Imagine your furniture filling out a questionnaire that asked: “Are you male, female or neuter?”
Your chair would check the box next to “male.”
Meanwhile, the painting you have hanging above your fireplace would check “neuter.”
But the fireplace itself would mark down “female.”
At least, that’s what those objects would be in German.
In other languages, they may check completely different boxes. In fact, in English, they wouldn’t necessarily check any of these boxes at all.
Feeling confused? Don’t worry.
To help you wrap your head around the idea of genders in German, we’ve created a handy questionnaire. You can ask yourself the questions we’ve gathered below to figure out the gender of practically any noun in German.
Consider this your quick and easy cheat sheet to understanding German genders. Rather than having to memorize tons of rules—with plenty of exceptions, of course—just work through the list to find your way to the correct gender.
The Role of Grammatical Genders in Language and Society
Before we get too deep into the idea of gender when it comes to German nouns, let’s take a moment to consider what the word “gender” means today.
Grammatical gender is thought to have originated with language and evolved with it. English originally did have genders, but as it evolved, those genders disappeared.
For the most part, there’s no real explanation as to why a certain noun receives a certain gender. In other words, there’s no rhyme or reason as to why “chair,” or der Stuhl, is masculine in German, even though it could be feminine or even neuter in another language. It’s simply an unspoken grammatical rule. But it can affect how the speaker conceptualizes that object.
If we broaden our scope to official documentation of people, German officially has only two genders—that is, male or female. This definition of gender is based upon physical traits. This is separate from the grammatical genders (masculine, feminine and neuter) that are assigned to nouns.
As ideas of human gender broaden, however, languages such as German that rely on gendered forms of speaking find themselves in a bit of a predicament. When gender is such a critical component of the grammatical structure of the language, extricating it from everyday speech gets complicated, very quickly.
Why Gender Matters in German
Let’s bring our focus back to the grammatical side of things.
As we mentioned, gender is critical to the German language, specifically in terms of grammatical structures. There are various concepts that rely on the gender of German nouns, such as adjective endings, articles, pronouns and plural forms, to name a few.
The idea here is that it’s more about classifying nouns into categories, rather than assigning them a physical gender. Chairs aren’t really masculine, for example. It’s just a way of structuring the language. That being said, knowing the genders of nouns in German is key to mastery and, ultimately, fluency.
A Basic Overview of German Genders
Are you ready for a crash course on German genders? Here we go!
As mentioned previously, German grammar has three genders, and each noun is one of those three. The first place you’ll likely come across German genders is in the three different words for “the” in German:
Der — the (masculine)
Die — the (feminine)
Das — the (neuter)
These gendered articles don’t change, unless you’re speaking of nouns in the plural sense. In that case, you’ll use the plural die article, which looks the same as the feminine but technically isn’t.
Gender and Adjectives
Knowing the correct gender of a noun comes into play when adding in adjectives. The adjective must include an ending that reflects the gender of the noun it’s describing. For example, if we want to describe an apple (der Apfel) as small (klein), we use the masculine form of the adjective and say, “der kleine Apfel.” However, if we were describing the pears (die Birnen) as juicy (saftig), we need to use the feminine form and say, “die saftigen Birnen.”
You can especially see the impact of gender on adjectives when using the non-preceded form, i.e., talking about nouns without an article before them. For example:
Kleiner Tisch — small table (masculine)
Kleine Blume — small flower (feminine)
Kleines Sofa — small sofa (neuter)
Gender and Pronouns
It’s also necessary to know the gender of a noun when choosing the correct pronoun. Otherwise, if you mean to reference a masculine noun but you use a feminine pronoun, miscommunication can occur.
Here’s an example: the pronoun for der Apfel is er, since it’s a masculine noun. You could say, “Der kleine Apfel ist rot, aber er ist nicht noch reif” (The small apple is red, but it’s not yet ripe).
However, replacing the er in the sentence with any other pronoun, such as the feminine pronoun sie, would make the sentence grammatically incorrect and would leave others scratching their heads wondering what, exactly, is not yet ripe.
Where to Practice German Gender Skills
If you’re looking for ways to practice this concept of gender, we’ve got the resources you need.
- Consult this cheat sheet for quick reference on German gender rules.
- Choose from der, die and das to complete this quiz.
- Enter the correct article for the nouns provided, including compound nouns.
- Complete this short paragraph by choosing the correct der and ein words and check your answers in this exercise.
- Fill in the blanks in this story about Little Red Riding Hood.
If you prefer to learn through immersion, a great way to practice is to watch videos on FluentU.
Each video features native German speakers and comes equipped with interactive subtitles, so you can follow along and look up words as you watch.
FluentU is a great way to immerse yourself in German; after watching a few videos, you’ll start to naturally associate words with the correct gender pronoun. Check out the free trial!
A word to the wise: when practicing your vocabulary terms, remember to memorize the gender of each noun as well as the spelling and meaning. If you can remember those components as a whole, it’ll be much easier to recall the correct gender later on.
German Genders Questionnaire: A Simple Way to Determine the Gender of Any Noun
Below you’ll find your German gender questionnaire resource.
This questionnaire requires you to know the meaning of the noun you’re working with. If you don’t know the meaning of the word, look it up on your favorite online dictionary, such as LEO. After you add the noun to your vocabulary list, work through the questions below.
So, how do you use the questionnaire? It’s really simple. Just go through the questions in order. A “yes” answer to a question means that you’ve found the correct gender for your noun and can stop. If you answer “no,” move on to the next question until you answer “yes.”
Let’s get started!
Round 1: Is It a Masculine Noun?
Does the noun describe a day of the week, a month or a season?
Does the noun end in -ich, -en, -ig, -ismus, -ant, -ling, -er, -el or –us?
Does the noun describe a river not in Germany?
Does the noun describe an instrument or tool?
Is the noun a cardinal direction?
Does the noun describe the manufacturer of a vehicle?
If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, your noun is masculine and uses the pronoun der.
Round 2: Is It a Feminine Noun?
Does the noun describe a number?
Does the noun describe a German river?
Does the noun end in -e, -a, -ei, -heit, -keit, -ik, -ie, -ung, -tät, -ion, -in, -schaft, -nz or -ur?
If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, your noun is feminine and uses the pronoun die.
Still haven’t answered “yes”? Keep going…
Round 3: Is It a Neuter Noun?
Does the noun end in -chen, -lein, -nis, -tel, -tum, -ment, -ma or –um?
Does the noun begin with Ge-?
Is the noun an infinitive of a verb?
Does the noun describe a metal?
If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, your noun is neuter and uses the pronoun das.
Still haven’t found the right gender for your noun? Don’t sweat.
If you aren’t able to determine the gender of your noun with this questionnaire, it’s best to look up the word in a German dictionary. Sometimes there are exceptions to the rules.
That being said, make sure you add the words to a vocabulary list as you look them up so you can practice them and memorize the correct gender.
We hope this article has answered all your questions about German genders. Stay tuned to FluentU’s German language blog for more helpful language tips!
Rebecca Henderson holds a degree in German and Creative Writing. She is the editor behind The Kreativ Space and hopes to shift your world perspective through her words, because looking out the same window every day hardly makes for an interesting life.
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