Declension of the German Adjectives

Introduction

In a sentence, adjectives can be used in two ways. They can be used before a noun as an attribute (e.g. a small house – ein kleines Haus) or separately as a predicate (e.g. “it is small” or “the house is small” – Es ist klein. Das Haus ist klein).

Adjectives as attributes take specific endings:

das schöne Haus (the beautiful house)
ein schönes Haus (a beautiful house)
der kleine Junge (the little boy)

ein kleiner Junge (a little boy)
schönes Mädchen (beautiful girl)

Adjectives as predicates do not take endings:

Das Haus ist schön. (The house is beautiful.)
Der Junge ist klein. (The boy is small/little.)
Das Mädchen ist schön. (The girl is beautiful.)

When there is a noun with an attribute in a German sentence, it is necessary to express the gender of the noun somehow. Here is the essence of how to decline adjectives.

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Adjectives after a definite article or other determiner

If there is a definite article (der, die, das) before the noun it shows us the gender of the noun, as the definite article has three different forms for the three different genders. In this case the adjective does not have to take an ending that refers to the gender of the noun; the adjective simply takes an -e ending in the singular:

der gute Vater, die gute Mutter, das gute Kind
the good father, the good mother, the good child

In the plural however the adjective takes an -en ending. As the definite article has the same form in the plural and in the feminine singular (“die”), it would be hard to distinguish them without a specific ending in the plural:

die guten Väter, die guten Mütter, die guten Kinder
the good fathers, the good mothers, the good children

There are also some other determiners similar to the definite article that have three different forms for the three different genders (e.g. dieser, diese, dieses – this; jener, jene, jenes – that). The adjective after them behaves in the same way as in the case of der, die, das. The plural form of these three-form determiners is equal to the form in the feminine (like  die) so the adjectives in the plural take an -en ending.

singular:

dieser gute Vater, diese gute Mutter, dieses gute Kind
this good father, this good mother, this good child

jener gute Vater, jene gute Mutter, jenes gute Kind
that good father, that good mother, that good child

plural:

diese guten Väter, diese guten Mütter, diese guten Kinder
these good fathers, these good mothers, these good children

jene guten Väter, jene guten Mütter, jene guten Kinder
those good fathers, those good mothers, those good children

Thus, in the nominative case the attributive adjective takes the following endings if it is preceded by a three-form determiner:

Endings after a three-form determiner

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Adjectives in noun-phrases without an article or determiner

If there is no article or determiner like der, die, das before the noun-phrase, nothing can show us the gender of the noun. Therefore the adjective takes the endings of the definite article:

guter Vater, gute Mutter, gutes Kind
a good father, a good mother, a good child

gute Väter, gute Mütter, gute Kinder
good fathers, good mothers, good children

Thus, in the nominative case the attributive adjective takes the following endings if it is not preceded by an article or determiner:

Endings

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Adjectives after indefinite articles or two-form determiners

As can be seen, the definite article (der, die, das) can identify all the three genders, so the adjective does not have to contain a specific ending that identifies the gender of the noun. However the indefinite article (ein, eine, ein) cannot make a distinction between the masculine and neuter, because its form is the same in both cases. (We say: der Tisch, das Buch, so we know Tisch is masculine, Buch is neuter. But we say: ein Tisch, ein Buch, so we cannot know in this case if Tisch and Buch are masculine or neuter.) The indefinite article has only two forms, one for the masculine and neuter (ein) and one for feminine (eine); therefore the indefinite article is called a two-form determiner.

In this case the adjective has to refer to the gender of the noun (as we cannot find out the gender from the article). The adjective takes the endings of the definite article:

ein guter Vater, eine gute Mutter, ein gutes Kind
a good father, a good mother, a good child.

