Adjectives

Adjectives are words that modify nouns. They answer the question what kind? For example, if you have a house (noun), what kind of house is it? Is it red, big, old?

Adjectives can be either attributive or predicative.
You use predicative adjectives when you say the house is red (das Haus ist rot) - it equates one thing (a noun) with another (a quality, an adjective).

If you say the red house (das rote Haus) you are attributing the quality red to the house - that is, attributing a quality to a thing. Attributive adjectives take endings in German, and these are determined by the gender, number, and case of the noun being modified.

Adjective endings

Nominative case

The following lists show the adjective endings for the nominative case with the definite articles (der, die, das) and the indefinite articles (ein, eine, ein).

definite article


Masculine: der
der neue Wagen
the new car
Feminine: die
die schöne Stadt
the beautiful city
Neuter: das
das alte Auto
the old car
Plural: die
die neuen Bücher
the new books

indefinite article


Masculine: ein
ein neuer Wagen
a new car
Feminine: eine
eine schöne Stadt
a beautiful city
Neuter: ein
ein altes Auto
an old car
Plural: keine
keine neuen Bücher
no new books

To further clarify what is happening here, take a look at the two German sentences below. What do you notice about the word grau?

Das Haus ist grau.
(The house is gray.)
Das graue Haus ist rechts.
(The gray house is on the right.)

If you answered that grau in the first sentence has no ending and grau in the second sentence does have an ending, you're right! In grammatical terms, adding endings to words is called inflection or declination. When we put endings on words, we are inflecting or declining them. This used to happen in Old English, too. The grammar of modern German is similar to Old English (including gender for nouns!). But in modern English there is no inflection of adjectives.

Why does grau have an ending in one sentence but not the other? Look at the two sentences again, and you can probably see the significant difference. If the adjective (grau) comes before the noun (Haus), it needs an ending. If it comes after the noun and verb (ist), it should have no ending. The minimum ending for an adjective before a noun is an e - but there are some other possibilities.

But first we need to talk about another grammar term: the case. Remember when your English teacher tried to explain the difference between the nominative and objective cases? Well, if you understand the concept in English, it will help you with German. It's basically pretty simple: nominative = subject, and objective = direct or indirect object. For now, we're going to stick to the simple one, the nominative case.

In the sentence Das Haus ist grau. the subject is das Haus and das Haus is nominative. It's the same for Das graue Haus ist rechts. In both sentences, das Haus is the nominative subject. The rule for this is simple: in the nominative case with the definite article (the/der, die, das) the adjective ending is -e when the adjective comes before the noun. So we would get

Der blaue Wagen...
(The blue car...)
Die kleine Stadt...
(The small town...)
Das schöne Mädchen...
(The pretty girl...).

But if we say

Das Mädchen ist schön.
(The girl is pretty.)
Der Wagen ist blau.
(The car is blue.)

there is no ending at all on the adjective (schön or blau) because the adjective is located after the noun (predicate adjective). The rule for adjectives with the definite article (der, die, das) or the so-called der-words (dieser, jeder, etc.) is simple, because the ending is always -e in the nominative case (except for the plural which is always -en in all situations!).

However, when the adjective is used with an ein-word (ein, dein, keine, etc.), the adjective must reflect the gender of the noun that follows. The adjective endings -er, -e, and -es correspond to the articles der, die, das respectively (masculine, feminine, and neuter).

Once you notice the parallel and the agreement of the letters r, e, s with der, die, das, it becomes less complicated than it may seem at first.

This is also a good example for impressing upon English speakers the importance of learning the gender of nouns in German. If you don't know that Haus is neuter (das), then you won't be able to say (or write) Er hat ein neues Haus. (He has a new house.).

Accusative case (direct object)

The following lists show the adjective endings for the accusative case with the definite articles (den, die, das) and the indefinite articles (einen, eine, ein).

In the sentence Der blaue Wagen ist neu, the subject is der Wagen and der Wagen is nominative. But if we say Ich kaufe den blauen Wagen. (I'm buying the blue car.), then der Wagen changes to den Wagen as the accusative object. The adjective ending rule here is: in the accusative case with the definite article (the/den, die, das) the adjective ending is always -en for the masculine (den) form. But it remains -e for die or das. So we would get

...den blauen Wagen...
(...the blue car...)
but
...die blaue Tür…
(...the blue door...)
or
...das blaue Buch...
(...the blue book...).

When the adjective is used with an ein-word (einen, dein, kein, etc.), the accusative adjective ending must reflect the gender and case of the noun that follows. The adjective endings -en, -e, and -es correspond to the articles den, die, and das respectively (masculine, feminine, and neuter). Once you notice the parallel and the agreement of the letters n, e, s with den, die, das, it makes the process a little clearer.

definite article


Masculine: den
den neuen Wagen
the new car
Feminine: die
die schöne Stadt
the beautiful city
Neuter: das
das alte Auto
the old car
Plural: die
die neuen Bücher
the new books

indefinite article


Masculine: einen
einen neuen Wagen
a new car
Feminine: eine
eine schöne Stadt
a beautiful city
Neuter: ein
ein altes Auto
an old car
Plural: keine
keine neuen Bücher
no new books

Dative case (indirect object)

The following chart shows the adjective endings for the dative case with the definite articles (dem, der, dem) and the indefinite articles (einem, einer, einem).

