Adjectival nouns are adjectives that act like nouns in a sentence. That’s it. Easy-peasy.
The examples above show you how we use them: “usual” is an adjective, but slap a “the” in front of it, and you’ve got the adjectival noun phrase “the usual.”
In English, we also sometimes side-step adjectival nouns by using the word “one.” In the example of “the best one” above, “best” is still functioning as a pure adjective describing the pronoun “one.”
But translate that into German, and “best” would fill the role all by itself. You’ll never hear Germans talk about die beste Eins (literally, the best one). A simple das Beste (the best) will do.
Also, did you notice that Beste suddenly put a capital letter into the middle of the sentence? Well, adjectival nouns are nouns, after all. As you know, German capitalizes all its nouns, even the adjectival ones.
In addition, German and English both use adjectival nouns to describe certain abstract concepts. Think of the old Clint Eastwood movie “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.” To be fair, this isn’t the best example for German—the film’s title in the German market used a non-literal translation meaning “two glorious scoundrels.”
But when you think about all of the good in a person’s heart, or all of the evil in the world, you’re still using adjectival nouns.
German also uses adjectival nouns in certain common settings where English has, for lack of a better term, only a non-adjectival noun. One example would be the word “prisoner.” In German, the most common translation for “prisoner” is der Gefangene, which literally means “the captured one.” We’ll get back to this one in a minute.
Because adjectival nouns are used everywhere in German, this is yet another reason to practice the dreaded Adjektivendungen (adjective endings).
All adjectives in German inflect for gender, case and number. This is how you end up with an English adjective like “red” having five different forms in German (rot, roter, rote, rotes and roten, if you needed a refresher on all five).
The differences between rotes and roten aren’t the main focus of this post, but eventually you’ll need to know them to use adjectival nouns correctly.
Now that we know what adjectival nouns are and how to use them, let’s look at some examples.
1. Wie geht’s dem Kleinen/der Kleinen?(How’s the little one?)
In German, children are sometimes referred to as Kleine (little ones). We do the exact same thing in English when we call them “little ones.”
(See? If you have an adjective + “one” combo in English, it’s probably gonna need an adjectival noun in German, like I said.)
However, because German adjectival nouns change depending on gender, you’ll need to know whether you’re asking about a son or a daughter when you ask your neighbor or coworker how their little one is doing. That means asking “Wie geht’s dem Kleinen?” for a boy or “Wie geht’s der Kleinen?” for a girl.
If that trips you up, remember you can always just ask about the gender-neutral das Kind (the child) instead.
2. Alles Gute zum Geburtstag!(Happy birthday—literally, everything good for your birthday.)
The German phrase for “happy birthday” uses an adjectival noun? Say what?
Yes, it’s true. That’s because “Alles Gute zum Geburtstag” doesn’t literally translate to “happy birthday.” Strictly speaking, it’s “everything good for your birthday,” a type of generic well-wishing.
And as you might be able to tell by that capital G on Gute, we’re dealing with an adjectival noun. The adjective gut is normally lowercase, but throw an alles (everything) in front of it and you’ve got a noun on your hands, so it’s time to capitalize and decline (gut to Gute).
3. Ich gebe immer mein Bestes.(I always do my best.)
Here’s a better example of that “abstract concept” thing I brought up earlier when mentioning Clint Eastwood.
If you say, “I always do my best,” a question that might follow could be, “Your best what?” What is the adjective “best” describing in this phrase?
Trick question! It’s not an adjective. It’s an adjectival noun referring to the best things overall, the general concept of the best anything.
One extra thing to notice here is that in German, you don’t “do” your best. You “give” your best. That’s why the phrase starts with ich gebe (I give) and not ich mache or ich tue (I do).
4. “Der Gefangene von Askaban”(“The Prisoner of Azkaban”)
But still, I want to keep using this example because Gefangener (prisoner) is one of the most basic and widely-used adjectival nouns in German for something that’s not an adjectival noun in English.
Gefangener (prisoner) comes from the participial adjective gefangen(captured).
Did you catch that? The verb fangen (to catch/capture) becomes an adjective (gefangen) that becomes a noun (der Gefangene).
Parts of speech can morph like that in German, and you’ve got to handle the grammar accordingly.
5. Haribo macht Kinder froh und Erwachsene ebenso.(Haribo candy makes kids happy, and adults too.)
Please tell me you know what Haribo candies are. If you don’t, you’re missing out.
Haribo macht Kinder froh und Erwachsene ebenso is the company’s long-standing slogan, appearing on the gummies’ world-famous gold bags and in quite a few advertisements.
For a long time, Haribo’s commercials featured German TV star Thomas Gottschalk, and though he’s not their spokesman anymore, you’ll win a bit of German culture cred for knowing his name.
What’s any of this got to do with adjectival nouns? Look at the German word Erwachsene (adults). It comes from the adjective erwachsen(mature).
Unlike children, who are always just Kinder, any time you talk about adults, you’ll need to pay attention to whether you need to say Erwachsene, ein Erwachsener, die Erwachsenen and so on. There’s no non-adjectival word for “adult” that you can use to weasel out of this.
Adjective endings, man. You really need to know them.
6. Meine Verwandten sind zu Besuch. (My relatives are visiting.)
I’m going to throw out one final “this noun is always secretly an adjective” example just to show you that they’re everywhere.
Verwandte (relatives) comes from the adjective verwandt (related).
That means when you’re referring to a bunch of aunts, uncles, cousins and in-laws coming around for holiday visits, the collective noun to refer to them will need some adjective endings on it.
Verwandte? Die Verwandten? Ein Verwandter? I can’t tell you which one you’ll need, because it’ll depend on the context of what you’re saying.
That’s why—I feel like I can’t repeat this enough—you need to practice your adjective endings. Just do it.
Memorizing these six examples can help you memorize basic patterns.
You might notice that the plural ending is typically e.
You might notice that the nouns without articles also typically end in e.
You might notice that the dative example only changes the article (dem/der) but not the adjective ending (-en).
These things will help you when you build more sentences on the fly in the future.
And even if the patterns don’t click right away, you’ll still have learned six new phrases and become acquainted with the topic of adjectival nouns.
And as far as grammar topics go, it’s ein Wichtiges (an important one).