Declensions are often called “strong” or “weak”. These terms refer to the endings which are either specific for only a handful of class/case combinations (strong) or common for many of them (weak). There is, however, a pitfall about the usage of the terms “strong” and “weak”:
For adjectives, both patterns are used for each adjective, depending on the syntactic context – strong endings where the adjective has the burden of marking gender and case, and weak endings where another part of speech, usually an article or a pronoun, fulfils this task.
For nouns, each noun is declined either according to the weak declension pattern, which resembles the weak adjective declension, or to a different pattern sometimes called strong although it has only little similarity with strong adjective declension.
The basis for strong non-noun declension are the definite articles. They just have to be learnt:
A plus sign means that this entry is not used because for these classes, the accusative equals the nominative for all parts of speech.
The relative pronouns look the same except for all genitive forms and the p-D form which have an additional -en ending, yielding mn-G dessen, fp-G deren, and p-D denen.
Now, strong non-noun declension has all forms with the same final letter as the definite article:
Instead of these mn-N forms, some words have forms without ending in most contexts; this will be discussed in one of the next sections.
The strong mn-G forms of adjectives with -es ending are today no longer used but replaced by weak forms with -en ending. For many non-adjectives, however, the strong forms are the only correct ones, whereas in other situations both mn-G forms are permissible. Details will be given later. The strong mn-G forms were in use until fairly recently (e.g. the 1912 version of Luther’s Bible translation contains reines Herzens (Mt.5:8) and alles Fleisches (Gen.6:13) which have been replaced by reinen Herzens and allen Fleisches in the 1984 version); at least for adjectives they are now considered obsolete.
Finally, the declension of most pronouns follows a similar pattern.
Singular pronouns are avoided with prepositions when talking about inanimate objects: use words like dabei, dafür, wobei, wofür instead. This avoidance is not a hard and fast rule but depends on the context. The more determined the referent, the more permitted is the combination of prepositions with singular pronouns, and combinations with es sound clumsier than with other pronouns.
The inanimate counterpart of jemand is etwas which is not declined at all with the genitive case missing altogether.
Weak declension makes only a difference between nominative singular and all other cases:
The words and expressions nichts, wenig, ein wenig, (ein) paar, etwas, genug, viel, derlei, allerlei, mancherlei, deren, dessen are not inflected at all. The genitive case is avoided and replaced by constructs with von, the other cases have the same form as the nominative, even the word ein in ein paar and ein wenig is not inflected as one can see in the following example where they appear in dative and accusative case. Example:
Mit ein paar reifen Früchten und genug frischer Milch schmeckt die Speise viel besser, deren altes Rezept ich Ihnen verrate. Wenn Sie etwas Süßes mögen, können Sie auch ein wenig braunen Zucker hinzufügen.
These uninflected words and expressions do not appear together with determiners (see item 1 in the list below for a definition). The only exception is ein paar which can trade the leading ein in for a determiner, e.g. diese paar alten Klamotten (these few old rags).
Several of these (ein wenig, etwas, genug) are not only used as in the example where they constitute a part of a nominal phrase, but they can also qualify an adjective, thus acting as an adverb: ein wenig mager, etwas unbefriedigend, gut genug. The difference in the syntax is subtle: if there is an additional article or possessive pronoun, only an adverb can be meant, e.g. mein etwas altes Auto (my somewhat old car); if not, some sentences may appear ambiguous, e.g. etwas mageres Fleisch which could either mean “somewhat lean meat” or “some lean meat” with the latter suggesting itself in the first place. In the context of this article, only the usage in the nominal phrase and not as an adverb is meant.
The distinction between “much” and “many” is made in German in nearly the same way as in English: viel (much), wenig (little), ein wenig (a little), viele (many) wenige (few). viel und wenig, used for singular nouns, are both uninflected, whereas viele und wenige are inflected. There are, however, also situations where the inflected viele und wenige appear in the singular, to wit when there is a need to determine the noun with a definite article or possessive pronoun: mein weniges Geld, das viele übrig gebliebene Brot. The inflected forms are also occasionally applied in other contexts, in particular with adjectives or verbs used as neuter nouns, e.g. vieles Gute (synonym of viel Gutes), vieles Lesen (preferred over viel Lesen), but also with some other nouns, e.g. ohne viele Mühe or Vielen Dank!.
