Native English speakers don’t know how good they’ve got it.
The word “the” starts looking like the most beautiful, efficient word ever conceived once you start learning a new language—particularly German.
The vast majority of languages associate a gender to their nouns.
German takes it to a whole new level of complexity.
You’ve got the masculine der, the feminine die, the neutral das and the plural die. But, BUT, these articles change depending on the context of their use to sometimes become dem or den.
It’s one of the little nuances of the German language that has learners wanting to pull their hair out and potential learners giving up early in the game.
But let’s not be intimidated; we can crack this code. After a fair amount of practice, you might even find that there’s a certain poetry to it. You’ll start to understand the articles in an intuitive, natural way. (That’s what I keep telling myself at least.)
Tips for Learning der, die and das
When you’re learning German, do not simply learn the equivalent words as they are. So if you’re messing around on Google Translate, for example, and you want to know how to say the word “horse,” don’t just type in “horse.”
You’ll get Pferd. Rather, type in “the horse” so you get das Pferd. Same goes when asking a German-speaking friend. Ask for the article.
Consider the article an inseparable part of the word itself.
I’ve even heard of truly dedicated German learners posting sticky notes all over their homes, labeling every individual object with its German name. Do it! Just put the article on there as well.
If you use Vocabulary Stickers, you’ll get the benefit of pre-made labels coded by grammatical gender, ensuring that you learn over a hundred of the most common German words with the correct gender matched to each.
Another great way to become more comfortable with these articles is to see them used in context on FluentU. FluentU takes real-world videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
FluentU is designed to get you comfortable with everyday German, by combining all the benefits of complete immersion and native-level conversations with easy-to-read subtitles. Seeing and interacting with the articles in these authentic videos will really help internalize the rules.
And be sure to stay positive, and keep reminding yourself of all the great reasons why you decided to study German in the first place. We’ll get there!
So let’s start with some straightforward rules, how does that sound?
Some Logic Behind der, die and das
The article that comes before every noun may seem totally random, but there are some tricks (and obviously there are exceptions to every rule, but for general reference…). Check this out:
- If a word ends with -or, -ling, -smus or -ig, it always has the masculine der article, like the words der Motor (motor), der Feigling (coward), der Journalismus (journalism) and der Honig (honey), respectively.
- If a word ends with -ung, -keit, -schaft, –tät, -ik, -tion, -heit or -ei, it always has the feminine article die. For example, die Ahnung (idea), die Möglichkeit (possibility), die Wissenschaft (science), die Qualität (quality), die Semantik (semantics), die Situation (situation), die Dunkelheit (darkness) and die Bäckerei (bakery) all take the feminine die.
- Very often—though not always—words ending with an -e also have the die article, like die Lampe (lamp).
- Die is always used when speaking in plural (except in the Dativ case, which we’ll get to later). This can be a lifesaver sometimes. Just only speak of things in terms of two or more and you’re golden.
- If a word ends with -chen, -ma, -um, -ment, -lein or -tum, then it has the neutral article das, like the words das Würstchen (sausage), das Schema (scheme), das Christentum (Christianity), das Medikament (medicine), das Fräulein (lady) and das Eigentum (property).
- Also, it’s very common for technology, mechanical and science words to have the das article in German.
So we have a base to work from, at least. But there are a lot of German words, many of which do not have these endings. Unfortunately, knowing them is just a matter of memorizing the articles.
Akkusativ Case: Introducing den
Things get a bit more complicated when you start dealing with the Akkusativ case, which comes up when you do something with or to other things. For example, “Put the book on the shelf” or “Let’s take the kids to the park.”
In the Akkusativ case, the articles for nouns change: Der becomes den. Thankfully, everything else stays the same.
So let’s put it in a sentence!
To keep genders very clear, let’s talk about men and women. We can use the sentence, “The woman hit the man.” (As a disclaimer, we here at FluentU do not condone violence of any kind, but things happen, you know? It’s a crazy world.)
“Man” would obviously be masculine, der Mann, and “woman” would be feminine, die Frau. And because the woman is doing something to the man (hitting him), we’re in the Akkusativ case.
Remember, the only article that changes is the masculine, so der Mann becomes den Mann. Therefore, the sentence is:
Die Frau schlug den Mann.
Let’s do one more for good measure. Now we want to say, “The car ran over the chair.”
“Car” is das Auto, so that stays the same. But “chair” is der Stuhl, so in this case, where something is being done to the chair (it’s being run over), it becomes den Stuhl in the Akkusativ case. Therefore, the sentence is:
Das Auto fuhr über den Stuhl.
Dativ Case: Introducing dem
There’s another case we need to look at: Dativ.
The Dativ case is used, in a sense, when talking about movement, the passage of time and the relationship between static (not moving) objects. When you drive with a car, you’d talk about it in the Dativ case. When you work somewhere, because time passes, you’d talk about it in the Dativ case.
When you talk about where two things are in relationship to each other that are not being acted upon or manipulated in any way, you’d talk about it in the Dativ case. It can be a bit difficult and perhaps a great subject for a post of its own. For now, check out this article for further explanation. And if you’re more the video type, maybe these will help you out.
When you’ve got a regular noun in the Dativ case, the article changes again. Der becomes dem, die becomes der, das becomes dem and the plural die becomes den.
It’s a lot to remember. You might come up with your own, but I made a little acronym out of the ending letters: MRMN. Maybe you can add words to it, like Mother Rides Motorcycles Never, or Masks Rub Michael’s Nerves. I don’t know…
Let’s just do a bunch of examples to nail it all home.
I waited five hours in line.
You’re talking about the passage of time, so we’re in the Dativ case. “The line” here will be die Schlange (also meaning “snake”). Since die becomes der in the Dativ case, the sentence is:
Ich habe fünf Stunden in der Schlange gewartet.
The cup is on the table.
Since the relationship between two objects is being discussed here (where the cup is in relation to the table), we’re in the Dativ case. But both articles don’t change. For simplicity sake, let’s just say it’s the second one (this is generally true). As a result, the cup—der Becher—stays the same. But the table—der Tisch—becomes dem Tisch. Therefore, the sentence is:
Der Becher ist auf dem Tisch.
One more. The sentence is:
The oranges are under the sofa.
Since we’re talking about more than one orange, it’s plural, die Orangen. And since that’s the first object in the sentence, it doesn’t change. But, since we’re in the Dativ case, das Sofa becomes dem Sofa. Therefore, the sentence is:
Die Orangen sind unter dem Sofa.
One More Case: Genetiv
You know how when you talk about possession, you simply add an ‘s to the end of a word? Like “Tom’s jacket” or “Jennifer’s shoe”? Well in German, you don’t do that (although it’s becoming more common as English creeps into the culture). When you’re speaking, you would say: die Jacke von Tom and der Schuh von Jennifer.
However, when writing in German, it’s best to use the Genetiv “des.” It replaces the word von (“of” in English). So, those phrases become die Jacke des Tom and der Schuh des Jennifer, respectively.
Your Guide to der, die, das, dem, den and des
Take a breath. It’s not so bad. Think about it whenever you can. If you sit down at table in a restaurant, tell yourself what’s on the table in front of you: Die Serviette ist auf dem Tisch. Das Besteck ist auf dem Tisch. Die Glaser sind auf dem Tisch. (The napkin is on the table. The cutlery is on the table. The glasses are on the table.)
When you’re standing in line: Ich warte in der Schlange.
When you ride your bike over a rock: Ich fahre über den Stein.
Remember the word ending has a lot to do with the article, so memorize those and practice, practice, practice.
And remember, almost 100 million German speakers figured all of this out. You can too.
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