German Adjective Endings: Cracking the Case
Have you ever found yourself staring at a German exam or trying to compose an email, frozen with indecision? Have you lost all confidence in your German grammar when it comes to writing the adjective endings? Have you agonized over em and en? If so, you are going to find this article very helpful.
First Steps: Genders and Cases
I’ve already covered the basics of German cases in a separate article. As I said there, you can find all sorts of charts online to familiarize yourself with what you need to know. The trick is applying that knowledge in a consistent and automatic way. There are no shortcuts and the cases aren’t optional – practice is the only thing that’s going to help.
First, one fundamental point: You have got to learn the grammatical gender of the nouns you know. 60% of nouns are masculine, and there are several noun endings that always take one gender or another. If you’re in a pinch, you can guess. But native speakers just know. There are studies that show native speakers of languages with grammatical gender have internalized it to a point of pure automaticity. And that’s why mistakes with noun gender stick out so obviously to native speakers. It’s as important a part of the language as any other.
So when you learn new German words, you should never treat the gender as an afterthought. As you read more and listen more, you’re bound to encounter words in context that don’t have explicit hints for the gender. But even then it’s important to review these words and check that you really do know how to use them grammatically. Don’t worry – even though this sounds tedious now, it becomes more and more natural as time goes on. Soon it’ll be second nature for you to keep the correct article in mind.
If you are particularly unlucky in your choice of German study material, you might be presented only with a series of charts that list off the genders and cases and their endings. There’s the strong ending chart and the weak ending chart and it’s up to you to learn about them. But the difference – and the underlying reasoning behind cases – is simple.
The “strong” adjective ending is the same as the article ending (except for -es, which turns into -en). It’s used when there’s no article in the sentence – so a reader or listener wouldn’t know the gender of the noun without it. Here’s an example. I’m visiting your house and I like your scooter. I call out to you:
No article to be found. In German, we need to find some way to express the fact that Roller is masculine, so we stick the article ending onto the adjective. Cool becomes cooler. When we have an article to guide us, the adjective can “relax” a little bit, and so we use the term “weak.” You come out into the garage and you ask which scooter is my favourite. I answer,
“Der schwarze Roller hier.”
Schwarz doesn’t need to put on the full -er ending, it just takes an -e. Lastly, we have something called “mixed” declensions.
Remember that a word like “mein” can come before a masculine or a neuter noun. Without anything else, the adjective picks up the slack and reminds us about the gender and case. It’s a little bit ambiguous, so we decline it just a little. I get up the courage to ask,
“Wirst du mir deinen alten roten Roller geben?”
I’ve got scooters on the mind, it seems. But no matter what your answer is, you can see that we’re using a combination of the pronoun and the adjective to encode extra grammatical information in the sentence.
How to Learn the German Adjective Endings
Look for patterns. There’s one shortcut that my first German professor burned into my memory. Mit einem alten Mann. If you have an adjective following -em, it’s always going to take the -en ending. Auf einem kleinen Tisch. In einem guten Buch.
What other patterns can you find? And more importantly, what are some key phrases you can commit to memory? I know that Mann is masculine and mit always takes the dative case. So whenever I’m saying mit with a masculine word, I know how to structure my adjectives and articles around that pattern.
Reading and writing exercises can be amazingly helpful here. Find yourself a good amount of German text – maybe a short story or narrative so you get more spoken language. The LingQ German mini-stories are perfect. Read it through and think to yourself about each sentence: “How are these adjectives declined? What are the genders of all these nouns?” Then try making your own variations. Switch out nouns and prepositions to really get your mind used to thinking with cases.
For English speakers, this is pretty hard to do on-the-fly when you’re speaking. It’s very easy to mumble the case endings and avoid thinking about it. That’s only going to get you so far, though. You need to have a solid knowledge of the theory, or you’ll always be questioning yourself when you have to speak carefully. If you practice the patterns with a lot of common nouns and adjectives, you’ll have a smooth transition from knowing the theory to speaking well in practice.
As I said, this comes with time. If you make a point to write a lot of German text and keep the adjective endings all straight, you’ll assimilate all these patterns naturally. It takes tens of thousands of hours and millions of words to achieve that natural intuition, but it’s absolutely possible for anyone.
Alex Thomas learned German in the classroom and took it to the streets of Germany. He has visited Germany more times than any other country and likes it more each time.