|m-N||der Schweizer Bürger||der Schweizer|
|m-G||des Schweizer Bürgers||des Schweizers|
|m-D||dem Schweizer Bürger||dem Schweizer|
|m-A||den Schweizer Bürger||den Schweizer|
|f-NA||die Schweizer Bürgerin||die Schweizerin|
|f-GD||der Schweizer Bürgerin||der Schweizerin|
|p-NA||die Schweizer Bürger||die Schweizer|
|p-G||der Schweizer Bürger||der Schweizer|
|p-D||den Schweizer Bürgern||den Schweizern|
Adjectives ending with -er derived from geographical names (e.g. Münchner, Brandenburger, Schweizer) are not declined either and behave similarly to the expressions explained in this section. They do, however, sometimes appear with determiners, and the genitive is avoided only when a cluster of noun-like words would obscure the cases. There are also nouns denoting inhabitants of the geographical region. These nouns look the same as the adjective in the nominative, but are declined like other nouns which makes a difference only in the mn-G and p-D case. Compare the forms in the table, where the adjective Schweizer, like the English adjective “Swiss”, refers to anything Swiss including but not restricted to army knives and cheese, whereas the noun refers only to Swiss citizens. Both words are capitalised, other than other adjectives derived from geographical names (e.g. bayerisch, deutsch, britisch).
The mn-N forms of the possessive pronouns, of the indefinite article, and p-D forms of numerals take an ending only in a few contexts where no more word follows in the phrase. In the vast majority of possible contexts, they cannot have an ending.
Some words can be used with or without their ending. With the exception of the first item below, the forms without an optional ending belong more to elevated language; in some contexts they sound stilted.
all- can drop its ending when a demonstrative or possessive pronoun follows: alle meine Entchen or all meine Entchen; it must drop its ending when a definite article follows: all die Entchen.
manch- can be used with or without ending; it must not have an ending immediately before an indefinite article and should have one immediately before a noun: manches dicke Buch, manch dickes Buch or manch ein dickes Buch.
solch- behaves mostly like an indefinite numeral or an adjective, both regarding its position in the phrase and its ending. It can, however, also be placed immediately before an indefinite article and is then without ending. Moreover, the ending is optional immediately before an adjective: solch ein dickes Buch, ein solch dickes Buch, or ein solches dickes Buch.
welch without ending, morphologically and syntactically behaving like solch without ending, serves for emphasis in an exclamation: welch ein dickes Buch! (what a thick book!), but welches dicke Buch? (which thick book?).
In archaic language, n-NA forms of adjectives are sometimes without ending when there is no article with an ending before. This usage has now been obsolete for more than a century but occurs in proverbs, song lyrics, and idioms: gut Ding will Weile haben (a thing well done needs time), kein schöner Land ... als hier das unsre ([there is] no lovelier land ... than ours here), sich bei jmdm. lieb Kind machen (curry favour with s.o.).
The form dies instead of dieses should be regarded as a contraction rather than as a form without ending; subsequent words are treated as if it had an ending: compare manch dickes Buch and dies[es] dicke Buch.
The way adjectives and numerals are declined is highly dependent on their context in the whole phrase. The entire next chapter of this article is devoted to this topic.
Other than the other parts of speech, nouns have individual declensions; there is not a single pattern for all of them. As a small comfort, they have only one declension each, other than adjectives. For each noun, it suffices to know the gender, the plural, and, for masculine nouns with -en plural only, whether they are subject to weak declension. More on noun declension patterns can be found in a separate chapter.
Adjectival nouns (substantivierte Adjektive) are nouns that emerged from ellipses with omitted nouns, e.g. der Kranke (from der kranke Mensch), die Deutsche (from die deutsche Frau), das Gehackte, (from das gehackte Fleisch). They are declined like adjectives, not like nouns. The main difference is seen when adjective declension is strong: masculine adjectival noun: m-N der Kranke, ein Kranker, p-N Kranke; genuine noun: m-N der Bote, ein Bote, p-N Boten; feminine adjectival noun: f-N die Deutsche, f-G der Deutschen, p-N Deutsche; genuine noun: f-N die Tante, f-G der Tante, p-N Tanten; neuter adjectival noun: n-N das Gehackte, Gehacktes; genuine noun: n-N das Gebirge, ein Gebirge, p-N Gebirge. Not always is it obvious that a noun is an adjectival noun: der/die Abgeordnete, die Variable. Feminine adjectival nouns have a tendency of being treated as genuine nouns when they are no longer recognised (f-G der Variablen or der Variable), some even acquire extra feminine markers (der Beamte, die Beamtin). Masculine and neuter adjectival nouns are more robust in this respect.
Names have only their genitive case different from the nominative. The pattern is similar to masculine nouns but with the important difference that the -s (but never -es) genitive ending occurs with all names irrespective of gender (Antons, Annas). After a sibilant, it may be replaced by an apostrophe (Franz’); the formation with -ens (Franzens) is archaic. Where the person is well-known enough, the article is often used to avoid the genitive marker (das Leben des Franz von Assissi).