, plural (and only plural) makes the adjective do the article's work all by itself. The needs of the many…

The nouns derived from adjectives remember their heritage and use the same declension rules.

Hope that makes it easier!

March 2, 2015



I like the chart in this document here that sums it quite clearly: http://www.nthuleen.com/teach/grammar/adjektivendungenexpl.html


Thanks! That's very useful.


Different people also make charts to make memorizing the endings easier. I have my own attempt at it. http://gregreflects.blogspot.com/2015/02/how-to-memorize-german-cases.html

(I like having a small chart to memorize/refer to.)

I do like the entertaining stories you offer to "explain" the endings. It's amazing how often those stick when nothing else does.


The part about adjectives was especially useful because I had a hard time understanding it. Today I applied your pointers on Duolingo and it worked (luckily I had to revise two lessons about adjectives).

So, when the definite article (or its synonims) is not present, the adjective gets the work done and takes its ending

The sentence above was particularly helpful.


That is awesome. If you don't mind, what is the textbook/book? Thanks.


Thanks! Unfortunately, the books would be of little use unless you speak Russian. The grammar is Ilya Frank's „Deutsche Grammatik mit menschlichem Antlitz“, and the textbooks I mentioned are called „Brucken“ and are designed for 7-10 grade Russian pupils (13-16 years old) who learn German as a second foreign language.

What I can (and would) recommend, however, is Ilya Frank's method of adapting fiction books to learn languages. It's very fun and efficient! They have prepared some books for English-speaking people here: http://english.franklang.ru/


Hiya, Thanks so much for taking the time to reply and the link. I am really trying here but Deutsch is a little difficult lol


Thank you. :) There are 7 cases in Bosnian/Serbian/Croatian, so, German is quite good.


We lost vocative somewhere along the way, but there are some remnants of it in Russian as well. Now whenever I think about it, I come to remember Alice in Wonderland and “O Mouse!” =)

On the other hand, that definitely makes it easier to grasp German cases, there's almonst nothing new here (except Dativ being a somewhat weird mix of dative+instrumental+locative).


Your "weak German men" idea is funny and memorable. Just think sitzpinkler.

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