If you’ve been learning German for a while, you’ve probably figured out that there seems to be a tricky rule for every little thing.
You’ll be happy to know that German plurals are no different; in fact, there are so many subcategories that you could say there are almost no rules, only exceptions to them.
This makes them challenging to learn, but hopefully we can give you some pointers to get you started.
How German plurals work
The idea behind German plurals is no different than any other Indo-European languages, if you have one of something, the noun gets a singular form.
If there are two or more, the noun changes to become plural.
It’s not like Chinese, where the noun is always the same, or Arabic, which has a plural for two and one for three or more.
It’s not just the overarching thought that’s the same as in English, either.
German plurals actually have a lot in common with English.
In English, most plurals are formed by adding -s to a noun (or at least a variation of that); German does something similar, there are just more variations.
Sometimes in both English and German, a noun will change within the word to denote there’s two of it, like how one mouse becomes two mice, or one goose becomes two geese.
In rare cases, an English word won’t change at all, like one or two fish; German has words like that, too.
That said, though, as with all things German, there’s a multitude of small, detailed rules that need to be followed, so overall there’s a lot more to learn than in English.
German plurals and articles
One thing about German plurals is that the articles stay the same across all genders, they only change per case.
So regardless of the form or type of the plural, you don’t need to worry about the article.
We’ve gone over them once before in our guide to German cases, but here they are again.
However, the nouns themselves are all over the place, let’s go over them, gender by gender.
In German, many masculine nouns simply add the letter “e” to the end of the word to denote the plural.
This affects all nouns that end with any of five endings.
|-ich||der Sittich||die Sittiche||the parakeet|
|-ig||der König||die Könige||the king|
|-ling||der Flüchtling||die Flüchtlinge||the refugee|
|-eur||der Friseur||die Friseure||the hairdresser|
|-är||der Veterinär||die Veterinäre||the vet|
These last two groups are quite rare, you won’t see them much.
These words are almost always on loan from French and, as German prefers to avoid that, there’s not too many of them.
Next up are the masculine nouns ending in -el or -er. These are annoying because this one group is actually two groups.
If the word already has an umlaut in it (those nifty double dots over a vowel), then it gets no ending at all.
|-er||der Schüler||die Schüler||the student (school)|
|-el||der Würfel||die Würfel||the die|
If it does not have an umlaut, then it gets one, but still no ending.
|-er||der Vater||die Väter||the father|
|-el||der Kumpel||die Kümpel||the miner|
Note that on paper Kumpel means miner, but it’s generally used as “buddy” or, if you’re British or Australian, “mate.”
Another group is a bit of a catch-all for words that don’t fit into any other group, but generally end with a vowel.
These get an umlaut and -e.
|-||der Arzt||die Ärzte||the doctor|
|-||der Platz||die Plätze||the seat|
|-||der Kuss||die Küsse||the kiss|
There’s also a group that gets an umlaut and -er, usually words that end with a double consonant.
This group is small, but many common words are in it.
|-||der Mann||die Männer||the man|
|-||der Wald||die Wälder||the forest|
Masculine nouns with plural -n or -en
With the first few common groups out of the way, let’s take a look at one big grab bag, the nouns that have plurals ending in -n (when sending with just e) or -en (when ending with a consonant).
|-e||der Name||die Namen||the name|
|-ist||der Polizist||die Polizisten||the policeman|
|-at||der Soldat||die Soldaten||the soldier|
|-ant||der Elefant||die Elefanten||the elephant|
|-ent||der Student||die Studenten||the student|
There are some nasty exceptions to these, though.
One very common one is the word for “cheese,” der Käse, which doesn’t change at all, so die Käse.
Another are a very small group of nouns that don’t fit into any group, but still get -en.
|-||der Staat||die Staaten||the state|
|-||der Doktor||die Doktoren||the doctor|
Other groups and exceptions
The last group are words that end in -us, which again fall into two groups.
The first group gets -usse as the ending, while the second has it replaced with -i.
The second group are generally words with Latin roots.
|-us||der Zirkus||die Zirkusse||the circus|
|-us||der Ficus||die Fici||the ficus|
Other than these groups, there are some odd wild cards: a very small group of masculine nouns gets -ten at the end, and a few words get -er but no umlaut.
However, these are so rare, it’s best to forget about them until you run into them.
You’ll be happy to know that with the masculine nouns out of the way, the worst is behind us. The feminine and neuter nouns are a lot more straightforward.
