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German declension: modifiers

2019-05-03 22:13 -0300. Tags: lang, german, in-english

I've been dabbling in German again, and trying to learn the declensions for the articles, adjectives and other modifiers. These are some notes I made in the process.

The tables below are colorized with JavaScript. If they don't get colorized properly for you, please notify me. If you find mistakes in the text, please notify me too.

Genders, cases and numbers

German has three genders (masculine, feminine, neuter), and two numbers (singular and plural). There is a single plural declension for all genders, so, for didactical purposes, we can think of plural as a fourth gender.

German has four cases (nominative, accusative, dative, genitive), which indicate the role of the noun phrase in the sentence. In general lines:

  • Nominative is used for the subject of the sentence (the dog sees the cat). It is also the 'default' form of nouns you will find in the dictionary.
  • Accusative is used for the object of the sentence (the dog sees the cat).
  • Dative is used for the indirect object of the sentence (the boy gave the girl a book).
  • Genitive is used for possessives (the girl's book) and similar situations of nouns modifying nouns.

All cases but the nominative are also used as objects of certain prepositions. Each preposition defines which case it wants its object to appear in. Spatial prepositions typically take the dative to indicate place and the accusative to indicate movement:

  • Dative: im Wald (= in dem Wald) "in the forest"
  • Accusative: in den Wald "into the forest"

In the tables in this text, genders will appear in the order masculine, neuter, feminine, plural. This is not the usual order they are presented, but masculine and neuter often have similar forms, and so do feminine and plural. I chose this order to leave similar forms close to each other. The order of cases was also chosen for similar reasons.

The definite article

The definite article forms in the nominative are: masculine der, neuter das, feminine die, plural die. It took me a while to memorize which gender is which form, until I realized:

  • der is similar to er (he).
  • die is similar to sie (she).
  • die can also be plural, and so can sie (they).
  • das ends in -s like es (it). It is also cognate to English that and the Icelandic third person neuter pronoun það. (I realize that a comparison to Icelandic is not exactly the best mnemonic device in the world, but it works for me.)

The declined forms are:
  Masc. Neut. Fem. Plural
Nom. der das die die
Acc. den das die die
Dat. dem dem der den
Gen. des des der der

There are a lot of patterns to observe here, and they will often apply to other parts of the declension system too:

  • Masculine is the only gender that distinguishes nominative from accusative; the other genders always have the same form for both.
  • Masculine and neuter have the same dative and the same genitive.
  • Feminine uses one single form for the nominative and accusative, and another single form for dative and genitive.
  • German has a general fixation with the idea of having an -n in the dative plural. This applies to nouns too (e.g., den Kindern "to the children"), except nouns whose plural ends in -s like Autos. Other than that, the article is the same for feminine and for plural.

The indefinite article (ein)

At this point I would like to present the declension for the indefinite article (ein). The problem is that it does not have a plural, so the table would not show all the forms I want to show. Instead, I will present the declension table for kein, which is the same except it has a plural.
  Masc. Neut. Fem. Plural
Nom. kein kein keine keine
Acc. keinen kein keine keine
Dat. keinem keinem keiner keinen
Gen. keines keines keiner keiner

Many of the patterns repeat themselves here.

  • Masculine is the only gender with distinct nominative and accusative forms.
  • The masculine nominative has no ending, but the endings for the other cases are the same as those of the definite article (accusative -en, dative -em, genitive -es).
  • The neuter nominative has no ending either (and neither does the accusative; remember that the genders other than masculine don't distinguish nominative and accusative), but the dative and genitive are again like the definite article, and the same as the masculine.
  • The endings for feminine and plural are also similar to the definite article: feminine has -e in nominative and accusative, -er in dative and genitive. Dative plural again has its characteristic -n, but otherwise it's the same as the feminine.

There are three places in the table where kein has no ending: the masculine nominative and the neuter nominative and accusative. These three places will be important later.

Adjectives

German adjectives have three different kinds of declension:

  • The strong declension is used when the adjective is not preceded by an article or other determiner.
  • The weak declension is used when the adjective is preceded by the definite article.
  • The mixed declension is used when the adjective is preceded by the indefinite article and the possessive determiners (mein, etc.).

In the following tables, we will use the adjective groß (big, large) as an example.

Strong declension

  Masc. Neut. Fem. Plural
Nom. großer großes große große
Acc. großen großes große große
Dat. großem großem großer großen
Gen. großen großen großer großer

The endings look a lot like those of the indefinite article, with some important differences.

  • Remember those three places where kein had no ending? In these places, the strong adjective declension has the same endings as the definite article:
    • großer (like der) in the masculine nominative,
    • großes (like das) in the neuter nominative/accusative.
  • The other difference is that the masculine and neuter genitive ending is -en, not -es.

Otherwise, all the patterns repeat themselves here.

Weak declension

The weak declension is used with the definite article. Actually, to quote Wikipedia, "weak declension is used when the article itself clearly indicates case, gender, and number". It is used not only with the definite article, but also with other determiners like welcher (which), solcher (such), dieser (this), aller (all).
  Masc. Neut. Fem. Plural
Nom. der große das große die große die großen
Acc. den großen das große die große die großen
Dat. dem großen dem großen der großen den großen
Gen. des großen des großen der großen der großen

Most of the endings are -en in the weak declension. The exceptions (which have -e instead) are:

  • The same three places where kein has no ending: the masculine nominative and neuter nominative and accusative.
    • Masculine always has distinct forms for nominative and accusative, so that's not much of a surprise.
  • The feminine nominative and accusative. The feminine always has one form for nominative and accusative, and one form for the dative and genitive.

Mixed declension

The mixed declension is used with the indefinite article and the possessive determiners.
  Masc. Neut. Fem. Plural
Nom. ein großer ein großes eine große keine großen
Acc. einen großen ein großes eine große keine großen
Dat. einem großen einem großen einer großen keinen großen
Gen. eines großen eines großen einer großen keine großen

The mixed declension is identical to the weak declension, except at those three places where kein has no ending: masculine nominative and neuter nominative and accusative. In those places, it has the strong declension endings instead (-er for masculine nominative, and -es for neuter nominative and accusative).

You can think of it as the adjective having the strong endings to compensate for the lack of endings of the article in those cases, e.g., because masculine nominative ein has no ending, the großer following it gets more distinctive endings.

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