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I'm a self-studier, working through Fehringer's German Grammar in Context (first edition). In chapter 5, there is an exercise solution that confuses me. (Note I did well on the exercise set in general. Just this one exercise: I don't understand why key is different from my solution.)

You are supposed to give the adjective endings in the blanks. And set 2, #6 is:

Er gab ihr zwei klein__ Flaschen teur__ französisch__ Parfums zum vierzigst__ Geburtstag.

I did kleine, teures, französisches, vierzigstem:

Er gab ihr zwei kleine Flaschen teures französisches Parfums zum vierzigstem Geburtstag.

The key says kleine, teuren, französischen, vierzigsten:

Er gab ihr zwei kleine Flaschen teuren französischen Parfums zum vierzigsten Geburtstag.

I figured the zwei is sort of like an ein. So I gave the ein plural ending (OK). But then Parfum has nothing so should be strong, genitive, neuter (no)? And Geburtstag doesn't have anything either, so it should be strong, dative, masculine (no)?

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    Thanks all for the work in your answers. I think I just got confused with the genitive neuter strong ending itself. Was confusing it with eines. And yes, there was a sneaky dem hiding inside the zum...I was wise to that trick, but forgot it.
    – Ami guest
    Jul 29, 2023 at 11:40

4 Answers 4

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Lets analyze the sentence. The first three words are easy:

  • Er
    This is a personal pronoun in nominative case. Nothing else in this sentence is in nominative case, so this must be the subject, and because the sentence is not in passive voice, but in active voice, its also the agent, i.e. the person or thing that actively performs the action that is described in the sentence.

  • gab
    This is an inflected verb. It is on position 2, where an inflected verb must be in a German sentence that is a statement. It is a form of »geben« (to give). The form »gab« could be 1st or 3rd person, but because the subject is 3rd person, it's 3rd person here. Other grammatical properties of this form of »geben« are:

    • Singular (not Plural. This is because the subject (»er«) is singular.)
    • Indikativ (not Imperativ or Konjunktiv. This sentence is a statement. It's not a command and it does not describe something fictional.)
    • Präteritum This is the grammatical tense. It is one of the German past tenses.
    • Aktiv It's active voice, not passive voice.
  • ihr
    This is again a personal pronoun, but this is in dative case. So it can't be the subject. It must be an object. The verb »geben« almost always comes together with an object that names the receiver of the gift. And this receiver must be in dative case. (In fact the name »dative« comes from the latin verb »dare« (do, das, dare, deti, datum) which means: to give, so »dative« means: The give-case) And so, the personal pronoun »ihr« is just this dative object that names the receiver of the gift.

Now we know, that a male person gave something to a female person. And when something is given, it is very interesting what is given. What is the gift? And this is why the verb geben always needs an object that names the gift. This object is mandatory, and it is in accusative case. So, when the verb of the sentence is a form of »geben«, you need a giver (the subject), you need the receiver (the dative object) and you need the gift which is an accusative object.

So, let's search for a noun or a pronoun that is in accusative case:

  • Flaschen
    Lets make a test with a verb that always needs an accusative object like »haben« (to have):

    Ich habe Flaschen.

    Yes, that works, so Flaschen is a hot candidate for being the accusative object of our verb »gab«

  • Parfums
    Test it:

    Ich habe Parfums.

    Works too, so we put it on the list.

  • Geburtstag

    Ich habe Geburtstag.

    We can put this on our list too.

So, all three nouns could be in accusative case, but the last one does not make sense as a gift. (You can not give a birthday to someone.) In fact only one of them is really in accusative case, but we will see that later.

So, bottles (Flaschen) and fragrance (Parfum) could be the gift. But these are not two separate gifts. The gift is two bottles of fragrance. So, here we have the full accusative object:

  • zwei klein__ Flaschen teur__ französisch__ Parfums
    This is the accusative object, and this is the gift. Let's split it in smaller parts:
    • zwei klein__ Flaschen
      If we ignore the adjective for a moment, this looks some kind of unit like »5 feet«, »3 gallons« or »a spoonful«. And this is the case here: How much fragrance did he give? - He gave two bottles of fragrance.
      And grammatically this is the main part of the gift. This is the part in accusative case. And the form of »klein«, which is an attribute of »Flaschen« must therefore also be in accusative case. So, let's collect the properties that this attribute must have:

      • case: accusative (because it's an attribute of a noun in accusative case)
      • number: plural (because we have not one, but two bottles)
      • gender: doesn't matter, because we are in plural
      • comparison: positive (it's not comparative and not superlative)
      • definiteness: strong declination because there is no article-word and therefore the adjective itself must carry the case-ending

      If you have all this together, you can look up in a declension table like this one: declension of the adjective klein. The order of properties in this table is this: first find the block with the right comparison. We need »positiv«, so it's the first block. Then we need the definiteness to find the right section which is »Starke Deklination« (strong declension). Then we need number and gender to find the right column and the grammatical case tells us the line, and so we find:

      kleine
      zwei kleine Flaschen

    • teur__ französisch__ Parfums
      So, what is this? He gave her two small bottles of expensive french fragrance. In English you use the word »of« to mark this part of speech which grammatically an attribute of »two small bottles«. But in German we have grammatical cases that can do the job.
      The part »teur__ französisch__ Parfums« is a genitive attribute of »zwei kleine Flaschen«, so it's in genitive case, and now we now know, that the word »Parfums« is not in accusative case, but in genitive case. And this genitive attribute is a nominal group that consists of the noun »Parfums« which has two adjectives as attributes. And again we have no article word. So we have here:

