An article, also known as determiner, is a word that is used with a noun and characterizes it with regard to gender and relation in a sentence. Do you use a language (like English, Spanish, French) that uses articles? Lucky you! Because you already know the importance and functions of these little words. Especially for those whose mother tongue neither use nor need articles (like Russian, Chinese, Turkish), the German articles der, die and das (“the” in English) may be challenging, but fear not – they can be mastered.
In this article, we’ll cover the basics, when to use articles, which genders they match, and how we can make an educated guess as to what gender a particular noun has.
With a little practice, you’ll be using definite articles in German confidently in no time. (There are also indefinite articles, but to cover them here, as well, would be a bit overwhelming for now …) Let’s start by looking at how these definite articles are used with different nouns according to the noun’s gender.
Der, die, das and noun gender
It is important to know that all nouns in German have a gender. They can either be masculine, feminine or neuter. And definite articles in German have to match the gender of the noun, such as der Mann (the man – masculine), die Frau (the woman – feminine) and das Kind (the child – neuter).
|masculine||der Mann||the man|
|feminine||die Frau||the woman|
|neuter||das Kind||the child|
Try to memorize the article together with each new word you learn right away. And listen carefully to native Germans: Surprisingly, they all know the right articles (some dialects excepted).
Using der, die and das with plural nouns
A noun’s plural form is a little easier. No matter if the noun is masculine, feminine or neuter, in the plural form we always use die (the).
Let’s look at a few examples:
- der Mann (singular) – die Männer (plural)
- die Frau (singular) – die Frauen (plural)
- das Kind (singular) – die Kinder (plural)
Next, we’ll take a look at some tips to help you remember when to use these articles.
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When to use der, die and das in German
Although choosing the correct definite article in German may seem tricky at first, the German language has certain rules that can help you know (or guess) which one to use.
1. Check the noun’s meaning
If the noun is animate, its grammatical gender tends to be the same as its actual gender: Male persons are usually masculine, female persons are usually feminine and young persons and baby animals are often neuter.
Here are some examples:
- der Bruder/die Schwester (brother/sister)
- der Opa/die Oma (grandad/grandma)
- das Kind/das Baby (child/baby)
- der Kater/die Katze (male cat/female cat)
- das Lamm (lamb)
Of course, as with all languages, there are exceptions to the rules. The word das Mädchen (the girl) is neuter from a grammatical point of view; however, it refers to a female person. And referring to animals may also need some thinking, as you can use die Katze as a generic word for all types of cats, regardless of their sex.
An easy way to identify whether nouns that refer to people are masculine or feminine is by looking at their endings.
For instance, we add -in to nouns that refer to females. This rule especially applies to job titles such as Lehrer (male teacher) / Lehrerin (female teacher) or Koch (male cook) / Köchin (female cook), and also when we are characterizing or labeling a person in some way: Freund (male friend) / Freundin (female friend) or Lügner (male liar) / Lügnerin (female liar).
Exceptions: Some of the persons ending on -e can be masculine or feminine, e.g. "der Angestellte" (male employee), "die Angestellte" (female employee).
2. Learn noun categories
Most weather words and alcoholic beverages also tend to be masculine, with the exception of das Bier (beer), which is neuter in German. Cars are masculine when you use their brand name.
- der Mai (May)
- der Sommer (the summer)
- der Montag (Monday)
- der Norden (the north)
- der Sturm (the storm)
- der Whisky (the whisky)
- der Audi (the Audi)
Feminine categories include tree and flower species and many fruits, as well as the brand names or proper names of motorbikes, ships and airplanes.
- die Rose (the rose)
- die Zitrone (the lemon)
- die Tanne (the fir)
- die Kawasaki (the Kawasaki motorbike)
- die Titanic (the Titanic)
Nouns are neuter when they refer to the names of restaurants, cafes, hotels and movie theaters.
- das Ritz (hotel)
- das P1 (club)
- das Alex (cafe)
Also, good to know: If a verb is used as a noun, that noun is neuter: leben/das Leben (to live/ life).
Charts for picking der, die, or das according to noun endings
You can increase your odds of getting the gender right by memorizing the endings that typically align with either masculine, feminine or neuter nouns.
|-us||der Bus||the bus|
|-ling||der Frühling||the spring|
|-ant||der Elefant||the elephant|
|-ent||der Student||the student|
|-ast||der Gast||the guest|
|-er||der Käfer||the bug|
|-en||der Regen||the rain|
|-ig||der Honig||the honey|
|-or||der Humor||the humor|
As you can see, you don’t necessarily have to know the meaning of the German word right away, simply memorizing the endings will help you a lot.
Good to know: Most German nouns ending with -ent are masculine. However, there are a few cases with a neuter ending, e.g., das Prozent (the percentage) and das Talent (the talent). The word Event can even be both, masculine and neuter: der Event or das Event (the event).
While -or is mainly a masculine ending, there is one exception: das Labor (the laboratory).
Feminine article - die
When you start learning German, you will soon notice that most common German nouns ending with -e are feminine, e.g., die Sonne (the sun), die Lampe (the lamp), die Tasche (the bag). Note that there are also quite a few exceptions to this rule, such as: der Name (the name), das Auge (the eye), der Käse (cheese).
Here are some common endings of feminine nouns:
|-ie||die Philosophie||the philosophy|
|-ung||die Wohnung||the flat|
|-tät||die Nationalität||the nationality|
|-tion/sion||die Information||the team|
|-keit/-heit||die Krankheit||the illness|
|-enz/-anz||die Eleganz||the elegance|
|-ei||die Bäckerei||the bakery|
|-ur||die Figur||the figure|
|-in||die Bäckerin||the (female) baker|
Neuter article das
And last, but not least, the next chart is for endings that typically indicate that the noun is neuter.
|-lein||das Büchlein||the booklet|
|-chen||das Plättchen*||the platelet|
|-um||das Datum||the date|
|-nis||das Ergebnis||the result|
|-tum||das Eigentum||the property|
*That explains why Mädchen (girl) is neuter in German.
Der, die and das: Recap
Too many rules and too many exceptions to learn by heart and to follow? While there are ways to know or guess the gender, and therefore the correct articles of nouns you haven’t even learned yet, the best way is still to learn every new noun together with its article. A noun and its article are a firm unit, “a couple married for life”, and remember: all German natives get their articles right, so listening carefully helps “storing” these units in your brain.
But don’t stress yourself too much while learning articles; even if you use the wrong one at times, most German speakers will still understand what you mean, and the wrong article is quickly forgiven or might even sound charming. On the other hand, leaving an article out because you don`t dare to guess will make you sound robot-like, very “un-German”.
Follow your instinct and remember that it's OK to make mistakes.
Picking the correct definite article according to a noun’s gender is one of the more challenging parts of the German language for any skill level or proficiency, but you’re headed in the right direction. With a little practice, you’ll be using der, die and das comfortably in no time.
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