The German noun phrase

German noun phrases seem to always be a source of confusion for learners. They certainly were for me, but over time, I've figured out a system to make sense of them.

The table below should look somewhat familiar; it's a typical "German article" table, but with a couple additions. First of all, note the "m" column, which stands for "marker". The entries in this column are what need to be present in an article+adjective noun phrase. For example, if you have a noun phrase in the nominative case, where the noun is masculine, the "er" has to be present somewhere in that noun phrase; usually on the article ("der gute Mann", but sometimes on the adjective ("ein guter Mann").

masc. neut. fem. plural
m def. ind. m def. ind. m def. ind. m def. ind.
nom. er der ein ... er s das ein ... es e die eine e die keine
acc. en den einen s das ein ... es e die eine e die keine
dat. em dem einem em dem einem er der einer en den keinen
gen. es des eines es des eines er der einer er der keiner

The following table is meant to be used in conjunction with the color-coding system in the article table to determine the correct adjective form to use. If your article is red, use the "default article" adjective ending "e". If your article is changed from its nominative form, use the "changed article" ending "en". Plural form adjectives are always "en".

default article changed article predicative
e en

Now, this may look terrifying, but here's the thing: the above two tables are all you need to remember once you've read through and understood this post.

Predicative adjectives

This one is the easiest, so we'll get it out of the way first. The rule is as follows: When an adjective is used as a predicate, there is no ending attached.

Here's the difference between attributive and predicative adjectives:

  • attributive: "the good man"
  • predicative: "the man is good"

An attributive adjective is an adjective that's modifying a noun, and forms a noun phrase with it. Notice how "the good man" is not a complete sentence, because it's basically just saying "the man". That's just a subject, so it's not a complete sentence, i.e. there is no predicate.

On the other hand, a predicative adjective is what makes a complete sentence. "The man is good" is a perfectly valid sentence, because "is good" is what the man is doing. There is a subject, "the man", and the action that the man is doing, "is good".

Here are some examples:

  • Der Mann ist gut: "the man is good". Note the lack of ending on "gut", because "ist gut" makes this a complete sentence.
  • Die Frau ist klug: "the woman is clever"
  • Das Kind ist klein: "the child is small"
  • Die Kinder sind klein: "the children are small"
  • Der gute Mann isst: "the good man is eating". This time, "gut" takes the ending "e", which we'll discuss in a moment.
  • Der kluge Mann ist gut: "the clever man is good". Achtung! "klug" takes an adjective ending (discussed below), but "gut" doesn't, since it forms the predicate.

Just article

Since there aren't any adjectives to worry about, this one should be pretty simple. Just take the article from the above table, and you're good to go.

  • "the man" (nominative): der Mann
  • "the man" (dative): dem Mann
  • "the child" (nominative/accusative): das Kind
  • "a child" (nominative/accusative): ein Kind
  • "a woman" (genitive/dative): einer Frau

And so on.

Definite article + adjective

Here is the most important concept to understand: the "marker" will always be on the definite article, and the adjective changes according to the article used.

Let's construct the phrase "the good man" in the nominative case:

"d... gut... Mann"

Now, knowing the Mann is a masculine noun, if we look up the nominative definite article, we get "der".

"der gut... Mann"

So, what's the correct adjective form? Because "der" is the default article form (the nominative), the adjective takes the default ending "e".

"der gute Mann"

Done.

Let's try the same phrase, but in a different case: the dative. We'll start by finding out that "em" is the masculine dative marker.

"dem gut... Mann"

Now, what's the adjective form? Well, our article has been modified from its default form; it's no longer "der", but "dem". Therefore, the adjective has to take "en" to signal that the article is in a modified form.

"dem guten Mann"

One last example before we move on: "the good child" in the accusative case.

"das gut... Kind"

Even though this is the accusative, the article is still "das", just like in the nominative. In German, the only time you have to care about the distinction between the accusative and the nominative is if the noun is masculine. In this case, "Kind" is a neuter noun, so the accusative is identical to the nominative.

This means that the article is still in its "default" form, "das", so the adjective takes its default form as well:

"das gute Kind" (nominative and accusative)

Here's the full table for the forms. Note the relationship between the article form (default or changed) and the adjective ending.

case masculine neuter feminine
nominative der gute Mann das gute Kind die gute Frau
accusative den guten Mann das gute Kind die gute Frau
dative dem guten Mann dem guten Kind der guten Frau
genitive des guten Mannes des guten Kindes der guten Frau

You might be wondering what the point of changing the adjective is. Consider the phrase "the good woman" in the dative/genitive case:

"der guten Frau"

Now observe "the good man" in the nominative:

"der gute Mann"

Uh-oh, looks like the article "der" is used in both! But here's the thing: the adjective is different, so we know which one is the masculine noun phrase and which one is feminine, as well as the case both are in. This is a helpful extra bit of information for when context isn't enough to disambiguate between the masculine nominative and the feminine dative/genitive.