Many German learners find the dative (indirect object) case to be intimidating, but when it comes to adjective endings in the dative, it couldn't be simpler. The ending is always –en. This simple rule applies to adjectives used with either the definite or indefinite articles (and ein-words).

definite article


Masculine: dem
dem neuen Wagen
the new car
Feminine: der
der schönen Stadt
the beautiful city
Neuter: dem
dem alten Auto
the old car
Plural: den
den neuen Büchern
the new books

indefinite article


Masculine: einem
einem neuen Wagen
a new car
Feminine: einer
einer schönen Stadt
a beautiful city
Neuter: einem
einem alten Auto
an old car
Plural: keinen
keinen neuen Büchern
no new books

Colours

The German words for colors usually function as adjectives and take the normal adjective endings (but see exceptions below). In certain situations, colours can also be nouns and are thus capitalized:

eine Bluse in Blau
(a blouse in blue)
das Blaue vom Himmel versprechen
(to promise heaven and earth, lit., the blue of the heavens).

The list below shows some of the most common colours with sample phrases.

rot

der rote Wagen
(the red car),
der Wagen ist rot
(the car is red)
blau

ein blaues Auge
(a black eye),
er ist blau
(he's drunk)
hellblau

die hellblaue Bluse
(the light blue blouse)
dunkelblau

die dunkelblaue Bluse
(the dark blue blouse)
grün

der grüne Hut
(the green hat)
gelb

die gelben Seiten
(yellow pages),
ein gelbes Auto
(a yellow car)
weiß

das weiße Papier

(the white paper)
schwarz

der schwarze Koffer

(the black suitcase)

Past Participles

As in English, the past participle of a German verb may be used as an adjective or adverb. In English, stolen is the past participle of the verb to steal. The word stolen can be used as an adjective, as in: That's a stolen car.

Similarly, in German the past participle gestohlen (from stehlen, to steal) can also be used as an adjective: Das ist ein gestohlenes Auto.

The only significant difference between the ways that English and German use the past participle as an adjective is the fact that, unlike English adjectives, German adjectives must have an appropriate ending if they precede a noun. (Notice the -es ending in the example above.

A past participle such as interessiert (interested) can also be used as an adverb:

Wir sahen interessiert zu.
(We watched interestedly/with interest.)

Past participles as adjectives

Das ist ein geborgter Computer.
(That's a borrowed computer.)
Sie trat dem frisch gegründeten Fanclub bei.
(She joined the newly founded fan club.)
Haben Sie geschnittenes Brot?
(Do you have sliced bread?)

Some German sentences with past participle adjective phrases require a relative clause or an appositive phrase in English:

Der fast tot geglaubte Volkswagen kam wieder ins Laufen.
(The Volkswagen, (which was) believed almost dead, came back into popularity.)
Der mit spektalulären Actionszenen versehene Film war ein großer Erfolg.
(The film, filled with spectacular action scenes, was a big success.)

Past participles as adverbs

Die Hütte lag geschützt im Tal.
(The cabin lay protected in the valley.)
Er schaute gelangweilt zum Fenster hinaus.
(He looked out the window with boredom. (boredly))
Wir müssen stets gepflegt auftreten.
(We always have to appear well-groomed.)

Past participle adverbs and adjectives are treated just as any other adjective or adverb in German.

Present Participles

Unlike its English equivalent, the present participle in German is used almost exclusively as an adjective or adverb. For other uses, German present participles are usually replaced by nominalized verbs (verbs used as nouns) — das Lesen (reading), das Schwimmen (swimming) — to function like English gerunds, for instance. In English, the present participle has an -ing ending. In German the present participle ends in -end: weinend (crying), pfeifend (whistling), schlafend (sleeping).

In German, a sleeping child is ein schlafendes Kind. As with any adjective in German, the ending must fit the grammatical context, in this case an -es ending (neuter/das).

Many present participle adjective phrases in German are translated with a relative clause or an appositive phrase in English. For example, Der schnell vorbeifahrende Zug machte großen Lärm, would be: The train, which was quickly passing by, made a tremendous noise, rather than the literal: The quickly passing by train...

When used as adverbs, German present participles are treated like any other adverb, and the English translation usually places the adverb or adverbial phrase at the end:

Er kam pfeifend ins Zimmer.
(He came into the room whistling.)

Present participles are used more often in writing than in spoken German. You'll run across them a lot when reading books, magazines, or newspapers.

Present Participles as adjectives

Notice that a good English translation may often vary from the original literal German in these cases.

Er hatte die Deutschen als anmaßende, stereotypische Blonde bezeichnet.
(He had characterized the Germans as presumptuous, stereotypical blondes.)
Die damit verbundenen Beeinträchtigungen würden die erwünschte Erholung in Frage stellen.
(The detrimental conditions connected with it would make the desired relaxation doubtful)
Heike war eine Frau von atemberaubender Schönheit.
(Heike was a woman of breathtaking beauty.)
Drohende Krankheiten müssen frühzeitig erkannt und behandelt werden.
(Impending diseases must be recognized and treated early on.)
Der vorbeieilende Kellner sah uns nicht.
(The waiter didn't see us as he hurried by.)

