German Adjective Endings: The Complete Guide (With Charts!)
Adjectives are really useful for making descriptive, rich sentences in German. They work a little bit differently to English adjectives, because the ending changes based on certain rules.
But once you get the hang of those rules (that’s where this post comes in), they’re very straightforward. I’d even say that they’re easy!
By the time you’re finished this article, you’ll know how to choose the right German adjective ending every time.
Table of contents
German Adjective Endings: Let’s Review the Base
First, some groundwork.
Just like in English, German adjectives go before the noun: “the black dog” is der schwarze Hund.
But unlike in English, German adjectives are almost never capitalised, even when they refer to a proper noun. A phrase like “the German language” would be die deutsche Sprache in German.
Speaking of nouns, I can’t get too far talking about adjectives without a quick review of German nouns first – that’s because choosing the right adjective ending depends a lot on the noun that it’s describing.
First, [every German noun has a gender: masculine, feminine or neuter.
Second, each occurence of a German noun has a case: nominative, accusative, dative or genitive – which conveys information about the role the noun plays in the sentence. You’ll want to have a basic understanding of German noun cases before diving too deeply into German adjective endings.
The Fluent in 3 Months (Fi3M) guide to German articles has a great summary of noun cases in German.
Here’s a useful chart of German definite articles – that is, the different ways in German to say “the”. It’ll come in handy later:
With that out of the way, let’s look at the three different types of German adjective endings:
German “Strong” Adjective Endings
The German strong adjective endings are used when the noun has no article.
- Weißer Reis – “white rice.”
- Kaltes Wasser – “cold water.”
- Laute Musik – “loud music.”
Here’s the full chart of endings:
This might seem like a lot to take in, but there’s a method to the madness. Compare the table of strong adjective endings to the table of definite articles from above. Can you see the pattern?
The adjective ending at each point on the table is similar to the corresponding definite article:
- der → -er
- den → -en
- die → -e
- dem → -em
- das → -es
- des → -en
Most of the time, you just have to remove the d- or di- from the beginning of the article. (In the case of das change a to e.)
The only one that doesn’t follow the nice, logical pattern is des, which becomes -en.
Think about it like this: the adjective ending tells you the information about the noun’s gender and case that isn’t provided by the article.
When it comes to strong endings, there’s no article at all, so the adjective has to carry all the gender and case information.
For example: In the noun phrase das Wasser, we know from the das that the noun is a) neuter and b) either nominative or accusative.
Without the article, this information is lost – so the adjective picks it back up, as in kaltes Wasser. The -es carries the same gender and case information that was previously provided by das.
The strong endings are also used with the following words, which also don’t provide any gender or case information on their own:
- etwas – “some, somewhat”
- mehr – “more”
- wenig – “few”
- viel – “much; many”
- mehrer – “several; many”
- einig – “some”
For example: mehr schlechtes Wetter – “more bad weather.”
You should also use a strong adjective ending after a number (greater than one) with no definite article: drei blinde Mäuse (“three blind mice”).
When an article is present, however, the adjective doesn’t need to do as much work.
Let’s look at what happens when the definite article is still around.
German “Weak” Adjective Endings
The German weak adjective endings are used when the noun has a definite article:
- Der weiße Reis – “the white rice”
- Das kalte Wasser – “the cold water”
- Die laute Musik – “the loud music”
- Ich kaufe den teuren Hut – “I buy the expensive hat”
Here’s the full chart of endings:
As you can see, there’s not much variation. There are five occurrences of -e, and everything else is -en.
The reason the weak endings are so simple is because when a definite article is present, the der/die/das/etc. provides lots of information about the gender and case. It wouldn’t achieve very much to also have a complicated set of endings for the adjectives.
Maybe it’s that efficiency that Germans are famous for. Das kaltes Wasser, which is wrong, would be a waste of a letter. The -es doesn’t tell us anything we couldn’t have figured from the das.
Quick reminder that some prepositions form contractions with the definite article. For instance von and dem becomes vom. (For a full list of such contractions, see the Fluent in 3 Months Guide to German Prepositions.)