Indefinite article + adjective

The indefinite article + adjective construction works almost exactly like it does with the definite articles. The only difference is with the masculine nominative and the neuter nominative/accusative.

The marker has to be present somewhere in the indefinite article + adjective phrase, and while most of the time, it's on the indefinite article "ein", it sometimes gets pushed over onto the adjective.

Also, note that all the possessives (mein, dein, sein, ihr, unser, euer, ihr) work like indefinite articles.

So, let's build the phrase "a good man" in the nominative.

"ein... gut... Mann"

Remember that the marker for the masculine nominative is "er"? Now, if the indefinite article behaved just like the definite one, we would get the following (wrong) phrase (the asterisk means it's grammatically incorrect):

*"einer gute Mann"

The thing is, in the masculine nominative and neuter nominative/accusative, the marker (in this case, "er") gets shifted onto the adjective:

"ein guter Mann"

The same goes for the nominative/accusative neuter noun phrase:

*"eines gute Kind"

turns into

"ein gutes Kind".

In the table at the top of the post, this ending shift is what is meant by "ein ... er" and "ein ... s"

Let's try a possessive pronoun for a change: "their good friend"

"ihr... gut... Freund"

The possessive pronouns also shift "er" and "s" onto the adjective, so this is:

"ihr guter Freund".

Remember, though, that while "er" does get shifted onto the adjective, "er" does not! Therefore, "their good woman" in the dative/genitive case is:

"ihrer guten Frau".

**A small exception to this adjective shifting business would be independent possessive pronouns, but those are straightforward if you just think of them as adjectives. I suggest you learn those after everything else in this article.

The rest of the cases work exactly the way you'd expect them to. For instance, "a good child" in the dative case is:

"einem guten Kind"

Changed article, so the adjective takes "en".

Take care, however, with the dative/genitive feminine, because "er" does not get shifted. Only "er" does. For instance, "a good woman" in the dative/genitive case is:

"einer guten Frau", not *"ein guter Frau"

The feminine dative/genitive er stays on the indefinite article; it's only the masculine nominative er that gets shifted onto the adjective.

Here's the full table for reference:

case masculine neuter feminine
nominative ein guter Mann ein gutes Kind eine gute Frau
accusative einen guten Mann ein gutes Kind eine gute Frau
dative einem guten Mann einem guten Kind einer guten Frau
genitive eines guten Mannes eines guten Kindes einer guten Frau

Plural

Good news! In the article + adjective construction, the adjective just always takes "en".

case plural definite plural indefinite
nominative die guten Kinder keine guten Kinder
accusative die guten Kinder keine guten Kinder
dative den guten Kindern keinen guten Kindern
genitive der guten Kinder keiner guten Kinder

Watch out for the dative, though: in the dative plural, the noun gets an "n" attached to it. This basically always happens, though, so it's not hard to remember.

Just adjective(s)

This one is straightforward, because there is only one thing to keep track of. All you have to do is place the appropriate case/gender marker onto the adjective.

For example, "dear friend" (something you might put at the top of a letter) in German is:

"lieber Freund".

Note how the adjective "lieb" just takes the masculine nominative marker er. That's all there is to it!

For singular nouns, I can't think of a case where you'd need to use anything but the nominative with this construction, as it's generally limited to salutations (like in "dear friend" above).

It's the same idea in the plural: the adjective takes the correct plural marker. For example, "dear friends" in the nominative would be:

"liebe Freunde".

When you need to chain some adjectives together, they all take the case marker. If you wanted to say "dear wonderful good friends", it would go:

"liebe underbare gute Freunde".

Notice that all the adjectives just take the same ending, with no "en".

In the plural dative case, this phrase would be:

"lieben underbaren guten Freunden".

And in the plural genitive case, it is:

"lieber underbarer guter Freunde".

Just add the correct case marker right onto the adjective(s), and that's all there is to it.

Wrapping up

This may seem like a lot of information to memorize, but there are just two complementary paradigms to understand: the case markers default and changed, and the adjective endings default and changed that work together to signal whether the article is in its default form or not.

This, along with word order, is probably the hardest part of German grammar, so don't be frustrated if it takes some time to sink in. Good luck!

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