If you’ve started learning German, you’ll quickly come across adjectives - words that describe a noun.
If you have a sharp eye, you’ve probably also noticed that German adjective endings can change according to the case of the noun they belong to.
These kinds of changes are what I’ll be explaining in this article and hopefully I can help you make some sense of how adjectives behave in German.
How do German adjectives work?
Just like in English, or Spanish or really any other language, adjectives are used to describe things and people.
The tall man, the small house - these are examples of adjectives in use.
We use them every day and German speakers are no different.
However, in German things are a little different: in English, nouns and adjectives don’t change depending on how we use them in a sentence.
In German, however, they do.
Luckily the changes aren’t too drastic.
It’s not like in French where certain adjectives change according to a noun’s gender, or the mad declensions of Greek.
Still, like all things German, it can get a little tricky here and there.
As usual this will also mean that there’s going to have to be some rote learning if you’re going to get this right on a regular basis.
How to use German adjectives
The first thing you need to know about German adjectives is that, like in English, they go before the noun they belong to.
Occasionally you’ll run into some poetic license, but as a rule, adjectives go first.
So it’s a “small house” not a “house small”.
As I mentioned before, German adjectives change a little depending on the noun they belong to.
Thankfully, all they change are the endings, which can differ based on the case and gender of the noun.
The only exception are possessive adjectives - something we get to in the second half of this guide.
First let’s look at the basic, unchanged forms of adjectives and when to use them.
German adjectives: the basic form
When you look up a German adjective in the dictionary, you get a form that I’ll just call the basic one.
For example, look up “big” and you’ll find gross, look up small and you’ll see klein.
This form is used not only in dictionaries, but also in descriptive sentences like this one:
Das Haus ist klein.
In a sentence like this, where you directly describe something in a “the noun is adjective” construction, the adjective sticks to this basic form - regardless of gender.
Der Mann ist klein.
Also in more complicated constructions which follow this basic template, you keep the basic form, like so:
Wer nicht stark ist, muss schlau sein.
German adjective declensions
However, when you stick the adjective directly on to the noun, it changes every time and adjusts to the gender and case of the noun.
The small house becomes das kleine Haus and the small man is der kleine Mann.
At first, it may seem daunting and, let’s be honest, a little annoying: yet another thing to learn to master German.
However, most endings are kind of same-y across all adjectives, and there’s really only two groups the endings fall into.
The first group is nouns that have a definite article, so der, die, das and all their different forms.
The second group is nouns with an indefinite article, so ein or, in the case of plurals, kein.
Both groups are roughly about as common, so you need to know them both; let’s get started.
Adjectives with definite articles
First, let’s see how this all looks in a table; as you can see, there’s not that much difference between cases and genders.
Of course, tables are great study aids, but they won’t help you make sense of all this.
Let’s take a look at some examples.
Das kleine Haus ist grün
I started by modifying an earlier example a bit: as you can see, klein changed because it directly describes the house, while grün didn’t change because you’re describing it with a construction.
Now, let’s change the house’s case:
Ich wohne in das kleinen, grünen Haus.
We turned Haus from being the subject to the object of that sentence, so we had to add an extra en to klein and grün.
This process repeats across all other genders and cases, so let’s take a look at our second group, now.
Adjectives with indefinite articles
The second group is nouns that are preceded by indefinite articles.
There is a little more variety here than with the first group, but again it’s pretty easy to learn.
The biggest changes are the masculine nominative and the neuter nominative and genitive.
Let’s take a look at some examples.
Sie ist eine schöne Frau.
That one is pretty simple, there’s no real difference with the definite article group.
The next one changes a bit more:
Ein grosser Mann steht an der Ecke.
Here, grosser changed because of the indefinite article ein in combination with he masculine noun Mann.
This is the kind of thing you really need to keep an eye on when practicing your German.
When speaking nobody will mind too much if you make a mistake, but in written German it stands out like a sore thumb.
Also, if you’re curious why it’s an der Ecke, check out my guide to German prepositions.
Finally, let’s take a look at a few adjectives that can be confusing, namely ones that are a possessive pronoun.
When you say “that’s my book”, “my” is a possessive pronoun being used as an adjective.
After all, you’re describing the book.
In English this isn’t a huge deal as the word doesn’t change, but in German it does.
If you’re used to how German pronouns work as well as how cases behave, it won’t be too bad, though.
This is because the exits for each possessive pronoun are the same as the exit of their definite article.
I know that sounds confusing, but let’s take a look at two simple tables, one with the possessive pronouns and one with just the definite articles.
After that we’ll go over some examples.
The alternative is a massive three-step supertable that’s no fun for me to put together and even less fun for you to study!
First let’s look at the nominative forms of the possessive pronouns:
Now, let’s recap the definite articles, I’ve left out the genitive because possessives are already in the genitive.
Okay… with those refreshers in mind, let’s put together some examples:
Mein Buch ist schwarz.
In this case, Buch is in the nominative - the form that in the masculine and neuter never changes, so we just use mein.
However, in the feminine and the plural I need to add -e - just like when you say eine Frau.
Seine Konditorei ist geschlossen.
As you can see, it doesn’t matter what the possessive pronoun is, we just add -e.
We could also make the bakery’s owner female, and we’d get:
Ihre Konditorei ist geschlossen.
Dative and accusative cases
This is the nominative, so it’s relatively simple, but the other cases work much the same.
To form the dative, we can see from the articles that the male and neuter both get -em.
Ich gehe mit meinem Mann.
The feminine gets -er and the plural gets -en.
Sie ist bei ihrer Nachbarn.
The accusative works much the same way, the masuline gets -en, so like this:
Er wäscht seinen Teppich.
While the feminine and the plural get just -e, like in the nominative:
Wir verkaufen unsere Autos.
The neuter remains unchanged, so again it’s just like the nominative:
Ich verkauf mein Haus.
I know it’s a lot to take in, and without a handy table it can get tricky to keep it all in mind, but just try to remember how this flows a bit and you should get it in no time.
I’ve found that the best way to use this correctly is to keep the definite articles in mind and go from there.
You’ll make some mistakes in the beginning, but after a while you should get the hang of it.
German adjectives are pretty straightforward
Though the possessive adjectives can cause some headaches, overall German adjectives aren’t too bad.
It’s just a matter of remembering some key changes.
I hope my guide was helpful and that you’ll be describing things in German in no time. 🇩🇪