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I'm trying to make sense of article endings. In a German course I find:

Heute ist ein großer Tag!
Today is a wonderful day

But then people greet each other with

Guten Tag!

So why is it -er in the first example, but -en ending in the 2nd?

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2 Answers 2

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Greetings are frequently in accusative being the object of an omitted Ich wünsche, see this question.

Heute ist is an entirely different construct requiring a nominative.

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Grammar is the art or science of joining words together to build full sentences. If you don't have full sentences, it becomes tricky. And greetings aren't full sentences. They are ellipses. An ellipsis is a fragment of a full sentence that can be reconstructed just from that fragments. The full sentence can be ambiguous, but from the ellipsis you can reconstruct a full sentence, and then, when you have a full sentence, you can apply grammar.

  • Already a full sentence (subject, verb and other stuff)

    Heute ist ein großer Tag.

    The subject is »ein großer Tag«, this is a nominal group in nominative case. The adjective is an attribute of the core of the nominal group, and in that group is also an additional determiner (an article) before that adjective, so it must be declined weakly. And nominative singular in weak declension of the adjective »groß« is »großer«. - This is just standard grammar as you probably already learned it.

  • Not a full sentence, but an ellipsis (no subject, no verb, just some "other stuff")

    Guten Tag!

    The full sentence, that was reduced to »guten Tag« is one of these:

    Ich wünsche Ihnen einen guten Tag! (Sie-Form)
    Ich wünsche dir einen guten Tag! (Du-Form)

    Now we have a subject (»ich«) and a verb »wünsche«, a form of »wünschen«. This verb usually comes with two objects:

    • The person that shall receive the wishes: dative object
    • The event that is wished to happen to this person: accusative object

    So, the dative object is a personal pronoun in dative case (singular: dir, Ihnen, plural: euch, Ihnen) and the accusative object is usually a nominal group, but it must appear in accusative case. And here this nominal group is:

    einen guten Tag

    Again, the declension of the adjective must be weak, because there also exists the article »einen« before that adjective inside the same group. And the case must be accusative case. We still have singular, so the correct form of »gut« must be: accusative, singular, weak declined: »guten«.

    So, the full sentence of the greeting formula is, »Ich wünsche Ihnen einen guten Tag.« but this is too long to say it again and again. And so people use abbreviated sentences (i.e. ellipses):

    Guten Tag!

    or just

    Tag!


In souther regions (especially in Austria) you will often hear the greeting »Servus«. This is latin and means servant, and it also is an ellipsis, but from a latin sentence: »Sum servus tuus« = »I am your servant«, and in Vienna, the waiters of some coffee houses greet their regular customers with the German version of this greeting: »G'schamster Diener« where »g'schamster« is the viennese dialect version of »verschämtester« = most descreet. And this is also an ellipsis of »I bin Ihr g'schamster Diener« = I am your most descreet servant. When you want to pay your bill in a restaurant you say »Zahlen bitte« which is an ellipsis of »Ich möchte bezahlen, bitte« (please, I want to pay).

In colloquial oral speech ellipses are so common that you usually even don't notice, that you use them all the time. But this is not a specialty of German. This happens in all languages.

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  • The translation of "G'schamster" to "verschämtester" is complete nonsense - it means "gehorsamster"! This also makes more sense, as there is no reason for a servant to state he is "verschämt", but there is a lot of sense in stating he is "gehorsam" (obedient). "verschämt" also doesn't translate to "discreet" but to "coy" or "bashful".
    – bakunin
    Commented Aug 30, 2022 at 7:47
  • Also, "descreet" is not even a word. Did you mean "discreet"?
    – bakunin
    Commented Aug 30, 2022 at 7:50

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