Some German present participles have become standard adjectives with a meaning that may vary from the original verb's meaning. They should be learned as vocabulary. Such special present participle adjectives may be used after sein and include:

abstoßend
(repulsive)
abwesend
(absent)
anmaßend.
(presumptuous)
anstrengend
(exhausting, strenuous)
aufregend
(exciting)
auffallend
(conspicuous)
dringend
(urgent)
drückend
(heavy, oppressive)
entscheidend
(crucial, decisive)
glühend
(glowing, burning)
reizend
(charming)
rührend
(touching)
spannend
(thrilling)
überzeugend
(convincing)
umfassend
(extensive)

German present participles are almost never used like the common -ing verb forms in English. For instance, German has no present progressive tense, so avoid misguided attempts to use present participles in such horrible phrases as,

ich bin gehend for ich gehe
(I'm going)

Present Participles as adverbs

Sie gingen lärmend ins Zimmer.
(They went into the room making a lot of noise.)
Die alte Lokomotive fuhr laut pfeifend in den Bahnhof.
(The old locomotive drove into the station whistling loudly.)
Sie sahen einander grinsend an.
(They looked at each other, grinning.)

Comparison of adjectives and adverbs

To form the comparative for most adjectives or adverbs in German you simply add -er, as in neu/neuer (new/newer) or klein/kleiner (small/smaller).

For the superlative, English uses the -est ending, the same as in German except that German often drops the e and usually adds an adjective ending:

(der) neueste
(the newest)
(das) kleinste
(the smallest).

Unlike English, however, German never uses more (mehr) with another modifier to form the comparative.

In English something may be more beautiful or someone could be more intelligent. But in German these are both expressed with the -er ending: schöner and intelligenter.

Unfortunately, German also has some irregular comparisons, just as English does. Sometimes these irregular forms are quite similar to those in English. Compare, for instance, the English good/better/best with the German gut/besser/am besten. On the other hand, high/higher/highest is hoch/höher/am höchsten in German. But there are only a few of these irregular forms, and they are easy to learn, as you can see below.

positive
bald
soon
comparative
eher
sooner
superlative
am ehesten
soonest
positive
gern
gladly
comparative
lieber
more gladly
superlative
am liebsten
most gladly
positive
groß
big
comparative
größer
bigger
superlative
am größten
biggest
positive
gut
good
comparative
besser
better
superlative
am besten
best
positive
nah
near
comparative
näher
nearer
superlative
am nächsten
nearest
positive
viel
much
comparative
mehr
more
superlative
am meisten
most

There is one more irregularity that affects both the comparative and superlative of many German adjectives and adverbs: the added umlaut ( ¨ ) over a, o, or u in most one-syllable adjectives/adverbs.

Below are some examples of this kind of comparison.

positive
dumm
dumb
comparative
dümmer
sooner
superlative
am dümmsten
dumbest
positive
kalt
cold
comparative
kälter
colder
superlative
am kältesten
coldest
positive
klug
smart
comparative
klüger
smarter
superlative
am klügsten
smartest
positive
lang
long
comparative
länger
longer
superlative
am längsten
longest
positive
stark
strong
comparative
stärker
stronger
superlative
am stärksten
strongest
positive
warm
warm
comparative
wärmer
warmer
superlative
am wärmsten
warmest

Exceptions (do not add an umlaut) include:

bunt
colorful
falsch
wrong
froh
merry
klar
clear
laut
loud
wahr
true

In order to use the comparative forms above and to express relative comparisons or equality/inequality (as good as or not as tall as) in German, you also need to know the following phrases and formulations using als, so - wie, or je - desto:

mehr/größer/besser als
more/bigger/better than
(nicht) so viel/groß/gut wie
(not) as much/big/good as
je größer desto besser
the bigger/taller the better

Below are a few sample sentences to show how the positive, comparative, and superlative forms are used in German.

Meine Schwester ist nicht so groß wie ich.
(My sister is not as tall as I am.)
Sein Audi ist viel teurer als mein VW.
(His Audi is much more expensive than my VW.)
Wir fahren lieber mit der Bahn.
(We prefer to travel by train.)
Karl ist der Älteste. Karl ist am ältesten.
(Karl is the oldest. Karl is oldest.)
Je mehr Leute, desto besser.
(The more people, the better.)
Er spielt gern Basketball, aber am liebsten spielt er Fußball.
(He likes to play basketball, but most of all he likes to play soccer.)
Der ICE fährt am schnellsten.
(The ICE [train] travels/goes the fastest.)
Die meisten Leute fahren nicht so schnell wie er.
(Most people don't drive as fast as he does.)

If you make the frequent comparison mistake made by many English speakers (older than me rather than older than I), it can lead to mistakes in German!
Learning German helps your English grammar!

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