ArticleGerman declension
AuthorHelmut Richter
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Chapter3. Declining the entire phrase
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Declining the entire phrase

In this chapter we talk about nominal phrases, that is phrases that are a single unit of declension. For instance, in the sentence

Wir betrachten die in der Zeit des hohen Mittelalters gebauten Burgen.

the accusative object is die in der Zeit des hohen Mittelalters gebauten Burgen but it contains a subphrase in the dative case, to wit der Zeit des hohen Mittelalters which in turn contains a subphrase in the genitive case, to wit des hohen Mittelalters. Nominal phrases do thus occur nested. In this article, we regard as one nominal phrase a piece of text that must necessarily have the same class and case because there is no syntactic reason that would allow switching. In this example, die ... gebauten Burgen, der Zeit ..., and des hohen Mittelalters would be the three nominal phrases the declension of which have to be determined separately.

A nominal phrase to be declined can consist of following parts of speech, usually in this sequence:

  1. Determiners: all-, definite articles (der, des, die, ...), demonstrative pronouns (dies-, jen-), welch-, irgendwelch-, manch-, possessive pronouns (mein-, dein-, ...), first and second person personal pronouns (ich, du, euch, ...)

  2. Numerals in the widest sense: indefinite article (ein-, kein-), jed-, solch-, folgend-, cardinal numbers (zwei-, drei-, ...), indefinite numerals (beid-, einig-, mehrer-, viel-, viel, ein paar, ...)

  3. Adjectives including ordinal numbers (erst-, zweit-, ...), also ander-, nächst-, letzt-

  4. Noun or sequence of titles and names

The general trend for the words before the noun is to go from determiners saying what exactly is spoken about to descriptors telling properties of what is spoken about; only the ordinal numbers do not fit in this pattern. There is no syntactic or morphological difference between ein- as an indefinite article (English “a”) and as a numeral (English “one”), only stress is different; regarding the declension rules, ein- behaves as indefinite article.

The vast majority of phrases consist of a determiner or an indefinite article or neither, followed by zero or more adjectives, followed by one noun. In this case, the basic rule is:

The case “determiner without ending” occurs with indefinite articles and possessive pronouns in mn-N or n-A case. There are thus the following possibilities:

If the phrase is more complex (e.g. indefinite numerals combined with determiners or adjectives, or noun missing), the basic pattern is still the same: there is a sequence of determiners with no endings or strong ones, followed by a sequence of adjective-like words having a strong ending if and only if there was no strong ending in the last word before. The situation can, however, be rather intricate when it comes to defining in which of the two sequences the other words belong, in particular the indefinite numerals. In some situations, there is some leeway, leaving more than one correct distribution of case endings. We take here a somewhat prescriptive approach, offering one working variant without discussing which alternatives would also have been possible. More than one variant is given only when both variants are commonly used by native speakers. Hence, a violation of the rules below does not always mean incorrect language.

Now, we are going to specify the general rule covering also the more complex phrases. For brevity, a word is said to be in a strong position when it is the first word of the whole inflected phrase or when the last preceding word had no ending ( mandatory or optional omission of ending); otherwise it is in a weak position. Uninflected words and expressions (that is, words and expressions that never have an ending) pass on their strong or weak position to subsequent words. The word after a p-N personal pronoun (wir, ihr) is in a weak position, but the position after all other cases of personal pronouns (ich, mir, mich, du, dir, dich, uns, euch – genitive does not occur) is strong.

Subdividing the phrase into subphrases

The first step is to subdivide the entire phrase into three subphrases: a determiner subphrase, an adjective subphrase, and a noun subphrase. These appear in this sequence; there is no alternation between subphrases in the phrase. However, each of the subphrases can be void.

Endings in the determiner subphrase

Endings in the adjective subphrase

All words in the adjective subphrase, as far as they are declined at all, have the same endings, to wit

For more than one adjective in a strong position, a variant with a strong ending on the first adjective and with weak endings on the remaining ones is also occasionally found, mainly in older literary texts.

The genitive forms of numerals greater than one have an -er in a strong position: zweier, dreier. Beyond three, this sounds slightly archaic, and beyond twelve, the genitive is avoided altogether and replaced by a construction with von, e.g. der Tod von fünfzig Männern.

When a numeral is the last word of the phrase, it can get an -en ending in the dative case:

Wievielen Schülern hast du das gegeben? – Fünfen.

