How to describe a singular definite noun with an adjective in Danish

Elena Sokolova, August 3 rd 2021

In this blog post, you learn about describing a singular definite noun in Danish with an adjective.

Gender t-matching only matters in the adjective in post position

When describing a singular noun in a definite form like ‘the apple’, you should distinguish two cases - an adjective standing before or after a definite noun. In the case with a definite noun, the gender matching only happens if the adjective stands after the noun.

Let’s have a look at two examples a) & b):

a) Flaget er rødt og hvidt. = The flag is red and white.
b) Det danske flag er rødt og hvidt. = The Danish flag is red and white.

Et flag (a flag) is a noun of et-gender. Imagine you have a picture of many flags, and you describe one specific of the many, so you say ‘the flag’ - flaget (et at the end of flag works as ‘the’). The adjectives in post position will follow the rule of t-matching in singular: Flaget er rødt og hvidt.

E-ending in adjectives before a definite noun

Suppose you attribute a quality/description to the specific noun already in its phenomenal meaning like a single unit - ‘the Danish flag’ - as a phenomenon. In that case, this specificness overrides gender matching. It happens because specificness is more important than the grammatical gender in terms of the pragmatics of the language. The adjective would take an e-ending to mark that the quality/description is inherent/integrated into the noun’s specificness.

I choose to say det danske flag, where det = ‘the’; while for en-gender nouns, I will choose ‘den’, e.g. den høje bygning = ‘the tall building’. Den or det in front of the adjective mark the definiteness of the noun in case an adjective precedes this noun. Gender t-matching as we see does not disappear totally. It is reflected in the choice of the definite article of the singular noun preceded by an adjective - den or det.

Den høje bygning i centrum var grim. = The tall building in the city centre was ugly. I choose den =’the’, since bygning belong to en-gender group of nouns.

Definite or indefinite noun?

Imagine you describe a room and the furniture in it. So the big table in the room will be like a single unit of furniture, where the quality ‘big’ is an integrated part of the noun’s nature:

Det store bord ved siden af vinduet fyldte meget plads. = The big table beside the window occupied a lot of space.

In comparison, when you describe many various items of furniture and then attribute a quality to them, the adjective comes after a noun and should match in gender.

Spisebordet var stort og bredt, så der var plads til 10 personer omkring det. = The dining table was big and broad, so ten persons could sit around it.

A common confusion of definiteness with a demonstrative form

The definiteness (the-form) is close to the demonstrative description like in ‘that flag’/’this flag’. Den og det in Danish also mean demonsrtative ‘that’, so if you say det flag without an adjective before flag, it will mean ‘that flag’, not ‘the flag’. So only the preceding adjective triggers den or det in the function of the definite article (the), without an adcejtive these two are demonstrative pronouns.

den høje bygning = the hight bulding
den bygning var høj = that building was tall

det nye byggegri = the new construction
det byggeri var nyt i området = that construction was new in the area.

det dejlige land = the wonderful country
den flotte præstation (a second ‘t’ is added to preserve the vowel quality in flot)

What else triggers e-ending in adjectives before a singular noun?

In many grammar books you’ll find the rule, saying that any possessive pronouns like min/hans/sin … or a genetive form, like Peters, byens, Danmarks, trigger e-ending in the adjectives. It’s true, and there is a good explanation for that. Any word of possession makes the noun specific by default and works like a definite marker similar to a definite article. That’s why you will say:

Vores store spisebord af massivt træ var familiens samlingspunkt om aftenen. = Our dining table of solid tree was the familys gathering point in the evening.

Byens historiske centrum var berømt for sine hyggelige gader. = The city’s historical center was famous for its cosy streets. In historiske, e-ending after the noun in the genetive byens, in hyggelige e-ending after a possessive word.

E-adding is not always possible

Just as with gender t-matching, the e-ending is common of the majority, but not all the adjectives for the reasons of phonetic rules. E-adding is not possible when an adjcetive ends en -e; and some but not all adjectives ending in another vowel do not take e-ending (most frequenet are ‘blå, skrå, grå rå’).

However, even if e-adding is not possible, t-matching may still be required. And it’s normal that some adjectives make t-matching and no e-matching and vice versa due to their spelling and phonetic properties.

det blå hav = the blue sea/ocean
den blå himmel = the blue sky

No e-adding is possible in the two examples above. But in Havet er blåt = The sea is blue, t-mathcing is possible.

So in some sense, one may say that e-adding and t-matching live their own lives independent of each other.

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