Besides the indefinite article, there are two other kinds of two-form determiners: the negation form of the indefinite article (kein) and the possessive determiners (mein, dein, etc.) Next to them the adjectives are declined in the same way as next to the indefinite article:

kein guter Vater, keine gute Mutter, kein gutes Kind
not a good father, not a good mother, not a good child

mein guter Vater, meine gute Mutter, mein gutes Kind
my good father, my good mother, my good child

The indefinite article is not used in the plural, of course. The negation of the indefinite article and the possessive determiners do have a plural form. In the plural the adjective takes an -en ending next to a two-form determiner:

keine guten Väter, keine guten Mütter, keine guten Kinder
no good fathers, no good mothers, no good children

unsere guten Väter, unsere guten Mütter, unsere guten Kinder
our good fathers, our good mothers, our good children

Thus, in the nominative case the attributive adjective takes the following endings if it is preceded by an indefinite article or another two-form determiner:

Endings after a two-form determiner

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For advanced students

In a German sentence it is also important to express the case of the noun. In German there are four cases (nominative, accusative, dative and genitive), which are denoted by the article or another determiner.
Above we examined the nominative case and its endings. Now let us see the other cases, too.

The accusative differs from the nominative only in the masculine (accusative forms of the definite article are: den, die, das; accusative forms of the indefinite article: einen, eine, ein).
The dative and the genitive differ totally from the nominative: these cases are always expressed by specific endings of the determiners but here the gender is not so important, these determiners have the same form in the masculine and in the neuter (definite article dative: dem, der, dem; genitive: des, der, des; indefinite article dative: einem, einer, einem; genitive: eines, einer, eines).

In all the cases the noun-phrase has to express the same things as the definite article would express. If there is a definite article or another three-form determiner in the noun-phrase the adjective simply takes -e endings in the nominative and in the accusative, where it is the same as the nominative, and takes -en endings in all the other cases, including the plural forms of all the cases. This kind of declension of German adjectives is called weak declension and can be shown with the following speadsheet:

Weak declension of the German adjectivesWeak declension is applied after the following words (three-form determiners):

der, die, das (the)
dieser, diese, diese (this)
jener, jene, jenes (that)
jeder, jede, jedes (each)
solcher, solche, solches (such, so)
mancher, manche, manches (some, many)
derselbe, dieselbe, dasselbe (the same)
derjenige, diejenige, dasjenige (that, the one who)
welcher, welche, welches (which – question word)
aller, alle, alles (all the)
beider, beide, beides (both – mostly used in the plural)
sämtlicher, sämtliche, sämtliches (full, all – mostly used in the plural)

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If there is no article or determiner in the noun-phrase at all, nothing shows us the gender, number and case of the noun, so it is the adjective which has to do it. The adjective takes the endings of the definite article in a parallel declension. So the adjective behaves as if it were the definite article itself. This kind of declension of German adjectives is called strong declension and can be shown with the following spreadsheet:

Strong declension of the German adjectives

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If the noun-phrase contains an indefinite article or another two-form determiner, the adjective in the nominative and in the accusative takes the endings of the definite article, as a two-form determiner does not refer to the gender of the noun unequivocally in these cases. In the other cases the two-form determiner expresses everything necessary, like a definite article, so the adjective takes only an -en ending. This kind of declension is called mixed declension of German adjectives and is shown with the following spreadsheet:

Mixed declension of the German adjectives

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Further things to know

The adjective hoch (high) behaves in a different way. Before the endings its root is hoh-:

ein hohes Haus; das hohe Haus; die hohen Häuser

If more than one adjective precedes a noun, all of them take the same endings:

ein hübsches, weißes, großes Hemd

However, when the two adjectives refer to languages, only the second one is declined:

Römisch-Germanisches Museum
deutsch-englisches Wörterbuch

Adjectives with an -el, -er, -en ending (e.g. dunkel – dark, teuer – expensive) can lose their e vowel before the further endings – it is optional:

das dunkele Zimmer; das dunkle Zimmer
ein teuerer Wagen; ein teurer Wagen

There are certain adjectives that cannot be declined:

two colours: lila, rosa

dieses lila Hemd
mein rosa Hemd

adjectives formed by adding an -er ending  to geographical names:

Berliner Zeitung
der Pariser Eiffelturm
die Dresdener Galerie

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Link:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/German_adjectives