The beer hall in Munich is dazzling.
High ceilings soar over crowded tables of patrons chatting enthusiastically with tall steins of beer.
You go up to the counter and say, in German, “I would like a beer.”
But the twinkle in your eyes fades as the bartender smiles and corrects your grammar.
There are, of course, more than a dozen different ways to say “a” and “the” in German.
These are the German articles, and no wonder you can’t remember them all… especially once you’re a few beers deep!
But why have so many in the first place?
What good do German articles do you—and more importantly, how can you learn the tricks to German articles in a simple and effective way?
Well, that’s exactly what you’re about to find out.
German Article Anxiety? The Cure Is This Guide to Using and Remembering the Right Articles
What Are Articles?
Some of you, particularly speakers of Russian, Japanese and Indonesian, will likely roll your eyes at the mention of articles. These languages get along just fine without them.
Well, it’s not the same in German. German articles, which are roughly the equivalent of “the” and “a” in English, go alongside nouns. They indicate whether you’re referring to a specific noun (“the box”) or any of a set of nouns (“a box”).
Why are they only rough equivalents of the English articles “the” and “a?” Because German articles take many forms to indicate a lot more information about the structure of a sentence.
- Cases: German articles are spelled differently in different cases. A noun’s case indicates its relationship to other words in the sentence, like whether it’s the subject or object of a sentence.
German is actually a little unusual in this way. Other languages with cases, such as Russian, typically modify the spelling of the noun itself in different cases. Russian has cases but not articles, English has articles but not cases and German has, well, articles and cases.
In our grammar charts below, you’ll see the four German cases: nominative, accusative, dative and genitive. Put (very) simply, a noun that’s the subject of a sentence is nominative, a noun that’s the direct object is accusative, a noun that’s the indirect object is dative and a noun that belongs to something else (i.e. showing possession) is genitive.
Dartmouth College’s German Studies Department has a thorough rundown of each case. We’ll also show you plenty of example sentences below.
- Gender: German articles also indicate the gender of the noun they’re referring to (which is almost entirely unrelated to human gender!). You can think of grammatical gender as being like word categories.
German has three grammatical genders: masculine, feminine and neuter. The rules for determining which nouns are in each category are very complex. Many of them simply have to be memorized.
- Number: German articles also change depending on whether the noun is singular or plural.
It’s simply how the language evolved. And it’s definitely learnable.
The Definite Articles: Der, Die and Das
Definite articles are the equivalent of “the.”
Here’s what they look like in each case, for each gender.
- Ich gebe dem Lehrer den Apfel. (I give an apple to the teacher.)
Here, Lehrer (teacher) is a singular, masculine noun in the dative case. Apfel (apple) is a singular, masculine noun in the accusative case.
- Sie sah das Auto der Ärztin. (She saw the car of the [female] doctor.)
And in this example, Ärztin (doctor) is a singular, feminine noun in the genitive case. Auto (car) is a singular, neuter noun in the accusative case.
The Indefinite Articles: Ein and Eine
Indefinite articles are the equivalent of “a/an.”
In German, the indefinite article can have various different forms, and like English, there’s no plural form. When it’s used without an adjective, it takes on a form remarkably similar to the definite article.
Here are a couple of examples to illustrate that usage.
- Hier ist eine Frau. (Here is a woman.)
Easy! Singular, feminine noun in the nominative case.
- Hier ist eine Frau mit einem Glas. (Here is a woman with a glass.)
Now we’ve added Glas (glass), a singular, neuter noun in the dative case.
So you see, with no adjective between the article and the noun, the indefinite article behaves very much like the definite article.
What happens when we add an adjective?
In that case, the adjective must also be modified depending on the gender and case.
I’ll add the adjective gut (good) to the chart above to illustrate:
|Nominative||Ein guter||Ein gutes||Eine gute|
|Accusative||Einen guten||Ein gutes||Eine gute|
|Dative||Einem guten||Einem guten||Einer guten|
|Genitive||Eines guten||Eines guten||Einer guten|
Now, there are additional rules about adjective declension (modifying a word for gender/case) that fall beyond the scope of this particular discussion.
