• Declension of noun phrases with articles and adjectives

    In the forum questions have popped up time and again about the correct declension of noun phrases which contain different elements - or, as it were, fail to contain them.

    In German, declension has little effect on the nouns themselves, and much more on the words which accompany them. Usually these words are articles or other types of words such as pronouns which may stand in for articles. They are also frequently accompanied by adjectives.

    Let's consider the phrases "unser lieber Hund", "unsere liebe Katze", "unser liebes Kind". These phrases are in nominative case and cover the three grammatical genders masculine, feminine and neuter respectively. As you can see, a dog need not be male, a cat need not be female and a child surely isn't neuter, so this gender thing is not (bio-)logical but mostly grammatical.

    You may notice a couple of words in the phrases which are the same (as far as the root is concerned) but which have different endings. "Unser" which is a possessive pronoun meaning "our", and "lieb", which means "nice". But these words show different endings.

    Unser lieber Hund: there are -r endings. The one in the first word is actually part of the root word, but the one in the second is a grammatical case ending (I call it a case marker hereafter). It tells me "the noun I am talking about is in nominative case and is masculine". There is nothing on the word "Hund" itself which tells me that.

    Unsere liebe Katze: here there are two -e endings. There's also one on "Katze", but the ending of the noun here is part of the word itself again. The other two -e endings are case markers, however, which tell me "this is nominative and feminine".

    Unser liebes Kind: here we have an -s, which, as you will by now have guessed, tells me "this is nominative and neuter".

    Sadly, the actual declension through the cases is a bit of a mess. The same endings turn up in different places with different meanings. But I hope I'll be able to make it a little clearer with this article.

    Let's return to "unser lieber Hund" for a moment. The noun in question with an article is "der Hund". "Der" carries the same -r case marker we have already identified. However, if we add the adjective, this is what happens: der liebe Hund. The -r is only on the article, not on "lieb".

    Why is that? Definite articles like "der" and other words which are used to indicate something (for example "dieser, jener, welcher...", which are called "demonstrative pronouns") act like handles for the whole noun phrase. If there is such a handle, then it carries the case marker, here -r. Adjectives and similar words do not carry the case marker in that case. So "der lieber Hund" is grammatically wrong.

    In "unser lieber Hund" there is a possessive pronoun, which does not have the same level of importance for this grammatical feature. Likewise, if we use an indefinite article "ein", then the phrase is "ein lieber Hund". Again, the -r case marker is on the adjective and not the article.

    For the other genders this is "die / eine liebe Katze", "das liebe / ein liebes Kind". It's important to note that there is a case marker -e on "eine" with the feminine noun phrase. The neuter phrase works exactly like the masculine, but with -s as the case marker.

    Feminine words have it tough in German. Their cases are marked less clearly than the cases of the other two genders. And to make matters worse, the feminine singular and the general plural (plural does not discriminate gender) also share many features. Maybe that's why more case markers turn up there.

    So for the moment, let's note that definite articles and demonstrative pronouns take precedence over adjectives when it comes to attracting the case marker.

    Next, I'll talk about the masculine and neuter noun phrases together as they cycle through the cases, as they behave similarly.

    Let me focus on definite articles and indefinite articles for our comparison. In nominative we get (case markers in bold):

    der liebe Hund | ein lieber Hund | das liebe Kind | ein liebes Kind.

    In genitive wie get:

    des lieben Hundes | eines lieben Hundes | des lieben Kindes | eines lieben Kindes

    We see that the case marker changes to -es in genitive case, and that for both genders. And it also helpfully attaches itself to the noun.

    In dative we get:

    dem lieben Hund | einem lieben Hund | dem lieben Kind | einem lieben Kind.

    Again we get the same case marker for both genders, here -em, but nothing on the noun. In old texts, old-fashioned speech and some fixed phrases you will find an obsolete ending -e on the noun in both genders (dem Manne, dem Kinde).

    In accusative we get:

    den lieben Hund | einen lieben Hund | das liebe Kind | ein liebes Kind.

    The male form has a case marker -n on the articles, while the neuter form is the same as the nominative form.

    You will have noticed that in genitive, dative and accusative -en endings turned up on the adjective. This is not to be confused with the -n ending on the masculine accusative article. The -en on the adjectives is a weak declension.

    An interesting phenomenon can be observed in some instances, especially in newspaper headlines: the article may be dropped, and then the case marker attaches itself on the adjective, if one is present, replacing any weak endings.

    Lieber Hund zugelaufen! This is a possible headline for a poster glued somewhere where potential owners of the dog might notice it. In other cases the appropriate forms would be "liebes Hundes", "liebem Hund", "lieben Hund".

    This is only rarely used, mostly to achieve concise headlines, but for example a typical genitive form can be found in expressions such as "im Mai dieses Jahres" which even native speakers will often write as "diesen Jahres", erroneously (according to standard rules) using the weak form.

    The feminine forms have less variation, and I am setting them side by side with the plural forms for better contrast:

    Nominative:

    die liebe Katze | eine liebe Katze | die lieben Haustiere | liebe Haustiere

    There is a definite plural article but no indefinite plural article. In plural, the definite article bears the case marker and the adjective is weak, and the adjective bears the case marker when the article is absent.

    Genitive:

    der lieben Katze | einer lieben Katze | der lieben Haustiere | lieber Haustiere

    No genitive marker on the noun for feminine words.

    Dative:

    der lieben Katze | einer lieben Katze | den lieben Haustieren | lieben Haustieren

    Yes, the singular is identical to that of the genitive, and the plural uses -n as a case marker, just like masculine accusative singular and like the weak forms of adjectives. And the -n is also on the noun.

    Accusative:

    die liebe Katze | eine liebe Katze | die lieben Haustiere | liebe Haustiere

    This is the same as nominative.

    I hope this overview of the fairly complicated patterns for forming declensions of noun phrases will prove helpful.
    Comments 2 Comments
    1. windz's Avatar
      windz -
      Hi Robin,

      an informative article. I sometimes mix up the rules for indefinite articles with demonstrative pronouns and therefore forget which word carries the case marker.

      An interesting phenomenon can be observed in some instances, especially in newspaper headlines: the article may be dropped, and then the case marker attaches itself on the adjective, if one is present, replacing any weak endings.

      Lieber Hund zugelaufen! This is a possible headline for a poster glued somewhere where potential owners of the dog might notice it. In other cases the appropriate forms would be "liebes Hundes", "liebem Hund", "lieben Hund".

      This is only rarely used, mostly to achieve concise headlines, but for example a typical genitive form can be found in expressions such as "im Mai dieses Jahres" which even native speakers will often write as "diesen Jahres", erroneously (according to standard rules) using the weak form.
      And yet "im Mai nächsten Jahres" is the correct form, instead of "im Mai nächstes Jahres", isn't it?
    1. Robin's Avatar
      Robin -
      Yes, "nächsten" and such words are no demonstrative pronouns, and I would say that the article falls victim to elision. You can say "im Mai des nächsten Jahres" but you can drop the article. But you still say "das nächste Jahr" and "nächstes Jahr". Isn't language fun?