A section of A guide to German.

Adjectives and adverbs

In German, adjectives come before the noun they are qualifying, just like in English - "the old man" is der alte Mann. When used in this way, they must be given the correct ending for case and gender - this is known as "declension", although it actually involves making the word longer. Of course you can them also use them indirectly, at the end of a phrase, as in "the man is old" - der Mann ist alt. In this case they are not declined, which explains the discrepancy between alt/alte.

Declension

Mark Twain wrote that the foreigner would rather decline two drinks than one German adjective. Unfortunately there is a ring of truth about this; if you find German grammar doesn't agree with you, declension of adjectives may seem the most disagreeable topic of all.

The difficulty arises from the fact that when declining an adjective, three things must be taken into account: case, gender, and the type of declension ("strong", "mixed" or "weak"). The correct adjective endings correlate somewhat with the correct endings of the qualifiers, so it is den alten Mann and eine alte Frau. However it is not really so simple, to a large part because of the three types of declension.

"Strong" declension is used when the adjective is not preceded by any sort of qualifier (words like "the" or "these"). It is called strong because, in the absence of qualifiers to indicate the noun's case and gender, the adjective must take on the job. Thus strong declension is the most explicit form. Phrases which require this form of declension are such things as "We enjoy fine wine", "Cold water is dangerous", "I live among powerful men" - note the absence of qualifiers such as "the". The adjective endings of strong declension are as follows:


              Masculine   Feminine   Neuter   Plural

Nominative       -er        -e         -es      -e   

Accusative       -en        -e         -es      -e

Dative           -em        -er        -em      -en

Genitive         -en        -er        -en      -er

Note the similarity between the endings and the corresponding definite or indefinite article, e.g. dem/-em. Thus for the examples above, the adjective endings are wir trinken gern edelen Wein (Wein being masculine-accusative); kaltes Wasser ist gefährlich (Wasser being neuter-nominative); ich lebe unter mächtigen Männern (Männern being plural-dative).

"Mixed" declension is used when the adjective is preceded by the indefinite article or other qualifiers which decline like it, such as possessive pronouns (mein, dein etc). The adjective endings of mixed declension are as follows:


              Masculine   Feminine   Neuter   Plural

Nominative       -er         -e       -es      -en

Accusative       -en         -e       -es      -en

Dative           -en         -en      -en      -en

Genitive         -en         -en      -en      -en

Thus "he is an old man" is er ist ein alter Mann (masculine-nominative), while "the loyalty of my old friends" is die Treue meiner alten Freunde (plural-genitive).

"Weak" declension is used when the adjective is preceded by the definite article or qualifiers which decline like it, such as the demonstrative pronouns, e.g. dieser, diesen ("this") etc. These qualifiers give away the most information about the case and gender of the noun, so the adjective has to do the least. The adjective endings of weak declension are as follows:


              Masculine   Feminine   Neuter   Plural

Nominative       -e          -e        -e      -en

Accusative       -en         -e        -e      -en

Dative           -en         -en       -en     -en

Genitive         -en         -en       -en     -en
     
Thus "I know this old town" is ich kenne diese alte Stadt (feminine-accusative) while "he lives with the other girl" is er wohnt bei dem anderen Mädchen (neuter-dative).

There is a sort of logic behind the system - if adjectives and qualifiers are to indicate the case and gender of nouns, adjectives must be more explicit in their declension when the qualifiers are absent or ambiguous (e.g. ein, which can refer to more than one case and gender). Using the correct endings allows slightly more freedom in word order than in English - you can say, for example, edelen Wein trinken wir gern, while "fine wine we enjoy" would sound a bit strange.

Remember at all times not to decline adjectives which come after the noun, as in der Mann ist alt. A few adjectives end in -e when not declined, such as weise ("wise") and böse ("evil" or "angry"). Adjectives which end in -en (e.g. trocken, "dry") or -er (e.g. munter, "cheerful") decline according to the normal pattern.

Comparatives and superlatives

Like English, German has a comparative and a superlative, corresponding to "more" and "most". In English, you add -er and -est to short words, e.g. "bigger", "biggest", "greener", "greenest", and use the words "more" and "most" for longer adjectives, e.g. "more experienced", "most suitable". German adds -er for comparative, and -ste for superlative, to all adjectives, regardless of length. Thus "greener" is grüner, "driest" is trockenste, "most suitable" is geeignetste. These decline like other adjectives, so "in the greenest forest" is in dem grünsten Wald.

Many common, short adjectives add an umlaut in the comparative and superlative, so groß becomes größer and größte. The superlative must be used with the definite article - in English you can say "this house is biggest", but in German you have to say dieses Haus ist das größte. If the adjective's undeclined ending is -er, and the word is already a comparative, both -ers must remain - "more cheerful" is munterer. It would even be possible to add a declension, yielding das munterere Kind ("the more cheerful child"), although speakers would obviously try to avoid this sort of pile-up.

A few common adjectives have irregular superlatives and comparatives. An obvious English example is "good, better, best", and the German translation is clearly cognate: gut, besser, beste. Other examples include bald, eher, eheste (soon, sooner, soonest) and hoch, höher, höchste (high, higher, highest).

Adjectives into nouns

In English you can form certain nouns from adjectives, usually in the plural, as in "the rich" or "the disabled". German does this as well, but the adjective-noun still declines like a normal adjective - "the rich" is die Reichen. Since the declension indicates singularity and plurality, German often forms nouns from singular adjectives as well, unlike English. "A blind person" could simply be ein Blinder (male) or eine Blinde (female), "the homeless person" could be der Obdachlose or die Obdachlose.

Many common nouns are in fact adjective-nouns, such as der Angestellte, "employee", and der Bekannte, "acquaintance". Both of these are also examples of adjectives from past participles - others are ausgelernt, "trained", and geeignet, "suitable".

Remember to capitalise adjective-nouns, like nouns, and decline them, like adjectives.

Adverbs

Adverbs formed directly from adjectives are identical to the adjective, so that "slowly" is langsam, which also means "slow", "happyily" is glücklich, which also means "happy", etc. Thus German does not add anything corresponding to "-ly". The comparatives and superlatives of these adverbs are also formed in the same way as for adjectives.

Among the adverbs not formed from adjectives are many basic and important words, such as sehr ("very"), ziemlich ("quite", "fairly"), zu ("too"), jetzt ("now"), noch ("still"), bald ("soon"), schon ("already"), genug ("enough"), ungefähr ("about", "approximately") etc. etc.

Many other adverbs are formed by adding as -s to a noun, such as morgens, "in the morning", abends ("in the evening"), tagsüber ("during the day"), anfangs ("at the beginning) etc.

Finally, an important class of adverbs is formed from prepositions. If you want to say, for example, "next to it", you do not use es for "it", but rather you use the adverb daneben. This is because German does not use prepositions directly with "it", but forms an adverb by adding the suffix da- ("there") to the preposition, e.g. dabei ("by it"), damit ("with it"), daneben ("next to it"). If the preposition begins with a vowel, da- becomes dar-, e.g. darunter ("under it"), darüber ("over it"), darin ("in it"). In speech this a is often dropped, forming drunter, drüber etc.

Thus "the window is dirty, I can't see through it" is das Fenster ist schmutzig, ich kann dadurch nicht sehen. This construction can also be used with "this" and "that" when they act indefinitely, as in "I'll write with this" - ich schreibe damit.

This type of adverb was once used in English and is the basis for a number of rather quaint old words such as "thereupon", "thereafter" and "herewith" - or darauf, danach and hiermit.

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