In this chapter we talk about nominal phrases, that is phrases that are a single unit of declension. For instance, in the sentence
Wir betrachten die in der Zeit des hohen Mittelalters gebauten Burgen.
the accusative object is die in der Zeit des hohen Mittelalters gebauten Burgen but it contains a subphrase in the dative case, to wit der Zeit des hohen Mittelalters which in turn contains a subphrase in the genitive case, to wit des hohen Mittelalters. Nominal phrases do thus occur nested. In this article, we regard as one nominal phrase a piece of text that must necessarily have the same class and case because there is no syntactic reason that would allow switching. In this example, die ... gebauten Burgen, der Zeit ..., and des hohen Mittelalters would be the three nominal phrases the declension of which have to be determined separately.
A nominal phrase to be declined can consist of following parts of speech, usually in this sequence:
Determiners: all-, definite articles (der, des, die, ...), demonstrative pronouns (dies-, jen-), welch-, irgendwelch-, manch-, possessive pronouns (mein-, dein-, ...), first and second person personal pronouns (ich, du, euch, ...)
Numerals in the widest sense: indefinite article (ein-, kein-), jed-, solch-, folgend-, cardinal numbers (zwei-, drei-, ...), indefinite numerals (beid-, einig-, mehrer-, viel-, viel, ein paar, ...)
Adjectives including ordinal numbers (erst-, zweit-, ...), also ander-, nächst-, letzt-
Noun or sequence of titles and names
The general trend for the words before the noun is to go from determiners saying what exactly is spoken about to descriptors telling properties of what is spoken about; only the ordinal numbers do not fit in this pattern. There is no syntactic or morphological difference between ein- as an indefinite article (English “a”) and as a numeral (English “one”), only stress is different; regarding the declension rules, ein- behaves as indefinite article.
The vast majority of phrases consist of a determiner or an indefinite article or neither, followed by zero or more adjectives, followed by one noun. In this case, the basic rule is:
If the determiner has no ending or is lacking altogether, the adjectives take the ending a determiner would have had, that is, a strong ending, except in mn-G case.
If the determiner exists and has an ending, the adjectives take a weak ending, and in addition also in mn-G case.
The case “determiner without ending” occurs with indefinite articles and possessive pronouns in mn-N or n-A case. There are thus the following possibilities:
zero or more adjectives with strong endings (unless mn-G); noun
determiner or indefinite article with no ending; zero or more adjectives with strong endings (unless mn-G); noun
determiner or indefinite article with strong ending; zero or more adjectives with weak endings; noun
optional determiner or indefinite article with or without strong ending; zero or more adjectives in mn-G case with weak endings; noun
If the phrase is more complex (e.g. indefinite numerals combined with determiners or adjectives, or noun missing), the basic pattern is still the same: there is a sequence of determiners with no endings or strong ones, followed by a sequence of adjective-like words having a strong ending if and only if there was no strong ending in the last word before. The situation can, however, be rather intricate when it comes to defining in which of the two sequences the other words belong, in particular the indefinite numerals. In some situations, there is some leeway, leaving more than one correct distribution of case endings. We take here a somewhat prescriptive approach, offering one working variant without discussing which alternatives would also have been possible. More than one variant is given only when both variants are commonly used by native speakers. Hence, a violation of the rules below does not always mean incorrect language.
Now, we are going to specify the general rule covering also the more complex phrases. For brevity, a word is said to be in a strong position when it is the first word of the whole inflected phrase or when the last preceding word had no ending ( mandatory or optional omission of ending); otherwise it is in a weak position. Uninflected words and expressions (that is, words and expressions that never have an ending) pass on their strong or weak position to subsequent words. The word after a p-N personal pronoun (wir, ihr) is in a weak position, but the position after all other cases of personal pronouns (ich, mir, mich, du, dir, dich, uns, euch – genitive does not occur) is strong.
The first step is to subdivide the entire phrase into three subphrases: a determiner subphrase, an adjective subphrase, and a noun subphrase. These appear in this sequence; there is no alternation between subphrases in the phrase. However, each of the subphrases can be void.
Determiners (item 1 in the list above) belong to the determiner subphrase.
In compositions with definite articles (derjenige, dasselbe) the article is in the determiner subphrase and the remainder of the word in the adjective subphrase. Compositions with irgend- are declined as if the irgend- were not present.
Numerals in the widest sense (item 2 in the list above) belong to the determiner subphrase when in a strong position and the phrase is singular; otherwise they belong to the adjective subphrase. There are, however, a handful of exceptions:
A few words belong to the determiner subphrase when in a strong position even in the plural. kein- is then always in the determiner subphrase. beid-, sämtlich-, and solch- can be used both ways (p-NA beide dicke Bücher or beide dicken Bücher; p-G beider dicker Bücher or beider dicken Bücher). More often than not, particularly in the p-NA case, they are treated as belonging to the determiner subphrase.
solch- after ein belongs to the adjective subphrase even when ein has no ending.
