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Eariler this week, I posted an article here on the Transparent Swedish Blog about how adjectives are conjugated in Swedish when describing uncountable nouns. Now I will explain how to conjugate adjectives when using countable nouns!
First, a short review of adjectives in general. Adjectives can come either within nominal phrases (for example, en dyr köttbulle, ‘an expensive meatball’) or in the predicate (for example, köttbullen är dyr, ‘the meatball is expensive‘). Depending on where in the syntax of a Swedish sentence the adjective comes, it must be conjugated according to different rules. Here are the rules for countable nouns, nouns that you can pluralize.
If you’re describing a countable noun such as köttbulle (‘meatball’) or hus (‘house’) within a nominal phrase, you conjugate the adjective based on the gender of the noun it describes. For example:
en dyr köttbulle – köttbulle is of the common or ‘-n’-gender, so dyr remains dyr.
ett dyrt hus – hus is of the neuter or ‘-t’-gender, so dyr must be conjugated to dyrt.
If you want to describe a plural noun within a nominal phrase, use the general plural conjugation:
dyra köttbullar – expensive meatballs
dyra hus – expensive houses
If you are talking about a specific meatball or house, the definite form requires the definite conjugation of the adjective, regardless of the gender or number of the noun it describes. This conjugation is most often the same as the plural conjugation:
den dyra köttbullen – the expensive meatball
det dyra huset – the expensive house
de dyra köttbullarna – the expensive meatballs
de dyra husen – the expensive houses
In the predicate, however, what conjugation you use depends on the context. Usually, you would not say En köttbulle är dyr., ‘A meatball is expensive.’, but it is of course possible, especially if you mean En köttbulle i den här samlingen köttbullar är dyr., ‘One meatball in this collection of meatballs is expensive.’. In this case, conjugate the adjective based on the gender of the noun it describes.
You also conjugate adjectives describing a particular meatball or house based on the noun’s gender:
Den köttbullen är dyr. – That meatball is expensive.
Det huset är dyrt. – That house is expensive.
If you are talking about several particular meatballs or houses, keep in mind that number always overrides gender, so you should always conjugate the adjective to its plural form:
De köttbullarna är dyra. – Those meatballs are expensive.
De husen är dyra. – Those houses are expensive.
When it comes to talking about meatballs and houses in general, however, things get tricky. If you want to say ‘Meatballs (in general) are expensive.’, you actually say this:
Köttbullar är dyrt. – Meatballs are expensive.
Hus är dyrt. – Houses are expensive.
You can also say it the following way, which is probably where the neuter conjugation tendency comes from:
Det är dyrt med köttbullar. – Meatballs are expensive. (Lit: ‘It (neuter) is expensive with meatballs.’)
Det är dyrt med hus. – Houses are expensive. (Lit: ‘It (neuter) is expensive with houses.’)
Of course, you can say it the way that feels natural to most foreign speakers of Swedish, and you will be understood just fine, but it will sound a bit less natural to the natural Swede:
Köttbullar är dyra. – Meatballs are expensive.
Hus är dyra. – Houses are expensive.
Just when you thought it couldn’t get more complicated! It’s because of things like this that everyone always says the best way to learn a language is to move to a country that speaks it. Here you have it written out in text form, but if you were to live here for a longer period of time you wouldn’t even notice the complexity of it – you would just absorb it naturally. So don’t fret; maybe just use this guide for understanding what others say for now. Eventually you’ll catch on. 🙂
Enjoy your meatballs!