For every sentence you encounter in German, follow these time-saving steps:
- Quick "cheats":
- Some articles and adjective endings immediately reveal the singular/plural status of the noun they modify, without you having to know anything about the noun or its context. For example, the definite articles das, dem, and des are only ever used with singular nouns. By the time you finish textbook Unit 4 you can make your own list of which articles and adjective endings immediately tell you whether a noun is singular or plural. Memorize these signs!
- If the noun is obviously a subject, check the ending of the corresponding conjugated verb, which will also quickly tell you whether the noun is singular or plural.
- Otherwise, go on to mark the basic structure of the sentence: Which phrases are subject - verb - object, etc?
- Use that knowledge to recognize the case of each phrase (nominative, accusative, etc.). Of course you may need to do some of this to finish step 2! Note that all of this is work you need to do anyway in order to understand the sentence at all . . .
- Using your results from steps 2 and 3, look at each noun's article and/or its adjectives' endings. This is usually enough information to tell you whether a noun is singular or plural. Otherwise go on to:
- Last resort: If you still don't have enough information to tell yet, then check your dictionary to see if the spelling of this particular noun indicates plural or singular. But watch out for these dangers:
- Dictionaries usually list a noun's genitive-case ending first, then its plural form. Don't confuse a singular, genitive-case noun with a plural noun!
- Dictionaries seldom actually show you the plural spelling of a noun; instead you'll see a cryptic set of characters indicating how the spelling would change.
- Plural nouns in dative case always end with the letter "n." This often means the noun will not look like the dictionary-specified plural spelling, and may look identical to the singular, genitive spelling. Review point #2 in the textbook Unit 2 section on dative case. You must rely on steps 1–4 in this situation.
- "Many singular nouns appear sometimes with an optional -e ending in the dative case only." (Quoting our textbook's Unit 2, top of p. 11.) So if you failed to do step 3 first, you might think a singular noun looks plural.
- A small minority of infamous masculine nouns add -en endings even when they are singular, if the noun is not in nominative case! You will need to rely on steps 1–4 in this situation. Review the very bottom of this textbook Unit 2 section regarding these special nouns.
- A significant number of nouns do not change spelling at all between singular and plural forms. Again you can only count on steps 1-4, and for these particular nouns sometimes only the context, to tell whether the meaning is singular or plural.
Memorize and always follow that five-step plan! Then use the following exercises to improve your ability to recognize whether nouns are singular or plural.
For students in Units 2 and beyond: You should be able to understand everything in the following sentences by the time you have learned the material in Unit 2.
- Diese Verfahren dienen der Entfernung des Salzes.
These procedures assist in removing the salt.
Verfahren: plural. Entfernung: singular. Salz: singular.
- Der Mensch verändert die Umwelt, und die Umwelt verändert den Menschen.
Man changes the environment, and the environment changes man.
Mensch: singular. Umwelt: singular. Umwelt: singular. Mensch: singular.
- Nach 1988 waren sie Bekläger des Untergangs des Buches.
After 1988 they were mourners of the decline of the book.
Bekläger: plural. Untergang: singular. Buch: singular.
For students in Units 3 and beyond: Play this Syntax Untangler activity (opens in new window):
You should be able to understand everything in the following sentences by the time you have learned the material in Unit 3.
- Er und seine Mitarbeiter untersuchten das Problem.
He and his colleagues investigated the problem.
Mitarbeiter: plural. Problem: singular.
- Die Römer besetzten viele Teile Europas.
The Romans occupied many parts of Europe.
Römer: plural. Teil: plural. Europa: singular.
- Manche Blumen sind Fleischfresser.
Some flowers are carnivores.
Blume: plural. Fresser: plural.
- Die Lösung jenes Problems ist schwierig.
The solution of that problem is difficult.
Lösung: singular. Problem: singular.
For students in Units 4 and beyond: Play this Syntax Untangler activity (opens in new window):
You should be able to understand everything in the following sentences by the time you have learned the material in Unit 4.
- Der Versuch machte den Forschern große Schwierigkeiten.
The experiment caused great difficulties for the researchers.
Versuch: singular. Forscher: plural. Schwierigkeit: plural.
- Die kalte Luft entzieht dem warmen Wasser Wärme.
The cold air extracts warmth from the warm water.
Luft: singular. Wasser: singular. Wärme: singular.
- Der erste Teil des Buches behandelt den Ersten Weltkrieg.
The first part of the book deals with the First World War.
Teil: singular. Buch: singular. Weltkrieg: singular.
- Die moderne Kunst ist den meisten Menschen unverständlich.
Modern art is incomprehensible to most people.
Kunst: singular. Mensch: plural.
- Der Mensch sieht seine eigenen Fehler nicht, nur die Fehler anderer Menschen.
A person does not see his/her own errors/shortcomings, only the errors/shortcomings of other people.
Mensch: singular. Fehler: plural. Fehler: plural. Mensch: plural.
For students in Units 5 and beyond: You should be able to understand everything in the following sentences by the time you have learned the material in Unit 5.
- Prof. Köhler baute das bekannte Ultraviolett-Mikroskop im Jahre 1901.
Prof. Köhler built the well-known ultraviolet microscope in the year 1901.
Professor: singular. Mikroskop: singular. Jahr: singular.
- Die Niederschlagsmenge in den Bergen beträgt über tausend Millimeter.
The amount of precipitation in the mountains exceeds a thousand millimeters.
Menge: singular. Berg: plural. Millimeter: plural.
This page is written and maintained by Alan Ng. It was originally started in January, 2006.