German/Grammar/Adjectives and Adverbs
Adjectives are words that describe nouns. Most adjectives are stand-alone words; however, present and past participles can also be used as adjectives. Numbers are also adjectives, though they do not decline.
Adjectives can have three functions in a sentence:
An adjective is only declined when it is attributive. The predicative and adverbial functions are not declined. You can determine what function an adjective plays in a sentence by looking at what the adjective modifies.
An attributive adjective precedes the noun it describes; it directly modifies the noun.
Example of an attributive adjective:
Der große Mann ist lustig.
The tall man is funny.
Attributive adjectives are always declined.
A predicative adjective follows a copulative verb (for example, sein, bleiben, werden) in a sentence. A copulative verb links the subject of a sentence with an adjective or a noun.
Example of a predicative adjective:
Der große Mann ist lustig.
The tall man is funny.
In the example above, the copulative verb is sein (to be). This verb links the subject (Der große Mann) with the adjective (lustig).
Another example of a predicative adjective using the adjective groß:
Der Mann ist groß.
The man is tall.
Predicative adjectives are not declined.
An adverbial adjective is an adjective that performs the function of an adverb in a sentence. That is, the adverbial adjective modifies a verb or an adjective. In German, any adjective can be used as an adverb.
Example of an adverbial adjective:
Der große Mann läuft gut.
The tall man runs well.
In the example above, the adjective modifies the verb laufen (läuft is the the third person singular conjugation of the verb) and accordingly, it acts like an adverb.
Adverbial adjectives, like adverbs, are not declined.
Declension of Attributive Adjectives
Learning the adjective endings for attributive adjectives is an important aspect of the study of German. Declension of adjectives is frequently cited as one of the hardest topics for new students to learn. It is best to commit the declension tables to memory, while attempting to speak independently. Proper use of adjective endings, especially in speaking, will come with repeated use.
This section makes use of the Oklahoma mnemonic, which denotes the fields of nominative masculine; nominative neuter; accusative neuter; nominative feminine; and accusative feminine, which resemble the state of Oklahoma in the tables used below.
Forms of Declension
There are three forms of declension that you must learn for attributive adjectives. The manner in which adjectives are declined depends on what precedes them:
- Strong declension (no article preceding the adjective).
- Weak declension (a definite article or der-word precedes the adjective).
- Mixed declension (an indefinite article or ein-word precedes the adjective).
The guiding principle for adjective endings is that a noun, whenever possible, should have a primary case ending. Definite articles and der-words always provide a primary case ending. Indefinite articles and ein-words provide primary case endings outside of Oklahoma. Sometimes nouns have no article, in which case adjectives provide the primary case ending.
Strong declension describes the declension of adjectives that are not preceded by either a definite or indefinite article (e.g. der, die, das, ein, or eine). The table below sets out the endings for adjectives in this situation.
The strong adjective endings are nearly the same as the der-word endings, with the exception of masculine and neuter adjectives in the genitive case (both marked in bold).
Weak declension describes the declension of adjectives that are preceded by a definite article or der-word, e.g. der, die, das, jeder, alle, etc.
If an attributive adjective has weak declension, you simply add an -e or an -en to the end of the adjective depending on the case of the noun that the adjective modifies. The table below sets out the endings for adjectives in this situation.
Make note of the Oklahoma shaped region in the table below for the nominative and accusative cases.
Mixed declension describes the declension of adjectives that are preceded by an indefinite article or ein-word, e.g. ein, eine, mein, meine, kein, keine, etc). The table below sets out the endings for adjectives in this situation.
Forms in Context of Articles
This terminology - strong and weak endings - is confusing for many students. As the student develops, they will develop an ear for case endings and will recognize when a noun has and has not received a case ending. Nonetheless, it is worth providing the three declension tables that result from this principle.
|the large man||the small book||the quiet cat||the red apples|
|Nominative||der große Mann||das kleine Buch||die ruhige Katze||die roten Äpfel|
|Accusative||den großen Mann|
|Dative||dem großen Mann||dem kleinen Buch||der ruhigen Katze||den roten Äpfeln|
|Genitive||des großen Mannes||des kleinen Buches||der roten Äpfel|
Adjectives following a definite article or der-word always have a weak ending. Within Oklahoma, that is "-e", and outside of Oklahoma, that is "-en". Also dies.., jed.., manch.., welch.., solch.. and all.. get the same ending as in the table above.
|a large man||a small book||a quiet cat||no red apples|
|Nominative||ein großer Mann||ein kleines Buch||eine ruhige Katze||keine roten Äpfel|
|Accusative||einen großen Mann|
|Dative||einem großen Mann||einem kleinen Buch||einer ruhigen Katze||keinen roten Äpfeln|
|Genitive||eines großen Mannes||eines kleinen Buches||keiner roten Äpfel|
Note how, within Oklahoma, adjectives take strong endings, and outside Oklahoma, they take weak endings. This is because indefinite articles provide primary endings only outside of Oklahoma. Also mein.., dein.., sein.., ihr.., unser.., euer.. and Ihr.. get the same ending as in the table above.
|Nominative||großer Mann||kleines Buch||ruhige Katze||rote Äpfel|
|Dative||großem Mann||kleinem Buch||ruhiger Katze||roten Äpfeln|
|Genitive||großen Mannes||kleinen Buches||roter Äpfel|
Forms of nouns without articles are rare compared to those with definite and indefinite articles; however, one must still know the strong declension. Note that the strong adjective declension is almost the same as the der-word endings, with the exceptions of masculine and neuter in the genitive case (in bold).
