Unit 1: Basics
3. Noun Plurals
The most important thing to learn about German noun plurals is that, unlike in English, how a noun is spelled is neither an easy nor a reliable way to tell whether it is singular or plural. Instead you will need to rely on other reading cues introduced over the first four units of this textbook.
In English, noun plurals are generally formed by adding –s or –es, but there are some exceptions such as men, geese, oxen, children, fish, and deer where respectively we have: changed a stem vowel; added –en; added -ren; or – as in the last two examples – where we have made no change at all. Whereas in German, very few nouns form their plurals with an –s. Those that do are usually borrowed foreign words such as Hotel, Auto, Restaurant; these have plural forms ending with –s: zwei Hotels.
German nouns use a very wide range of plural forms, much wider than the range of the English “exceptions” given above. And what’s more fundamentally disturbing to our English habit of relying on noun spellings is the fact that German nouns change their spelling for more reasons than just their singular or plural status. (You’ll learn about other reasons for noun spelling changes in upcoming units). So the bottom line for readers of German is that you cannot simply rely on a noun’s spelling. Instead you must learn to pay attention to the context of the noun, for example the particular form of the noun’s article, whether a verb is conjugated for a singular or plural subject, etc. By Unit 4 of this course you will have learned all the possible clues you can look for to determine whether a noun is singular or plural. You will also discover that it is faster and easier to “read” the surrounding articles and word endings on words that modify a noun (since there are only a handful of articles and modifier endings to learn) than it is to consult your dictionary for every single noun to check what the noun’s spelling might be telling you. Use your dictionary for this purpose only as a last resort, because that is the source most likely to mislead you.
However, it is important to gradually become familiar with the types of German spelling changes that happen to plural nouns so that you can look up nouns in your dictionary, where nouns are listed only under their singular spelling. German-English dictionaries conventionally display two spelling variants or endings for every noun: the first is typically the genitive-case spelling (more about that in Unit 2), and the second is the nominative-case plural spelling. Consult your dictionary to check its formatting conventions.
|der Mann (man)||die Männer (men)|
|die Frau (woman)||die Frauen (women)|
|das Ergebnis (result)||die Ergebnisse (results)|
|das Messer (knife)||die Messer (knives)|
Note: The definite article in the plural (nominative case) is die, regardless of the gender of the noun.