What Is Declension?
In the German context, declension is a way to show some characteristics of a noun that you’re talking about. German grammar rules dictate that, whenever possible, the case, number and gender of a noun must be noted.
Think of it this way. When you speak in English about a noun, you somehow have to denote how many you are talking about. The sentence “Mary fed the ducks” tells you there’s more than one duck.
At the same time, the sentence structure—most importantly here, the verb—tells us who or what the subject is and who or what the direct object is. Mary is our subject, as she feeds the ducks, and since she is performing the action—feeding, which the hungry ducks receive happily–the ducks act as our direct object.
Case is a bit harder to explain than gender or number. If you think about it in relation to the verb in the sentence, however, case becomes a bit clearer.
For example, if Mary is feeding the ducks, Mary is acting upon the ducks, by feeding them. Since the verb is conjugated to her, we know she is the subject of the sentence, and the ducks are the direct object, as they are directly receiving the result of Mary’s actions–and are probably pretty happy they’re getting food!
Case usually tends to be connected to the action of the sentence, and hopefully that will become clearer as we work through the steps to determine proper declension.
To summarize: The ability to break down a sentence into its various parts will be key to German declension. Remember to focus on case, gender and number.
These three aspects are crucial to understanding proper German declension.
Let’s look at some tips to help you learn all three. After that, we’ll help you put declension into practice.
1. Determining a noun’s case
The case of a German noun is always determined by the context of the sentence and where the action is directed.
Der Mann schwimmt schnell.
(The man swims fast.)
Er schwimmt schnell.
(He swims fast.)
Direct objects take the accusative case. While subjects nearly always perform the action of a sentence, direct objects receive that action.
The dative case takes it one step further and denotes indirect objects. Here’s an example:
Ich gebe meiner Mutter ein Geschenk.
(I give my mother a present.)
Ich is the subject—nominative case—because it’s doing the action, and the verb geben is conjugated accordingly. Our direct object is ein Geschenk, because that is what is being given; it’s in the accusative case. Lastly, meiner Mutter is our indirect object. My mother is the indirect recipient of my gifting action, as she receives the present.
Die Halskette meiner Großmutter ist mir unbezahlbar.
(Literal translation: “The necklace of my grandmother is to me priceless.”)
In English, we would phrase this as: “My grandmother’s necklace is priceless to me.”
German word order aside, the important part here is the word “of.” Look at the English sentence above: The apostrophe and “s” attached to “grandmother” denotes possession, but in German, the genitive case is used instead.
2. Determining a noun’s gender
The best way to determine a noun’s gender is to use a dictionary. Plain and simple. Memorization is best for nouns you’ll use often in everyday speech, but if you’re unsure, always consult a dictionary.
There are also many great resources and tricks for memorizing what sorts of nouns take a specific gender. For example, nouns ending in “ion” are almost always feminine. There are other characteristics in German that make it easy to classify which nouns take what gender.
3. Determining a noun’s number
Singular nouns will always be conjugated to the er/sie/es form of whichever verb occurs in the sentence. However, plural nouns will always use the infinitive form of the verb. If you’re unsure about the number in regards to the subject, look first at the verb.
If you’re still in doubt, look up the form of the noun to double check. Nouns will nearly always change in spelling to reflect a quantity higher than one.
Keep these contextual cues in mind when you are writing German sentences, and work through each sentence to determine proper:
After you’ve determined which gender and case are necessary, and the number of things you’re dealing with, use the following steps to correctly write your complete German sentence.
How to Use Declension in German
Definite Articles: der Words
Der words show definitively that you are speaking about someone or something specific—“the man” or “the tree,” and not just “a man” or “any tree.”
You might say, “I like the tree, but a man told me it was not for sale.” Depending on context, readers should know what tree is being referred to, but “a man” is too vague to figure out who the man is, or which one is being referred to. Therefore, the “a” in “a man” is an indefinite article—more about that below.
You might also consider the difference between definite and indefinite in context of particularity: that tree (definite) vs. any tree (indefinite).
Let’s first begin with nominative der words. Nouns in the nominative case will have the following declensions for each gender:
A lot of students will remember the nominative case declension as: der, die, das, die. Nouns will therefore be attached to the articles they normally have, for example as you might find them in the dictionary when you look them up.
The accusative declension string is very similar, with only one change. Der, die, das, die becomes den, die, das, die. The masculine declension in the accusative case is den instead of der.
Nominative: der, die, das, die
Accusative: den, die, das, die
The dative case changes every single der word, as follows:
Dative: dem, der, dem, den
For the genitive case, you only have to remember two choices:
Genitive: des, der, des, der
For quick memorization, recite each string of der words in order of typical cases:
der, die, das, die (nominative)
den, die, das, die (accusative)
dem, der, dem, den (dative)
des, der, des, der (genitive)
Indefinite Articles: ein Words
Just like for der words, it’s easiest to memorize the strings of articles for each case. However, indefinite articles don’t apply to plural. After all, you can’t have “a ducks”! Keep this in mind as you practice.
Nominative: ein, eine, ein
Accusative: einen, eine, ein
Dative: einem, einer, einem
Genitive: eines, einer, eines
Another great thing about indefinite articles is that we use the same endings for the possessive—just add an “m” to the start and you’ll be ready to go. In this case, though, we do need the plural form; here are the correct plural possessives:
Nouns Without Articles
What if a noun isn’t preceded by an article, but an adjective instead? Do we still have to include the article?
The answer is complex. In fact, this is the best illustration of the purpose of declension. When you don’t know anything about the noun in the sentence, the declension will have all the clues necessary. In short, you don’t have to include the article, no, but you do have to somehow denote (1) case, (2) gender and (3) number.
Before we take a look at some sample sentences, here are the endings necessary for nouns that are not attached to articles:
Nominative: -er, -e, -es, -e
Accusative: -en, -e, -es, -e
Dative: -em, -er, -em, -en
Genitive: -es, -er, -es, -er
Sentences like “Broken glass covered the floor,” or “Please buy me some red potatoes” or even “I would like hot chocolate!” are all instances where the nouns mentioned do not have a definite or indefinite article attached.
For instance, the last example sentence, in German, would read:
Ich möchte heiße Schokolade!
Die Schokolade is our noun here, and since the chocolate is being acted on by Ich, we need to use the accusative feminine ending for heiß, which is -e.
German declension requires much in the way of practice and memorization, but as you write, read and speak the language, you will improve!
You can also find an incredibly helpful guide here. Even the best need to reference a cheat sheet once in a while!
Remember the processes above and you’ll have declension down pat faster than you can say, “Deutsche Grammatik—Hilfe!” (German grammar—help!)