My special problem Writing in German

The Adjective Trap – How German Adjectives Destroy Headlines

R. Bauer objektifs.de - Fotolia.com
R. Bauer objektifs.de – Fotolia.com

 Newspaper editors often face this problem: a text needs space on the page. One solution is to delete superfluous words, so that the text fits into the newspaper column. Not just in newspapers, also in the designing of web pages and presentations, text needs space. The good news is: the text often profits from fewer words. A text formulated to the point is “crisp”.

If you want to delete or change words in a German text, remember that adjective endings not only depend on gender, number and case of the noun. The adjective ending depends on whether the article is definite or indefinite. Your decision to make a minor change to an article can have large effects on the whole text.

The headline on the newspaper below proves that errors can occur anywhere.

Looking For Errors?

The Headline is “Ersten Hebammen geben auf”. “Erste” denotes an indefinite number.  When you use “erste” in this sense you treat it like an adjective.

(c) http://www.sonntags-report.de
(c) http://www.sonntags-report.de

In order to find the case you usually use aid questions. When you ask wer oder was gibt auf (who or what gives up), you get the answer “Erste Hebammen” (first midwives). Hebammen is in the nominative case. The ending both of the verb “geben” and of the noun “Hebammen” show that Hebammen is a plural noun.

Yet we expect a German adjective in nominative plural to end on -e. The correct form would be “erste Hebammen”.

Why does the headline say “ersten Hebammen”? Very likely, the original headline was “Die ersten Hebammen geben auf”. Adjectives in nominative plural following a definite article end on -en. This Headline was too long. The editor deleted the article but didn’t change the ending of the following adjective.

German Adjectives Following A Definite Article (der, die, das, die)

Adjectives take a different ending, depending on whether the noun is masculine, feminine or neuter.

Singular, masculine:

der treue Hund (nominative)

des treuen Hundes (genitive)

dem treuen Hund (dative)

den treuen Hund (accusative)

Singular, feminine:

die stolze Katze (nominative)

der stolzen Katze (genitive)

der stolzen Katze (dative)

die stolze Katze (accusative)

Singular, neuter:

das mutige Schaf (nominative)

des mutigen Schafs (genitive)

dem mutigen Schaf (dative)

das mutige Schaf (accusative)

In the plural, adjectives after a definite article take the same ending, irrespective of gender..


die treuen Hunde, die stolzen Katzen, die mutigen Schafe (nominative)

der treuen Hunde, der stolzen Katzen, der mutigen Schafe (genitive)

den treuen Hunden, den stolzen Katzen, den mutigen Schafen (dative)

die treuen Hunde, die stolzen Katzen, die mutigen Schafe (accusative)

German Adjectives Following An Indefinite Article (ein, eine, ein, — )

Adjectives take a different ending according to the gender of their noun.

 Only in nominative singular do the endings of German adjectives before masculine or feminine nouns differ from the endings following a definite article.

Singular, masculine:

ein treuer Hund (nominative)

eines treuen Hundes (genitive)

einem treuen Hund (dative)

dem treuen Hund (accusative)

Singular, feminine:

eine stolze Katze (nominative)

einer stolzen Katze (genitive)

einer stolzen Katze (dative)

eine stolze Katze (accusative)

Singular, neuter:

ein mutiges Schaf (nominative)

eines mutigen Schafs (genitive)

einem mutigen Schaf (dative)

ein mutiges Schaf (accusative)

There is no indefinite article plural.


treue Hunde, stolze Katzen, mutige Schafe (nominative)

treuer Hunde, stolzer Katzen, mutigen Schafe (genitive)

treuen Hunden, stolzen Katzen, mutigen Schafen (dative)

treue Hunde, stolze Katzen, mutige Schafe accusative)

German Adjectives Without An Article

Sometimes there is no article before singular nouns. In such a case, the adjective takes the ending from the definite article. This never affects the genitive case.

Singular, masculine:

treuer Hund (nominative)

— (genitive)

treuem Hund (dative)

treuen Hund (accusative)

Singular, feminine:

stolze Katze (nominative)

— (genitive)

stolzer Katze (dative)

stolze Katze (accusative)

Singular, neuter:

mutiges Schaf (nominative)

— (genitive)

mutigem Schaf (dative)

mutiges Schaf (accusative)

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