Adverbs based on adjectives are one of the simplest parts of German grammar. Any adjective can be used as an adverb simply by placing its uninflected form within the sentence, usually towards the end.
Das Ehepaar ging gestern fröhlich spazieren. (The married couple went for a walk joyfully yesterday.)
Other adverbs have no adjectival equivalent. Many of these express time.
Damals (at that time) Ich bin gestern dort gewesen. (I was there yesterday.) Morgens bin ich normalerweise im Büro. (I am normally in the office in the morning.)
Adverbs can also be based on participles (past and present). These are less common.
Er betrachtete mich bedrohlich. (He looked at me threateningly.)
Some adverbs are formed by adding -weise to adjectives and nouns in the plural form, and mean "regarding", "with respect to", or "-wise" in English. Construction of new adverbs of this sort is usually frowned upon.
Adverbs based on prepositions
Much of the material in this section will be explained in greater detail in the chapter on prepositions.
German has a complex system of adverbs based on prepositions, which are used to indicate direction of motion, location, time, and other concepts. English also possesses such a system, though it is used less. Consider the following sentences in English:
1) Could you take the garbage out? 2) Come over this evening if you get the chance. 3) You should just give up. 4) I will look you up in the phone book. 5) The contract, and the conditions contained therein, is hereby declared null and void. (Legalese)
In both English and German, prepositions and particles derived from prepositions are treated as adverbs. In many cases, these prepositional adverbs are associated with specific verbs.
In the first two examples, the italicized prepositions are used as adverbs of motion; in the first example, the word "out" indicates the direction "out of the apartment"; in the second case, "over" not only means means the direction "towards", but also implies visitation of a residence.
The third and fourth examples correspond to separable-prefix verbs in German. The word "up" is integral to the verb, which would have a different meaning without the adverb. "To give up", whose infinitive in German would be "to up-give", means "to quit", in sharp contrast to "to give". In the fourth example, it is not even possible to "look someone", whereas it is possible to "look someone up," or "look a candidate's resume over". (English even has inseparable prepositional prefix verbs; compare "to look s.o. over" to "to overlook s.o." Many of these verbs have been replaced by verbs based on Latin and Greek.)
The adverbs in the fifth example correspond to da-, wo-, hin- and her- compounds in German. Such compounds are often used in legal texts in English. In such compounds, the object of the preposition is replaced with the words "there" or "here", compounded with the preposition. "Therein" simply means "in it".
The German system of adverbs based on prepositions is considerably more rigorous, and forms the basis of a large part of the language's morphology. "To catch on" means "to begin" in English; In German, the primary word for "to begin" is literally "to catch on" (anfangen), from which the equivalent noun, der Anfang (the beginning) is derived. A remnant of this in English can be found when describing a child's upbringing.
As in English, prepositional adverbs in German to varying degrees alter the meaning of their associated verb.
Separable-prefix verbs. This topic is better explored in the chapter on verbs. Separable prefixes are themselves adverbs. As in English, many of them are integral to the meaning of the verb. Fangen means "to catch," whereas anfangen means "to begin".
Most prepositional adverbs are treated as part of the root word in the infinitive, and are used as such in the construction of participles. However, not all possible separable-prefix verbs are lexical; "vorbeikommen" (to come over), "vorbeibringen" (to bring over), and so on, may not all be listed in a dictionary. It is better to learn "vorbei" as an adverb implying visitation.
The German prefix in is of note. It has two adverbial forms. As in it describes location; when describing movement, it becomes ein. Thus, for example, darin means "in there", whereas darein means "in(to) there". Another example is the word, einleiten, to introduce.
Hin- and her-. Prepositional adverbs of motion are usually based on hin-, implying motion or direction away from the speaker, and her-, implying motion or direction towards the speaker. Hin and her are themselves stand-alone adverbs meaning the same thing, and describe less-specific motion or direction. (One example in which hin is an integral separable prefix is the verb hinrichten, which means "to execute.) Not all verbs formed from hin- and her- compounds are lexical. Some examples of hin- and her- compounds are:
herab (down, down from) hinein (in, inside) hinaus (out, out of, onto) darüber hinaus (furthermore, above all) dahin (in the direction/towards of known location)
Mastery of hin- and her- requires considerable effort from the student.
Da- compounds are also adverbs, corresponding to "there-" compounds in English. They replace specific prepositional objects. Although are used principally in legal texts and therefore sound formal in English, they are often employed in written and spoken German and are convenient replacements for long and complicated prepositional phrases. Their comprehension and active use are essential in German. Da- compounds are formed by adding da- before the preposition, with an "r" inserted before prepositions starting with a vowel. There are exceptions to this, and da- compounds are given a fuller treatment in the chapter on prepositions.
Hier- and dort- compounds also exist in German, though they are used less frequently. As in English, they are considered formal, and are used primarily in academic and legal texts. They are best memorized as vocabulary.
hierhin und dorthin - hither and thither