Adjective endings are usually the least favorite part of learning German, from both the students' and the teacher's viewpoints. I can't make them fun, but I can at least make them a little easier. Yes, they do require some memorization, but there is a logic to them. With some effort, you should be able to put the correct endings on adjectives without having to refer to a massive diagram or chart.|
When does an adjective need an ending?
There are two ways to use adjectives in a sentence: as a descriptive adjective ("the house is nice"), or as an attributive adjective ("it is a nice house"). All attributive adjectives -- that is, adjectives that precede a noun which they modify -- MUST show declension, i.e. they must have an ending in German. If an adjective does not precede a noun, but rather occurs as a descriptive adjective after the noun, then it does not have any ending. Compare the following:
What ending does it take?
This is of course the hard part. There are many ways to understand and learn adjective endings: if you were to simply memorize a chart, you would need to memorize 48 different possible combinations -- but it would work, if that's what you prefer. (I don't.) Instead, let's try to approach adjective endings from a more logic-oriented framework, with a set of rules.
Keep in mind 1: Something -- either an article (der/ein/dieser/etc.) or the adjective itself -- must show what gender the noun is. For example, der Mann clearly shows that Mann is masculine; ein Mann, on the other hand, does not show this, because ein could also be applied to a neuter noun (ein Kind).
Keep in mind 2: Some articles show that a noun has changed from its original nominative case, others do not. For example, in the sentence "ich sehe einen Mann", einen shows clearly that Mann is no longer in the nominative case. In the sentence "ich sehe ein Buch", however, the neuter accusative ein does not differ from its nominative form, which is also ein. This distinction will be important in deciding which adjective ending to use.
With those guidelines in mind, we can now set up a flow chart of rules that will give you the correct adjective ending.
Question 1: Does the adjective have an article in front of it?
Question 2: Is the article in the standard, unchanged form?
Question 3: Is the noun singular?
Question 4: Does the article show gender?
That's it! If you follow these rules correctly, then all adjective endings will fall into place for you. To summarize in a more graphical form:
There are, of course, a few things you should watch out for -- not exceptions, merely common misperceptions.
Common problem 1: UNSER. Remember that the -er in unser is part of the article unser (our), it is NOT an ending itself. (Unser Buch ist gut; unsere Mutti ist nett; unser Vater ist alt.) Unser Vater is equivalent to mein Vater, and therefore Question 4 applies: when adding an adjective, it must be unser netter Vater to show the -r inherent to Vater; or unser gutes Buch to show the -s inherent to Buch. Similarly, EUER (your, pl.) is also an ein-word, the -er is part of the article itself. In their base forms, then, unser and euer do not show gender.
Common problem 2: What qualifies as an article? Articles in German include all der/die/das words, all ein-words, and all the dieser, jeder, mancher, and solcher words. Alle (only ever seen as the plural form as an article) and beide (both) are also articles. Thus a complete list of articles:
Common problem 3: VIELE (many) is not an article -- it is simply another adjective. The same is true of EINIGE (a few, some), MEHRERE (several), and WENIGE (few, not many). Thus these words as well as any adjectives following them must be declined according to Question 1, using the der-endings (viele gute Bücher, einige nette Leute).
Common problem 4: When there is more than one adjective modifying the same noun (the nice old man), each adjective acts independently and takes the appropriate ending (der nette alte Mann, ein netter alter Mann). Thus all adjectives in a string will have the same endings.
Common problem 5: Forgetting Question 3 is common -- remember to check if the noun is plural. If it is, and it has any article before it, the ending will be -en. Plural nouns without an article, following Question 1, will have -e or -en depending on their case.