German/Grammar/Uninflected adjectives

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Uninflected adjectives[edit | edit source]

It's time to introduce the third and last major category of words in German, adjectives. We'll also be talking about some verbs that go with them.

Terminology[edit | edit source]

Adjectives[edit | edit source]

Adjectives are words used to describe nouns, thus making them a kind of modifier. One way they can be used is as a predicate, when the point of the sentence is to describe something. For example, "You are tall," and "Your smile is pleasant," use the adjectives "tall" and "pleasant" as predicates.[note 1] Another way is an an attribute, which occurs when you want to make clear which person or object you're talking about, or if you're just mentioning the quality as a kind of side note. For example, "The tall man is talking," uses "tall" as an attribute to clarify which man is talking. In the sentence "Her blue eyes peeked out from under her bonnet," we know that "she" (presumably) has only one pair of eyes, so there's no need to clarify which eyes she's peeking with, but speaker wanted to mention that her eyes were blue in passing; this is another use of an adjective, "blue", as an attribute. This may seem like a technical distinction because in English you use the same words, "tall", "pleasant", "blue" in both situations. But you'll have to know the difference because in German the word change. Specifically, an adjective used as a predicate is not declined, while an adjective used as an attribute is. Since adjective declination really deserves a section of it's own, we'll be covering that later.

Adjectives can also be used as adverbs in German, both to modify verbs and to modify other adjectives. This is done without any ending such as the "-ly" ending used in English. German speakers regard this as a natural extension of the adjective and rarely list the adverb meaning separately in dictionaries. So if you see an adjective used where an adverb ought to go, just translate it as an adjective and add an "-ly" ending to get the correct translation into English.

Altogether there are four possible uses for adjectives in German: predicate, attribute, verb modifier, adjective modifier, although most adjectives aren't applicable to other adjectives. It's a useful exercise to make up sentences using the adjective in as many different ways as possible when you learn it.

Predicate phrases[edit | edit source]

Since predicates were mentioned above, we have a new type of phrase which we'll call a predicate phrase. A predicate phrase can be an adjective, as seen above, but it can be other things as well. Another possibility is a noun phrase, for example "I am your father," uses the noun phrase "your father" as a predicate. Also, certain adverbs can serve as predicate phrases, for example "The meeting is today," and "We are here," use "today" and "here" as predicates. Normally anything that can be used as Y in the sentence "X is Y" is said to be a predicate phrase.

Copulative verbs[edit | edit source]

The examples above used only the verb "to be", but other verbs can use predicates phrases as well, and these are called copulative verbs. (It would perhaps be more apt to call them predicate verbs, but copulative verb seems to be the standard term.) In English, some common verbs which are copulative in at least one sense are "to act" – "Don't act stupid," "to feel" – "I feel tired," "to grow" – "He's growing angry," "to look" – "You look tired," "to turn" – "My hair is turning grey." There are similar verbs in German to be listed below.

The verb sein[edit | edit source]

The verb for "to be" in German, sein, is the most irregular in the language. This is also true of English and many other European languages as well. The inflection table for the present tense is:

Conjugating sein, present tense
Person Masculine Feminine Neuter Plural
First ich bin
"I am"
wir sind
"we are"
Second (informal) du bist
"you are"
ihr seid
"you are"
Second (formal) Sie sind
"you are"
Third er ist
"he is"
sie ist
"she is"
es ist
"it is"
sie sind
"they are"

The b- forms are not even cognates with sein, being derived from the same Proto-Germanic root that gave rise to "be" in English.

Remember that German does not use sein with another verb in the present tense as does English with "to be". So there is nothing which corresponds directly to "I am sleeping," in German; Ich schlafe, – "I sleep," is as close as you can get.

Examples[edit | edit source]

  • Mein Bruder ist krank. – "My brother is sick."
  • Ich bin dein Vater. – "I am your father." (Using a noun phrase as a predicate. The noun used in the predicate, dein Vater, is in the nominative case; see the Case matching section below.)
  • Wir sind hier. – "We are here." (Using an adverb as a predicate.)
  • Bist du müde? – "Are you tired?" (Moving the verb to V1 position to ask a yes/no question.)
  • Seid ihr zusammen? – "Are you together?"
  • Du singst gut. – "You sing well." (Using an adjective as an adverb applied to the verb.)

Case matching[edit | edit source]

If a predicate phrase is a noun then it must have a case, and in German this case matches its case of the noun the predicate is being applied to. For example, if mein Vater is the subject, always in the nominative case, and the predicate is the pronoun er, then the sentence would be:

  • Mein Vater ist er. – "My father is him."

This differs from English where, for most speakers at least, only the subject is in the subject case. This is perhaps the main difference between the German nominative case and the English subject case; the nominative case can be used for nouns other than the subject. Because of flexible word order in German, it's not possible to decide whether mein Vater or er is the subject in this example. With a change in pronouns, the speaker must decide which noun is the subject in order to conjugate the verb. In the following examples

  • Ich bin dein Vater.
  • Dein Vater bin ich.

ich is preferred as the subject, so bin would be better than any combination with ist.

