(Using adjectives in German grammar)

Table of contents – adjectives

On this page you will find the following:

  1. Use of adjectives
  2. Comparison of adjectives
  3. Spelling of adjectives
  4. Further explanations and exercises

What are adjectives? How are they used?

Adjectives (German name: Adjektive or Eigenschaftswörter) are words that describe and modify nouns or verbs in more detail. Almost all adjectives are inflectable, in particular, declinable. Their declension follows the respective noun they refer to, which is called the antecedent. Adjectives can be used in three different ways, as listed below. In terms of spelling, they are written in lower case – even if they are compounds of a noun plus adjective (see below), which is possible in German. Uppercase adjectives are exceptions. Compare the following differences in usage in detail:

  1. Adjectives that come before their antecedent (meaning in attributive use) are declined:
    • „Der Arbeiter fällt die großen Bäume im Park.“ (The worker is cutting the big trees in the park.)
      • accusative plural masculine
    • „Ich habe mir ein neues Fahrrad gekauft.“ (I have bought a new bicycle.)
      • accusative singular neuter
  2. Adjectives that follow their antecedent (predicative usage) are not declined:
    • „Das Haus ist alt.“ (The house is old.)
    • „Die Angebote vor Weihnachten sind sehr günstig.“ (The offers before Christmas are very inexpensive.)
  3. Adjectives may also refer to verbs (adverbial usage):
    • „Marie redet mal wieder sehr laut.“ (Marie is talking very loudly again.)
    • „Wir sollten an unserem letzten Tag kräftig feiern.“ (We should celebrate hard on our last day.)

Adjectives and their comparison

Besides inflection, many adjectives – but not all – can be compared, which is called grammatical comparison. Adjectives make a distinction between regular and irregular comparison:

  • Some example sentences in which the comparison of adjectives is made clear:
    • Examples of regular comparison with ‘-er’ and ‘-sten’:
      • schön – schöner – am schönsten (beautiful – more beautiful – most beautiful)
        • „Du hast die schönste Handschrift von allen.“ (You have the most beautiful handwriting of all.)
    • Example of irregular comparison:
      • gut – besser – am besten (good – better – best)
        • Am besten kaufen wir uns ein Auto.“ (The best thing we can do is buy a car.)
    • Watch out! There is a typical source of error regarding orthography: ‘am besten’ (best) is written in lower case because it is a compared adjective. However, ‘das Beste’ (the best) is capitalized since it has become a noun.

What spelling rules of adjectives need to be considered?

Adjectives in German are lower case, although they often contain a noun as the first part of the word. Nevertheless, they can be nominalized, and in that case, they are capitalized. Consider the particularities:

  • Information: Additionally, note the current spelling rules for adjectives, which allow further exceptions to capitalization.
  1. Examples of lower case adjectives that include a noun as a component:
    • unglückselig (unfortunate)
      • noun ‘Unglück’ + adjective ‘selig
    • willenlos (will-less)
      • noun ‘Wille’ + suffix ‘los’
  2. Capitalization of adjectives is achieved by nominalization. This converts the adjective into a noun. A determiner (here in orange) often appears in front of the adjective:
    • Die Neue kam heute zum ersten Mal ins Büro.“ (The new one came to the office for the first time today.)
      • determiner = ‘die
    • „Geduld ist das Wichtigste.“ (Patience is the most important thing.)
      • determiner = ‘das
    • Watch it: Despite capitalization, the adjective is lower case if it refers to a previously mentioned noun. That noun (antecedent) does not necessarily have to be mentioned in the same sentence:
      • „Ich habe mir gestern einen neuen Computer gekauft. Mein alter hat kürzlich den Geist aufgegeben.“ (I bought a new computer yesterday. My old one has just died.)
        • ‘mein alter’ (my old one) refers to ‘Computer’.

Further explanations related to the ‘Adjectives in German’

The following explanations are relating to the topic ‘Use of adjectives in German grammar’ and may be helpful as well: