You’ve just set out to learn German, and, being the Überflieger (high-flyer) you are, you’ve bought yourself a shiny new German grammar book. You sit in front of it, tentatively thumbing the front cover. Self-congratulation quickly turns to apprehension. You know that as soon as you open that book you’ll be thrust headfirst into the brain-busting world of German nouns and those mischievous little articles: der, die and das.
Before we address the German articles, let’s remind ourselves of what a noun is and how an English noun differs from a German one.
Nouns are words which name things, places, ideas, processes or living creatures, and in German they’re always written with a capital letter. As in English, German nouns are often preceded by the definite (the) or indefinite article (a/an) or another determiner (e.g. some/any), as well as an adjective or two. When you place these three things together, you create what we grammarians call a noun phrase.
English Noun Phrase: the funny teacher
German Noun Phrase: der lustige Lehrer
German nouns can be masculine, feminine or neuter, and this gender affects the form of the articles (and the adjectives) we use. Let’s look at the articles.
Feminine: die Frau (the woman)
Masculine: der Mann (the man)
Neuter: das Kind (the child)
German learners (and many native German speakers) often report that there’s no rhyme or reason behind their uses, and that the gender of nouns simply has to be learned by heart. This is only partly true: there are plenty of noun endings which always collocate with certain articles.
For example, any noun ending in -ung, -schaft, -keit or -heit will always be feminine, so it’ll go with the article die. In fact, just that one little observation enables you to cover a huge range of nouns — Dankbarkeit (Gratitude), Wichtigkeit (Importance), Freundschaft (Friendship), Bedeutung (Meaning), Entscheidung (Decision) — You don’t even need to know the meaning of the word to know that they’re all feminine! Magic, eh! So let’s take a look at a few more rules for der, die and das. Sit back, relax, peruse and absorb the tables below.
When To Use Die
|– ung||die Entscheidung (the decision)|
|– tät||die Universität (the university)|
|– tion / – sion||die Explosion (the explosion)|
|– schaft||die Gesellschaft (the society)|
|– keit/ – heit||die Schönheit (the beauty)|
|– ie||die Geographie (the geography)|
|– enz / – anz||die Toleranz (the tolerance)|
|– ei||die Schlägerei (the fight)|
|– ur||die Natur (the nature)|
|– in||die Boxerin (the [female] boxer)|
The large majority of nouns which end in -e are feminine, so die Lampe (the lamp), die Rede (the speech), and die Bühne (the stage).
When To Use Der
|– ant||der Konsonant (the consonant)|
|– ast||der Gast (the guest)|
|– ich||der Teppich (the carpet)|
|– ismus||der Marxismus (the Marxism)|
|– ling||der Häftling (the prisoner)|
|– us||der Rhytmus (the rhythm)|
The majority of singular nouns ending in -er are masculine, so der Sommer (the summer), der Lehrer (the [male] teacher), der Angeber (the show-off), der Besitzer (the [male] owner), der Amerikaner (the [male] American) or der Bestatter (the [male] undertaker).
When To Use Das
|– chen||das Häuschen (the little house)|
|– lein||das Büchlein (the booklet/little book)|
|– um||das Wachstum (the growth)|
The large majority of nouns beginning with Ge- are neuter, so das Gesetz (the law), das Gespräch (the conversation) or das Gebäude (the building) — BUT die Geschichte (probably the most common of the anomalous Ge- nouns) bucks the trend by taking the feminine form. We recommend you pay particular attention to the feminine noun endings, as these crop up very frequently. You should also ensure you internalize the gender of every new noun you learn — don’t just learn Lehrer, learn the word with its definite article: der Lehrer. This way you’ll begin to naturally couple articles with nouns, and this will facilitate your use of the German cases (the next little grammatical hurdle in the German language).
Got all that? Let’s make sure! Here’s a short quiz on der, die and das to see how much you’ve retained. Don’t worry if you do poorly, you can just scroll back up and keep studying.