Substances[edit | edit source]

As in English, no article is needed when describing substances. For example

  • Eisen ist schwer. – "Iron is heavy."
  • Holz ist leicht. – "Wood is light."
  • Schokolade ist lecker. – "Chocolate is tasty."

As with plurals, you can add a definite article if everyone knows which sample of the substance you're talking about.

  • Das Wasser ist hier kalt. – "The water is cold here."
    • Note that predicates usually come after adverbs in German.

With many such nouns, you can put an indefinite article in front of it as well. But this does imply a change of meaning, so you're no longer talking about the substance in general but a quantity or instance of it.

  • Ich nehme einen Kaffee. – "I'll take a (cup or, drink of) coffee."

These rules seem a bit complex, but they correspond very closely to English.

Professions as predicates[edit | edit source]

This is one of the situations where English and German differ on whether a noun should have a determiner in front of it. When a profession is used as a predicate then German does not require an article, contrary to English expectation. For example

  • Meine Schwester ist Lehrerin. – "My sister is a teacher."

Other copulative verbs[edit | edit source]

Other copulative verbs usually talk about if or how the state of something is changing, or express an opinion about the state. Some common examples:

  • werden – "to become, to turn"
    • Er wird wütend. – "He's getting angry."
    • Ich werde Arzt. – "I'm becoming a doctor."
    • Meine Haare werden grau. – "My hair is turning grey."
    • Note that werden is a stem changing verb. In the last example, German prefers the plural Haare for the hair on someone's head.
  • bleiben – "to remain"
    • Ich bleibe hier. – "I'm remaining here."
  • riechen – "to smell" (to be something, judging by smell)
    • Das Essen riecht wunderbar. – "The food smells wonderful."
  • klingen – "to sound" (to be something, judging by sound or description)
    • Dein Arbeit klingt schwer. – "Your work sounds hard."

Note that some of these verbs have other, sometimes more important meanings, so you have to pay attention to the way it's used in a sentence to find the actual meaning.

There is one verb in this group that is irregular in the present tense, werden. In addition to being a stem changing verb, you may have noticed in the examples that it drops the -et ending in the third person singular. It also drops a -de- in the second person singular. For completeness, the full conjugation table in the present tense is:

Conjugating werden, present tense
Person Masculine Feminine Neuter Plural
First ich werde
"I become"
wir werden
"we become"
Second (informal) du wirst
"you become"
ihr werdet
"you become"
Second (formal) Sie werden
"you become"
Third er wird
"he becomes"
sie wird
"she becomes"
es wird
"it becomes"
sie werden
"they become"

Some common adjectives[edit | edit source]

  • schwarz – "black"
  • weiß – "white"
  • grau – "grey"
  • blau – "blue"
  • rot – "red"
  • gelb – "yellow"
  • grün – "green"
  • schwer – "heavy", also "difficult"
  • leicht – "light", also "easy, not difficult"
  • gut – "good", "well" as an adverb.
    • This usually refers to quality, moral fitness, or being well behaved. To talk about how you're feeling requires some grammar we haven't gotten to yet. In other words, do not say Ich bin gut," for "I'm feeling well," since that's not what it means.
  • schlecht – "bad"
  • groß – "big" or "tall"
  • klein – "little"
  • heiß – "hot"
    • This usually refers to temperature. To say you feel hot, again, requires some grammar we haven't gotten to yet. In other words, again, do not say Ich bin heiß," for "I'm feel hot," since that's not what it means.
  • kalt – "cold"
    • The same rule about how you feel applies here as well.
  • fremd – "strange"

Modifiers in general[edit | edit source]

In the section on adverbs we made a distinction between words which modify verbs, which we're calling adverbs, and other modifiers which are sometimes also called adverbs. We'll use the more descriptive term "adjective modifier" for words which modify adjectives instead of "adverb". This is to avoid confusion because there is less similarity between the two word types in German than there is in English. In general we'll use a similar phrase to describe other types of modifier, for example if a word modifies an adverb then we'll call it an adverb modifier. Verb modifiers, or adverbs, and noun modifiers, also know as adjectives, have unique grammatical features so we'll keep their specific names.

Modifiers other than adjectives and adverbs are not inflected and are usually placed in front of the word they modify.

Some common adjective modifiers[edit | edit source]

These can modify adverbs as well as adjectives.

  • zu – "too"
  • sehr – "very"
  • höchst – "extremely"

Examples:

  • Du sprichst zu schnell. – "You're speaking too quickly."
  • Du bist sehr groß. – "You are very tall."
Notes
  1. In the subject-predicate model of grammar, the predicate includes the verb and anything else that's not part of the subject. We won't be using the subject-predicate model here though because it doesn't really work that well for German. More proper terms are "predicative expression" or "predicate complement", but both of these options are a mouthful. It seems easier to just say "predicate" instead because we're not going to be using it for anything else. Apologies if this results in any confusion.


Grammar

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