      • case: genitive
      • number: singular (two bottles, but still just one fragrance)
      • gender: neuter (becausee the word »das Parfum« is neuter)
      • comparison: positive (it's not comparative and not superlative)
      • definiteness: strong declination because there is no article-word

      The declension tables of teuer and französisch tell us for these combinations:

      teuren, französischen
      teuren, französischen Parfums

So, the whole accusative object is this:

zwei kleine Flaschen teuren französischen Parfums

But there is still something left:

  • zum vierzigst__ Geburtstag
    The word »zum« is a contraction of the preposition »zu« and the article »dem«. So, we can write this part of speech also in it's extended form:

    zu dem vierzigsten Geburtstag

    This is an optional prepositional object. A prepositional object begins with a preposition, and then this preposition needs an inner object in a case, that no longer depends on the verb of the sentence, but on the preposition itself. The preposition »zu« always needs its inner object to be in dative case, so »dem vierzigsten Geburtstag« must be in dative case, what you also can see from the article »dem« which exists in this form only in dative case. So, here we have this combination:

    • case: dative
    • number: singular (only one birthday)
    • gender: masculine (because the word »der Geburtstag« is masculine)
    • comparison: positive (it's not comparative and not superlative)
    • definiteness: weak declination because we have a definite article (»dem« which is contained in »zum«)

    The declension table for vierzigste says:

    vierzigsten
    zum vierzigsten Geburtstag

And when we put all together, we finally have:

Er gab ihr zwei kleine Flaschen teuren französischen Parfums zum vierzigsten Geburtstag.

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The answer key is correct.

Er gab ihr zwei klein__ Flaschen teur__ französisch__ Parfüms zum vierzigst__ Geburtstag.

Note the -s ending on Parfüms — it's in genitive case. That means teuer and französisch must be put in genitive case as well, and the strong singular genitive ending for masculine and neuter adjectives is -en, not -es.

Er gab ihr zwei kleine Flaschen teuren französischen Parfüms.

Here, zwei kleine Flaschen is the accusative object, and teuren französischen Parfüms is a genitive apposition to it.

But you may indeed also write

Er gab ihr zwei kleine Flaschen teures französisches Parfüm.

This is slightly different. Now teures französisches Parfüm is the accusative object and zwei kleine Flaschen is a quantity to it. Those are put in the same case as the item itself.

But the mix of both as you did it does not fly.


Let's finally investigate … zum vierzigst__ Geburtstag. You may write this as … zu dem vierzigst__ Geburtstag. and from that you can easily see the adjective must be weak. So it's zum vierzigsten Geburtstag.

Using the strong ending at that place is a mistake even native German speakers often make when they are in a hurry.

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"Zwei" does not influence it. You can leave it out and it would be the same.

Er gab ihr [kleine Flaschen [teuren französischen Parfums]] zum vierzigsten Geburtstag.

"Parfums" is Genitiv Singular Neutrum. If you look at a declination table in your book, you will find that the ending is -en for adjectives that are in agreement with the noun that has these properties. Hence it is teuren and französischen.

The topic you are seeing here is partitive Genitiv. You want a unit (small flasks), possibly a known number of them (two), of something (parfume). "Parfume" can be seen as something like a mass noun, that is why you can use it in singular genitiv.

Kleine Körbe [teurer französischer Äpfel].
Kleine Flaschen [teuren französischen Wassers].

In the above example you can see that Äpfel is plural and Wassers is singular. Wasser is a mass noun.


"Zum", on the other hand, is a contraction of "zu" and "dem" which is mandatory to use in your sentence. The rules for when to use a contraction can be looked up easily. This is why the ending is -en instead of -em for vierzigsten, with Geburtstag being Masculine Singular Dativ (you can tell Dativ by knowing that "zu" reigns Dativ). A definite article was used.

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Two constructions are possible in this context. You can say "zwei Flaschen teures französisches Parfüm" (as you wanted to do, strong form neuter singular), then the phrase that follows "Flaschen" is an apposition (a phrase that shares the same case with "Flaschen"). The other option is to use a genitive after "Flaschen" to describe the content of the bottle (as in English): "zwei Flaschen teuren französischen Parfüms" (strong/weak is the same form in the genitive, except fem.sg.). It sounds somewhat more bookish, but this is what the text of the exercise wanted to use, since it already contains "Parfums" in the genitive.

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    Aha, or maybe you just mixed up the forms? The article in the genitive ends in an -s but not the genitive of the adjective inflection: "des teuren Parfums, eines teuren Parfums, --teuren Parfums".
    – Alazon
    Jul 29, 2023 at 7:28
  • Its clearly »Parfums« with »s« at the end, so it must be gentive! Jul 29, 2023 at 8:51

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