The expression alle beide is mostly declined in parallel, that is, both words are in the determiner subphrase although beid- is in a weak position after all-.
Descriptive adjectives and ordinal numbers (item 3 in the list above) belong to the adjective subphrase.
Adjectival nouns belong to the adjective subphrase.
Non-adjectival nouns and names belong to the noun subphrase.
The mn-N forms of possessive pronouns and of indefinite articles in the determiner subphrase
When a noun with a mn-G ending -(e)s follows – and only then –, some words in the determiner subphrase can get the weak mn-G ending -en. This happens
All other words in the determiner subphrase have strong endings.
All words in the adjective subphrase, as far as they are declined at all, have the same endings, to wit
weak endings when the first word of the subphrase is in a weak position, and always in mn-G case
strong endings when the first word of the subphrase is in a strong position, except in mn-G case.
For more than one adjective in a strong position, a variant with a strong ending on the first adjective and with weak endings on the remaining ones is also occasionally found, mainly in older literary texts.
The genitive forms of numerals greater than one have an -er in a strong position: zweier, dreier. Beyond three, this sounds slightly archaic, and beyond twelve, the genitive is avoided altogether and replaced by a construction with von, e.g. der Tod von fünfzig Männern.
When a numeral is the last word of the phrase, it can get an -en ending in the dative case:
Wievielen Schülern hast du das gegeben? – Fünfen.
The larger the number, the less frequently is this feature used. For two and three, it is mandatory, for numbers up to twelve (with the exception of seven where *siebenen would sound clumsy), it is quite commonly used, beyond twelve, it is awkward. The -e ending for p-NA numerals at the end of the phrase is obsolete but occurs in fixed expressions, e.g. alle Viere von sich strecken.
Nouns have only one kind of ending for each case; so they can either occur with their case ending (which is often void) or undeclined. Normally they have their case ending, with some exceptions:
In weak noun declension, that is, when the mn-DA form differs from the mn-N form, the simpler mn-N form ist used instead of the mn-DA form when the noun appears isolated. This avoids confusion with plural forms: von Mensch zu Mensch, der Unterschied zwischen Mensch und Affe but der Unterschied zwischen einem Menschen und einem Affen. Nonetheless: sich etw. zu Herzen nehmen (to take sth. to heart), von Herzen kommend (heartfelt).
Of a sequence of titles and names in strong position – which is the usual position for names –, only the title Herr and the last of the names is declined: Walters, Herrn Walter Müllers, Direktor Walter Müllers. In a name containing von, the given name is declined when the clause with von specifies this individual person (e.g. Walthers von der Vogelweide) but the last name when the von belongs to the family name (e.g. Gertrud von Le Forts).
Of a sequence of titles and names in weak position, only the first title, but never names or the title Doktor, is inflected: des Walter Müller, des Herrn Walter Müller, des Doktor Walter Müller (always written as Dr. Walter Müller), des Direktors Walter Müller. Reasons for weak position of names could be:
usage of adjectives or possessive pronouns: der nette Herr Müller, unser Herr Müller (in a business letter, meaning “Mr. Müller of our company”)
in the genitive, avoidance of inflecting a name with a final sibilant: des Erasmus von Rotterdam, only for well-known names
avoidance of erroneous stress on the given name when a person puts his given name after the family name according to Bavarian custom: der Weiß Ferdl, der Kiem Pauli.
Here are some phrases with their decomposition into the three subphrases. The determiner subphrase is marked with green background colour when its last word has an ending, and with yellow background colour when it is void or its last word has no ending. The adjective subphrase is marked with green or yellow background colour depending on whether the words underly weak or strong declension. The only case where the two colours do not match is when a mn-G form of an adjective occurs in strong position as in example 23.
Examples 1–8 are the declensions for the four classes with definite and indefinite article. Examples 9–18 and 20–23 demonstrate the effect of the assignment of the words to the determiner and adjective subphrase. In example 20 two different assignments are possible, yielding different endings in the adjective subphrase; only in the p-D case the endings happen to be the same. In example 21 two different n-G endings are possible in the determiner subphrase. The noun subphrase in examples 18–20 is void, either because of a lacking noun or of an adjectival noun. The special rules about strong and weak position after personal pronouns are exemplified by examples 24–25.
|determiner subphrase||adjective subphrase||noun subphrase|
|or, less common,||sämtliche fleißige Angestellte|
|or||sämtlicher fleißiger Angestellter|
|or||sämtlichen fleißigen Angestellten|
|or, less common,||alles||irdischen||Lebens|