How to pluralize nouns in German

The English plural: it’s as easy as adding an s or es! Well, not really. Sometimes we need to change a consonant (e.g., th to v) or change ys to ies and, of course, sometimes we do nothing at all: I’m looking at you, moose. But for the most part, pluralizing nouns in English is a matter of memorizing a few straightforward rules and a handful of irregular exceptions (child/children).

Learning how to pluralize nouns in German, on the other hand, is a whole new ball game (zu Deutsch: Eine ganz andere Hausnummer – „a totally different house number“).

Think you can take the heat?

Get ready for a mind-blowing smorgasbord of endings, my friend. But before I make you change your mind about learning German, let’s have a look at the two easiest rules:

  1. Rule number one: there is no plural form!
    • Names of countries, rivers and abstract concepts aren’t pluralized in German (Österreich, der Rhein, die Zweisprachigkeit – Austria, the Rhine, bilingualism)
  2. Add an +s
    • This holds true for words of foreign origin (das Etui = die Etuis, das Auto = die Autos, das Handy = die Handys – [eyeglasses- or pencil-] case, car, cell phone)

But are you ready for things to get über-messy? Good! Brace yourselves, friends.

I’m going to break all the endings down for you according to noun gender (feminine, masculine, neuter).

Let’s start by having a look at the endings for feminine nouns:

Quite common adding +en (die Wohnung/die Wohnungen, die Frau/die Frauen)
adding +n (die Dose/die Dosen, die Lampe/ die Lampen)
Common adding +nen – most often used for pluralizing careers, etc. (die Steuerberaterin/die Steuerberaterinnen, die Masseurin/die Masseurinnen)
Rare adding an umlaut & ending +e (die Angst/die Ängste, die Kraft/die Kräfte)
adding +se (die Erlaubnis/die Erlaubnisse)
Very rare adding an umlaut + en (die Werkstatt/die Werkstätten)
adding an umlaut (die Tochter/die Töchter)
changing -a to +en (die Firma/die Firmen)
changing -sis to +sen (die Praxis/die Praxen)
-is changes to +ien (die Galaxis/die Galaxien)
-aus becomes +äuse (die Laus/die Läuse)
-itis becomes +iden (die Bronchitis/die Bronchitiden)

Pro tip: lots and lots of German feminine nouns that don’t end in -e take the -en ending.

BUT JESSE: how can I know if a noun is a feminine noun? Fear not! If you’re learning German, feminine nouns are your BEST FRIENDS because in many cases they have really obvious, easy-to-memorize feminine noun endings, including  -ung, -heit, -keit, -schaft, -ei, -tät, -ion, -ik, -eur, -enz, -itis and -sis. All of those endings are just going to get an +en ending in the plural. These are pretty much the only reliable clues about noun gender that exist in German, so… you’re welcome.

Pro tip: Learning the gender of nouns is essential because once you get into the different cases and declensions, it’s easy to get all the endings right for masculine and neuter nouns (in the genitive and dative) but, believe you me, you’ll mess everything up in the accusative and nominative if you haven’t got the gender straight. Learning it right the first time is totally worth it, I promise.

Confession: English articles (the, an, a) are so straightforward that I simply didn’t fully grasp the importance of articles/noun gender when I started learning German. I just had no frame of reference for it. My thought process was something like this: „All I want to know is umm ‚the word‘–duh!“.  like Stuhl or Dach or Katze! Who cares if it’s der, die or das?“ – Well, trust me, readers: the article is not an afterthought in German the way that it is in English. The article and the noun are inextricably linked and you will be doing your future self a tremendous favor if you learn the articles correctly from the get go. To this day I make the occasional mistake because, once upon a time when I was an irresponsible junior in high school, I didn’t bother (in some cases) to learn the article and the noun as a fixed unit. Hashtag regrets.

Okay! Let’s look at masculine noun endings:

Common adding an +e (der Hund/die Hunde)
adding an umlaut and an +e (der Kuss/ die Küsse)
no ending added (der Hügel/die Hügel) – this usually happens when the noun in question already contains an umlaut
Less common adding an umlaut (der Vater/die Väter)
adding an +n (N-Deklination – these are „weak nouns“ – Most of these weak nouns end in -e and take an +n ending) (der Name/die Namen)
adding +en (N-Deklination – don’t you love exceptions? Some weak nouns have other endings, including -and, -ant, -ent, -oge, -ad, -at, -ist which all take an +en ending) (der Emigrant/die Emigranten)
changing -us to +usse (der Bus/die Busse)
Quite rare adding +en (no N-Deklination) (der Staat/die Staaten)
adding +er (der Leib/die Leiber)
adding an umlaut +er (der Mann/die Männer)
changing -us to -i (der Terminus/die Termini)
adding +ten (der Bau/die Bauten)

Are you still sure you want to learn German? If you wanna learn this language, you gotta be tough, folks.

Last but not least, let’s have a look at neuter noun endings:

Very common adding an +e (das Telefonat/die Telefonate)
Common no ending added (das Fenster/die Fenster)
adding an +er (das Weib/die Weiber)
adding an umlaut and an +er (das Dach/die Dächer)
Unusual changing -nis to +nisse (das Begräbnis/die Begräbnisse)
Quite rare adding an +en (das Bett/die Betten)
adding an +ien (das Adverb/die Adverbien)
changing -um to +a (das Antibiotikum/die Antibiotika)
changing -um to +en (das Datum/die Daten)

It’s all pretty insane from the perspective of an English speaker, isn’t it? But that’s exactly how Germans feel when they attempt to master the English tense aspect system (‚Had been being spied on!?!‘, ‚I had had my car repaired!?!‘ wie bitte!?!“–because German tenses are one million times simpler than ours).

I know that learning all those endings must seem like a daunting task, but just keep listening and speaking (and making plenty of mistakes). With a lot of hard work and bit of luck you’ll eventually learn them all. Remember: learning (and mastering) a foreign language has less to do with natural ability and talent than it has to do with consistently applied interest in the long term. So, chin up and be persistent! Be stubborn, dogged, resolute. It’s going to take all the gumption and stick-to-it-ive-ness you can muster, but the satisfaction of knowing how to properly decline fun words like Eierschalensollbruchstellenverursacher (egg-shell-predetermined-breaking-point-causer) in all cases is totally worth it.

(If you’ve never seen one of those bad boy in action, check out this German dude’s video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EQL-9yYR3AM)

Viel Spaß beim Lernen! Happy learning!