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Compound Adjectives


Upon hearing a chain of multiple adjectives in a German sentence, often the big question is: Are these adjectives written together or apart? Here are two useful tips:

  1. One immediate way to find out whether a compound adjective is written together or apart, is to do the word-stress test. Basically when you pronounce the compound adjective, if the stressed word is the first one, then the adjective compound will be written together. If the stress falls upon the second word of the compound or the emphasis sounds equal on both words, then most likely these words will be written apart.
    Diese frühreifen Äpfel schmecken gut.
    These early-ripened apples taste good.

    Diese Art Äpfel werden immer früh reif und schmecken trotzdem gut.
    These types of apples always ripen early and still taste good.

  2. Also, another rule of thumb of compound adjectives is that they usually come in pairs and the second word must be either an adjective or participle in order to be considered an adjective compound:

    Der Clown trägt eine superbreite, hellblaue, gestreifte Hose.
    The clown is wearing super-wide, light blue striped pants.

Though these are good tips to keep in mind, you are probably wondering what to do if as a German language learner, you are not sure of where the emphasis of a word should fall? Fortunately, there are further rules to the compound adjective dilemma, which I have compiled as follows.

  1. Compound adjectives are usually written together when…

    • the compound adjective is comprised of a verb-stem or noun as first word and adjective or participle as second word.

      These compound adjectives are often a substitute for a possible longer description of something or someone:

      Dieser Mann ist zu faul zum Denken.
      This man is too lazy to think.

      Dieser Mann ist sehr begierig zu lernen.
      This man is very eager to learn.

      Or you could describe the man in this fashion:

      Der denkfaule Mann.
      Der lernbegierige Mann.

    • the compound adjective is comprised of parts of words that cannot be used separately:

      Some words just don't make sense when on their own, and are only useful when compounded with other words:

      For Example: letztmalig/ last (malig does not exist on its own), braunäugig/ brown-eyed (äugig does not exist on its own), schmerzhaft/ painful (haft does not exist on its own as an adjective.)

    • the first word of the compound adjective serves to intensify or dilute the meaning of the second word, an adjective:

      For Example:
      dunkelblau (dark blue)
      hellblau (light blue)
      bitterkalt (bitter cold)
      superheiss (super hot)

    • you hear an extra letter inserted into the compound adjective. This is a rare occurence in a compound adjective, but does occasionally happen.

      Most of the time, this extra letter will be s, though other letters such as t, n, e also occur: ahnungslos (unsuspecting), berufstätig (working), behelfsmäßig (temporary), sonnengebräunt (tanned).

  2. Compound adjectives are usually written apart when:

    • the first adjective in an adjective + adjective compound ends in either ig, lich or isch:

      For Example:
      umheimlich warm (incredibly warm)
      riesig groß (super big)
      melodisch treu (disturbingly loud)

    • in a participle + adjective combination:

      For Example:
      glänzend neu (sparkling new)
      brechend voll (full to the breaking point)
      blutend rot (bloody red)

  3. Compound adjectives that can be written either together or apart:
    Good news! In certain compound adjective combinations, the writer is given the choice whether to write those words together or apart as follows:

    • in an adjective + adjective combination, when the first adjective is either allgemein (generally), halb (half), leicht (easy), or voll (full).

      For Example:
      die allgemein bildenden Schulen/ die allgemeinbildenden Schulen (the schools of general education)
      eine halb volle Milchflasche/ eine halbvolle Milchflasche (a half-filled milk bottle)
      die schwer erziehbaren Kinder/ die schwererziehbaren Kinder (the difficult to raise children)
      es sich leicht machen/ es sich leichtmachen (to take the easy way out)
      ein voll besetztes Auto/ ein vollbesetztes Auto (a fully occupied car)

      Sometimes though the meaning changes when the adjective compound is written together or apart.

      vollbeschäftigt/ voll beschäftigt:
      Er ist vollbeschäftigt.
      (He's working full-time.)
      Er ist voll beschäftigt mit seinen Studien. (He's totally occupied with his studies.)

      leichtfallen/ leicht fallen:
      Der Immigrationsprozess war ihm leichtgefallen.
      (The immigration process went easy for him.)
      Vorsicht, auf Schnee und Eis kann man leicht fallen! (One can fall easily on snow and ice!)

    • in an adjective/participle + participle combination:

      ein braun gegrilltes Huhn/ ein braungegrilltes Huhn ( a brown grilled chicken)
      die weit reichenden Konsequenzen/ die weitreichenden Konsequenzen (far-reaching consequences)
      eine allein erziehende Mutter/ eine alleinerziehende Mutter (a single mom)

      Take note: Your freedom to choose falls through when these compound adjectives are used in the comparative sense. If the first word is changed into the comparative, then the compound can still be written apart, however if the second word is changed into the comparative, then the compound will be written together:

      For Example
      weiter reichende Konsequenzen (farther reaching consequences)
      mehr schwerwiegendere Probleme (more serious problems)
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