English may have a reputation for being tough to learn, but at least “red” is always just “red.”
In German, on the other hand, each of those phrases would use a different version of the word “red.” Those would be rotes, rote, roter, roten and rot, to be precise.
That’s right: five different ways to say “red.” And those aren’t even all of the possibilities.
This is one of the major stumbling blocks for English speakers who are learning German. Your German teacher might keep circling your mistakes with rote Tinte (red ink) for years to come. It can get very frustrating.
But don’t panic. We’ll walk you through what you need to know.
4 Winning Factors for Catching Up with German Adjectives
If you’re building a simple “[noun] is [adjective]” sentence like “The book is red,” then the adjective doesn’t change. That’s the good news.
Das Buch ist rot. / Die Autos sind neu. / Ich bin groß.
(The book is red. / The cars are new. / I am tall.)
Beyond that, though, there are four different factors that you have to think about every time you use an adjective within a German noun phrase. The correct adjective ending, or Adjektivendung, depends on the specific combination of all four of these factors. Let’s break them down one by one.
1. German adjectives inflect (change) for gender.
You were probably exposed to the idea of grammatical gender on day one when you first started learning German. This is why we say der Mann for “the man,” and die Frau for “the woman.” In addition to these masculine and feminine forms, German also has a third, neutral gender, which we see paired with words like das Kind (the child) or das Auto (the car).
This is the first step in getting your adjective endings right: Always, always, always memorize words with their genders! You simply must know whether a word goes with der, die or das. If you’re learning German with FluentU, then you’re already on the right track. FluentU takes real-world videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons (that won’t leave you hanging with any incorrectly gender-free words).
Let’s turn back to der Mann. Imagine we’re talking about an old man—one who speaks German, perhaps. The German word for “old” is alt. So we’d say:
Der alte Mann spricht Deutsch. (The old man speaks German.)
We stuck an -e on the end of alt. And we’d do the same thing for nouns with die and das, too, no matter what adjective we have.
Die kluge Frau spricht Deutsch. (The clever woman speaks German.)
Das nette Kind spricht Deutsch. (The nice child speaks German.)
Seems straightforward, right? But wait, there’s more.
2. German adjectives inflect for number.
It also matters whether we’re talking about one man, woman or child, or if we’re talking about several men, women or children (or tables or stores or foods…anything, really).
But this isn’t so tricky, either. The plural article (“the”) is always die in this case, no matter what the gender of the word is. And the adjective ending is always the same too: -en. So let’s take a second look at those sentences we saw before.
Die alten Männer sprechen Deutsch. (The old men speak German.)
But wait! Why did Mann become Männer? Why did spricht become sprechen? Well, those are other rules coming into play: rules for plurals and verbs. Those aren’t the focus of this post, because we’re specifically talking about adjectives. (In other words, just roll with it for now.)
Die klugen Frauen sprechen Deutsch. (The clever women speak German.)
Die netten Kinder sprechen Deutsch. (The nice kids speak German.)
Here you see that our feminine and our neuter plural examples take the same form. Hopefully this isn’t too overwhelming so far, because unfortunately, we’re about to get to the worst parts. But don’t worry, you’ll get through it just fine.
3. German adjectives inflect for case.
This is the biggie. The bane of the German learner’s existence. The case system.
If you’re already familiar with German’s four cases, you might have noticed that all of our example sentences so far have put the adjectives in nominative phrases. This means we were describing the subject of the sentence. But that’s not always what we need. Check out this alternative:
Ich spreche mit dem alten Mann. (I speak with the old man.)
Now we’ve gone from der alte Mann to dem alten Mann. Why? The dative case. He’s not the subject of the sentence anymore, so we have to change the adjective ending to describe him.
Ich höre die kluge Frau. (I hear the clever woman.)
Ich höre die klugen Frauen. (I hear the clever women.)
Now we’re working with the accusative case, again because the woman/women are no longer the subjects of their sentences. Notice, though, that the adjective endings didn’t change much: We still said die kluge Frau for the nominative and the accusative singular feminine form, and die klugen Frauen for the nominative and accusative plural form.