Weak adjective endings are used even when the definite article is hiding inside a contraction:
- Die Frau vom alten König. – “The wife of the old king.”
Weak endings are also used after the following words:
- alle – “all”
- beide – “both”
- derjenige – “the one”
- derselber – “the same”
- dieser – “this”
- jeder – “every”
- jeglich – “any”
- jene – “that”
- manch – “some”
- solch – “such”
- welch – “which”
Just like with definite articles, these words provide enough information about the gender and case to mean that weak adjective endings are all that’s needed.
- Dieser schwarze Hund – “This black dog” (nominative masculine)
- Welche roten Handschuhe? – “Which red gloves?” (nominative plural)
There’s one final group of endings we need to look at:
German “Mixed” Adjective Endings
The German mixed adjective endings are used when the noun has an indefinite article:
- Ein blauer Stift – “a blue pen.”
- Ein gutes Buch – “a good book.”
- Eine weiße Katze – “a white cat.”
The mixed endings are mostly the same as the weak endings. There are only three differences, bolded in the below table:
Only the masculine nominative, neuter nominative and neuter accusative mixed endings are different from the weak endings. Why’s that?
Let’s look at the chart of German indefinite articles for a clue:
(Why does the plural column use kein and not ein? Because there’s no plural form of ein in German, just like you can’t say “a dogs” in English. But kein – which means “no”, as in keine Hunde, “no dogs” – declines how ein would decline if ein could be plural.)
Remember that adjective endings tell us the gender and case information that we don’t get from the article. How much information does the indefinite article tell us about gender and case?
Most of the time, the indefinite and definite article carry a similar amount of information. For example, the -em suffix is used for the masculine and neuter dative for both definite and indefinite articles: dem and einem.
But there’s one exception: the indefinite article ein. This can be nominative masculine, nominative neuter or accusative neuter. But this covers two possible definite articles – der and das.
So when we switch from der or das to ein, we can no longer tell if it’s nominative masculine or nominative/accusative neuter.
To fix this, these adjective endings “borrow” from the strong endings to preserve the distinction between nominative masculine and nominative/accusative neuter.
- Der gute Mann (nominative masculine) / Ein guter Mann
- Das gute Buch (nominative neuter) / Ein gutes Buch
- Ich lese das gute Buch (accusative neuter) / Ich lese ein gutes Buch
As well as ein- and kein-, mixed adjective endings should be used with possessive determiners like mein-, sein-, ihr- etc.:
- Mein neues Auto – “my new car”
- Sein großer Hund – “your big dog”
We’re almost done! There’s just one more topic to cover…
German Adjectives with Irregular Stems
Yep. Like most grammar rules, this one has a couple of exceptions to consider.
If the adjective ends in -e, don’t add an extra e:
- liese (“quiet”) → ein lieser Tag (“a quiet day”)
If the adjective ends in -el, drop the “e” before adding the ending:
- dunkel (“dark”) → eine dunkle Wolke (“a dark cloud”)
If the adjective ends in a vowel followed by -er, drop the e before adding the ending:
- teuer (“expensive”) → dein teures Auto (“your expensive car”)
- sauer (“sour”) → mit einem sauren Apfel (“with a sour apple”)
For hoch (“high”), remove the “c”:
- Der Turm ist hoch. (“The tower is tall.”) → Der hoher Turm. (“The tall tower.”)
Adjectives that end in -a don’t take any ending:
- rosa (“pink”) → eine rosa Blüte (“a pink flower”)
Using the Correct Endings for German Adjectives: A Final Tip to Remember
That covers it! German adjective endings might look confusing, but there are better and worse ways to get them into your head.
Some German grammar guides simply present the strong/weak/mixed endings as a boring collection of tables that need to be memorised, but this is a bad way to learn.
Don’t simply think of adjective endings as a complicated list of letters to be memorised: think about what they mean, and what purpose they serve in the sentence.
Remember the important part: adjective endings provide gender and case information that isn’t provided by the article.
Once you understand this, all you have to do is remember the definite and indefinite articles, and getting the adjective ending right every time suddenly becomes a whole lot easier.