The larger the number, the less frequently is this feature used. For two and three, it is mandatory, for numbers up to twelve (with the exception of seven where *siebenen would sound clumsy), it is quite commonly used, beyond twelve, it is awkward. The -e ending for p-NA numerals at the end of the phrase is obsolete but occurs in fixed expressions, e.g. alle Viere von sich strecken.

Endings in the noun subphrase

Nouns have only one kind of ending for each case; so they can either occur with their case ending (which is often void) or undeclined. Normally they have their case ending, with some exceptions:


Here are some phrases with their decomposition into the three subphrases. The determiner subphrase is marked with green background colour when its last word has an ending, and with yellow background colour when it is void or its last word has no ending. The adjective subphrase is marked with green or yellow background colour depending on whether the words underly weak or strong declension. The only case where the two colours do not match is when a mn-G form of an adjective occurs in strong position as in example 23.

Examples 1–8 are the declensions for the four classes with definite and indefinite article. Examples 9–18 and 20–23 demonstrate the effect of the assignment of the words to the determiner and adjective subphrase. In example 20 two different assignments are possible, yielding different endings in the adjective subphrase; only in the p-D case the endings happen to be the same. In example 21 two different n-G endings are possible in the determiner subphrase. The noun subphrase in examples 18–20 is void, either because of a lacking noun or of an adjectival noun. The special rules about strong and weak position after personal pronouns are exemplified by examples 24–25.

    determiner subphrase adjective subphrase noun subphrase

1.  m-N der nette Mann
m-G des netten Mannes
m-D dem netten Mann
m-A den netten Mann

2.  m-N ein netter Mann
m-G eines netten Mannes
m-D einem netten Mann
m-A einen netten Mann

3.  f-NA die nette Frau
f-GD der netten Frau

4.  f-NA eine nette Frau
f-GD einer netten Frau

5.  n-NA das nette Kind
n-G des netten Kindes
n-D dem netten Kind

6.  n-NA ein nettes Kind
n-G eines netten Kindes
n-D einem netten Kind

7.  p-NA die netten Leute
p-G der netten Leute
p-D den netten Leuten

8.  p-NA   nette Leute
p-G   netter Leute
p-D   netten Leuten

9.  n-NA jedes nette Kind
n-G jedes netten Kindes
n-D jedem netten Kind

10.  n-NA ein jedes nette Kind
n-G eines jeden netten Kindes
n-D einem jeden netten Kind

11.  p-NA keine netten Leute
p-G keiner netten Leute
p-D keinen netten Leuten

12.  p-NA   viele nette Leute
p-G   vieler netter Leute
p-D   vielen netten Leuten

13.  p-NA die vielen netten Leute
p-G der vielen netten Leute
p-D den vielen netten Leuten

14.  n-NA dieses mein nettes Kind
n-G dieses meines netten Kindes
n-D diesem meinem netten Kind

15.  p-NA diese meine netten Kinder
p-G dieser meiner netten Kinder
p-D diesen meinen netten Kindern

16.  p-NA diese drei netten Kinder
p-G dieser drei netten Kinder
p-D diesen drei netten Kindern

17.  p-NA   drei nette Kinder
p-G   dreier netter Kinder
p-D   drei netten Kindern

18.  p-NA diese drei  
p-G dieser drei  
p-D diesen dreien  

19.  p-NA   fleißige Angestellte  
p-G   fleißiger Angestellter  
p-D   fleißigen Angestellten  

20.  p-NA sämtliche fleißigen Angestellten  
or, less common,   sämtliche fleißige Angestellte  
p-G sämtlicher fleißigen Angestellten  
or   sämtlicher fleißiger Angestellter  
p-D sämtlichen fleißigen Angestellten  
or   sämtlichen fleißigen Angestellten  

21.  n-NA alles irdische Leben
n-G allen irdischen Lebens
or, less common, alles irdischen Lebens
n-D allem irdischen Leben

22.  n-NA dieses   Jahr
n-G dieses   Jahres
n-D diesem   Jahr

23.  n-NA   nächstes Jahr
n-G   nächsten Jahres
n-D   nächstem Jahr

24.  m-N du alter Trottel
m-D dir altem Trottel
m-A dich alten Trottel

25.  p-N ihr alten Trottel
p-D euch alten Trotteln
p-A euch alte Trottel