The vast majority of feminine nouns in German end in -e in the singular.
The plural is then formed by simply adding -n.
If a feminine noun ends in something else than -e, it usually gets either -en or -nen, depending on a few things.
Here’s what that looks like in a table.
|-e||die Lampe||die Lampen||the lamp|
|-ie||die Galerie||die Galerien||the gallery|
|-ei||die Konditorei||die Konditoreien||the confectionary|
|-ung||die Zeitung||die Zeitungen||the newspaper|
|-ion||die Nation||die Nationen||the nation|
|-||die Fabrik||die Fabriken||the factory|
|-in||die Lehrerin||die Lehrerinnen||the teacher|
There are a number of exceptions to these rules, most of which we’ll just summarize at the end of this section as they’re quite rare.
That said, there are a few important ones, like “mother” and “daughter,” which get an umlaut and nothing else.
|-||die Mutter||die Mütter||the mother|
|-||die Tochter||die Töchter||the daughter|
Another, almost as small group, gets an -e at the end as well as an umlaut.
These include feminine nouns ending in -aus as well as those with a in the word.
|-||die Kraft||die Kräfte||the force|
|-||die Maus||die Mäuse||The mouse|
All others fit handily in a single table, though.
|-a||die Firma||die Firmen||the company|
|-sis||die Analysis||die Analysen||the analysis|
|-xis||die Galaxis||die Galaxien||the galaxy|
|-nis||die Befugnis||die Befugnisse||the permission|
Two down, one to go: the neuter nouns’ plural is generally quite simple.
However, there are two things to look out for, one is that there’s some overlap between the neuter and other two genders when it comes to endings.
The other is that some of the exceptions, while rare, are pretty weird.
Like how das Auto becomes die Autos, despite no other neuter word doing that.
However, the majority of neuter nouns simply get -e in the plural, and that’s it.
|-||das Alphabet||die Alphabete||the alphabet|
|-ment||das Medikament||die Medikamente||the medication|
However, there’s another group that sees no change in the plural, these are always the same three endings.
|-el||das Kabel||die Kabel||the cable|
|-en||das Daten||die Daten||the date|
|-er||das Leder||die Leder||the leather|
Make sure to check the article on words like this, though, it’s more likely that words with these endings are masculine rather than neuter!
Another set that doesn’t change are diminutives ending in -chen.
|-chen||das Mädchen||die Mädchen||the girl|
|-chen||das Maskottchen||die Maskottchen||the mascot|
There is also a common group that gets -er in the plural; when there’s an a in the word it gets umlaut, too.
|-||das Bild||die Bilder||the picture|
|-||das Haus||die Häuser||the house|
One final group is very small, but there are some common words in there.
They end in -en or -ien.
|-||das Bett||die Betten||the bed|
|-||das Prinzip||die Prinzipien||the principle|
Lastly, there’s just all the weird stuff.
Most of these are loan words and thus behave a little strangely.
The exceptions are the words ending in -nis, which behave just like feminine nouns, but are neuter.
|-nis||das Geheimnis||die Geheimnisse||the secret|
|-um||das Antibiotikum||die Antibiotika||the antibiotic|
|-um||das Ministerium||die Ministerien||the ministry|
|-o||das Bankkonto||die Bankkonten||the bank account|
Words without plurals
I know all that’s a lot.
Thankfully, there are also a number of nouns that don’t have a plural, these generally fall apart in two categories.
Names of people (der Simon), cities (die Berlin) and countries (das Frankreich) don’t generally have a plural form, so no need to worry about that.
One of the very few exceptions is the United States, which is die Vereinigten Staaten von Amerika, but then again, that doesn’t have a singular!
The same goes for concepts like anger (die Wut), independence (die Unabhängigkeit) or basically any word that ends with -heit or -keit.
A small reprieve, at least.
Tips for learning German plurals
As you can see, there are a lot of things to remember here.
As a general tip, I recommend that you learn the plural for every noun along with the singular, it just makes things easier.
For example, instead of just studying that “house” is Haus, write it in your own vocabulary list as Haus/Häuser.
That ought to save you a lot of headache down the road.
Better yet, though, is to add the article to it, as well, so you can immediately learn the gender, too, so make it: das Haus/Häuser.
It’s more work, I know, but study this way and your German will be really good before you know it. Best of luck!