The most important thing for you to learn right now is how to really internalize the gender of each noun.
How to Remember Which Articles Go with Which Nouns
Why is it that Germans know this stuff and we don’t?
It just sounds right to them to say die Brücke (the bridge) instead of das Brücke, in the same way that English speakers think “change a diaper” sounds better than “switch a diaper.”
Native speakers simply don’t get confused about articles. By hearing, reading and speaking German every day for hours on end since childhood, they’ve absorbed these articles in a fundamental way.
Fortunately, there are a few ways to really nail German articles without that time commitment.
Guess Noun Genders Strategically
Any student of German will probably tell you that the single hardest part of speaking correctly is remembering which article goes with which noun based on its gender.
Perhaps even more so (with some resentment) if they’re coming from a language like Italian or Russian, where a word’s gender is fairly predictable based on how it’s spelled.
It turns out, though, that German word gender is predictable to an extent as well. You can get most of the way there by knowing four things:
- Fully two-thirds of one-syllable words are masculine. If you guess, you’ve got a good chance at being right!
- Certain word endings are always feminine: -ei, -heit, -keit, -schaft, -ung
- Certain word endings are always neuter: -chen, -ium,-lein, -o, -um
- And here are the ones that are always masculine: -er, -ich, -ismus, -ist
Hey presto, you can now guess the gender of the vast majority of German nouns!
Watch Authentic German Videos on FluentU
Immersion is one of the most effective (and least boring) ways to remember German articles. And FluentU is the perfect tool to immerse yourself in German, no matter where you live.
Every video comes with interactive subtitles. Click any word for an instant, in-context definition as well as grammatical info, like a noun’s gender and whether it’s singular or plural.
You can click on the articles themselves to get case and gender info, which will help you understand why a particular article is being used in a certain context.
It’s a fun way to absorb German articles in authentic German contexts, without feeling like you’re studying. Plus, your overall German vocabulary will grow as you explore everyday German through hundreds of videos in dozens of topics.
There are more than a thousand videos for beginner through advanced learners, which you can watch on your computer, iOS or Android device.
FluentU is one of the most engaging ways to learn German articles, grammar and vocab. Why not give it a try today with the free trial?
Use Good Ol’ Memorization
The stricter you are with yourself when starting out, the better you’ll do in memorizing German articles forever.
That means to regularly check yourself on the words you know and the words you’re learning. You can do this very simply.
- Take a German word list that you’re familiar with, perhaps from a textbook, and copy it down without the articles.
- Go do something else for a few minutes to get your mind briefly distracted.
- Come back and try to rewrite all the articles from memory.
If pencil and paper isn’t your thing, you can try an app like Der Die Das on Android or German Articles Buster on iOS.
It sounds like a real grind. But by applying yourself and really forcing yourself to make these things automatic in your speech and writing, you’ll prevent bad habits and save lots of time in the long run.
Learn and Love Set Phrases
Once you can reliably produce the article for any given noun you know (putting you, to be honest, well above most German learners), you have to turn that into real language use.
Simply look at a bit of running text like a short article or a subtitled video.
Then write down or otherwise point out to yourself the noun phrases. For example, take this line:
In einem deutschen Gasthaus würde man niemals einen Fernseher mit Basketball im Hintergrund sehen. (In a German restaurant one would never see a TV with basketball in the background.)
From this, we can easily parse out the phrases in einem deutschen Gasthaus, einen Fernseher sehen and in dem Hintergrund.
That means in the future when you want to say, for instance, “in a Mexican restaurant” you can simply switch the adjective while keeping the endings intact: in einem mexikanischen Gasthaus.
This way, you pick up and reinforce the adjective ending rules automatically!
Again, this is more memorization but just think of it as a fast track to a native-level Sprachgefühl, or “language feeling.”
The more actual German content you read and listen to, the less you’ll have to consciously memorize these patterns.
Now you’re all set to waltz back into that beer hall and confidently order a drink using the exact right German articles.
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