Hier ist das Spielzeug des netten Kindes. (Here is the nice child’s toy.)
I don’t even really want to get into this one because it’s more obscure than the others, but that’s the genitive. It’s the case that usually involves possession, and the adjective ending is usually (but not always) -en. Even the Germans hate this case and it’s fading away over time, so let’s move right along.
4. German adjectives inflect depending on articles.
In each of our example sentences, we’ve also been using definite articles, which all translate to the English “the.” But there are other articles too, and sometimes we don’t need an article at all. And—oh joy!—all this means we need even more adjective endings.
Ein alter Mann spricht Deutsch. (An old man speaks German.)
Now we’ve switched from “the” to “an,” or rather, from der alte Mann to ein alter Mann. That means we have to add -er to the adjective instead of just -e. And we can’t apply this rule all across the different genders anymore, either.
Eine kluge Frau spricht Deutsch. (A clever woman speaks German.)
Ein nettes Kind spricht Deutsch. (A nice child speaks German.)
We’ve gone from die kluge to eine kluge, and from das nette to ein nettes.
Maybe you notice a pattern here. We took the ending off of what would be the definite article (der, die, das) and stuck it onto the adjective (alter, kluge, nettes). Using different cases will make this slightly more complicated, but this is the general idea. It’s also true if we remove the article altogether.
Nette Kinder sprechen Deutsch. (Nice kids speak German)
Grüner Tee schmeckt gut. (Green tea tastes good.)
Die Kinder became nette Kinder, while der Tee became specifically grüner Tee.
Okay, I know. I said “don’t panic” and then threw enough grammar at you to give you a heart attack.
But here’s why you really shouldn’t panic: That entire wall of text can be summed up in these three little charts:
Another reason why you shouldn’t panic? Look at the bold items under the “der” and “ein” tables. There are only five of them. Why point this out? Because everything else, everything that’s not bold, is just -en. Yes, there are still four factors that all have to combine to get the right adjective ending, and it can all be very intimidating, but in the end, more than half of the combinations have the same result: just -en. How’s that for a shortcut?
Now, nobody is going to be able to look at these charts once and become instantly fluent. Even if you had a perfect photographic memory, you’d still have to visualize this image and think to yourself, “Okay, this word is masculine, accusative and singular, and it comes after the article den, so… where is it in the table?” That’s a ton of mental calculation energy.
So what should you do? The goal is to go automatic. Don’t stop and calculate with a table. Learn to process this on the fly.
That will take a lot of time and a lot of practice. Many learners explicitly memorize these charts and scribble them on the back of all their German papers so that they can look up the right ending every time. Some students do this for years. I might’ve been one of them.
Later, one of the best ways I found to practice these endings was to memorize set phrases. It’s always der junge Mann, never der junges Mann or der jungem Mann. These phrases are a lot more “real” than looking at chopped-up word pieces on a chart.
You’ll actually use phrases like these all the time. Throw a few of them in a vocabulary trainer like Anki, and you can drill them to your heart’s content.
Use FluentU, where you can see and hear them with pictures and video for added context, and you’ll be a master.
But even more importantly, have patience with yourself. No one expects you to be perfect, and everyone understands what you mean if you mess up. Saying eine klugen Frau when you should’ve said kluge will never cause a communication breakdown. Literally never. It’s just a small mistake that marks you as someone who’s still learning, and you might lose some points on a test.
I have a degree in German, I’ve reached the highest fluency certification level for non-native speakers, and I’ve been living and teaching in Germany for years.
I still sometimes make mistakes with adjective endings when I speak. If you’re in the same boat, then you’re just going through the same rite of passage as everyone else who learns this crazy language.
Keep practicing, and you’ll get better all the time.
Amanda “Andy” Plante-Kropp teaches at the HTW University of Applied Sciences in Berlin. She strives to bridge the gap between second language acquisition research and practical pedagogy. You can learn more about her at English with Andy.
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