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How to use the definite articles in German

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Definite articles, also called definite determiners, are small words which are placed before nouns, for example:

der Mann  the man
die Frau    the woman
das Kind   the child

They are all translated as “the,” which might be slightly confusing at first, but they are actually your friends: they tell you more about the gender and the role of the noun in a sentence! Here, you will learn how to (almost) always choose the right definite article.

Definite articles, also called definite determiners, are small words which are placed before nouns, for example:

der Mann  the man
die Frau    the woman
das Kind   the child

They are all translated as “the,” which might be slightly confusing at first, but they are actually your friends: they tell you more about the gender and the role of the noun in a sentence! Here, you will learn how to (almost) always choose the right definite article.

For review of grammar terms used in the article, make sure to check out the Unpacking the grammar section at the end of the post.

Definite articles: the dictionary form

Definite articles are used in two scenarios, both in English and German:

  1. They help us understand that the noun exists only once in the world. Compare the definite article in “the Moon” (because there is only one moon in the night sky) with the indefinite article in “a moon of Saturn” (because there are 82 of them!). We make the same distinction in German: der Mond vs. ein Mond des Saturns.

  2. They tell us that the noun is very specific or has been mentioned before. Compare “the teacher came,” where we all know exactly which teacher we are talking about, with “a teacher came,” where it’s not clear who that teacher is. In German, we also make this distinction: die Lehrerin kam vs. eine Lehrerin kam.

The major difference between the English “the” and the definite articles in German is that there are three different dictionary forms in German, der, die, and das, and one for plural:

Screen Shot 2021-09-26 at 9.55.48 PM

But what are masculine, feminine, and neuter nouns? Many people think of them as men, women, and objects, but for German, this only confuses matters, because many objects are masculine, like der Stuhl [the chair], or feminine, like die Flasche [the bottle]. And das Kind [the child] is certainly not an object!

To choose the correct definite article, you will need to know the grammatical gender of a noun first.

For plural nouns, you don’t need to know the grammatical gender, because they all take the same definite article, die.

Conquer the German case system with articles

You will have noticed that German uses more than just the three definite articles der, die, and das. The other three forms, dem, den, and des are used when the noun is not the subject of the sentence.

Let’s compare the dictionary forms when the person or object does something with the additional forms below.

Examples with the dictionary forms:

Der Hund spielt im Garten.             The dog is playing in the garden.

Die Katze fängt die Maus.               The cat catches the mouse.

Das Schwein liegt auf dem Boden. The pig is lying on the ground.

Die Menschen schlafen.                   The people are sleeping.

Now look at what happens to the masculine article der when the dog does not do anything:

Das Kind streichelt den Hund.         The child is stroking the dog.

Ich gebe dem Hund den Ball.          I give the ball to the dog.

Das Futter des Hundes ist dort.       The dog’s food is over there.

For feminine nouns, the dictionary form die is also used when the noun is directly affected, but we use der when the feminine noun receives or possesses something:

Das Kind streichelt die Katze.          The child is stroking the cat.

Ich gebe der Katze den Ball.            I give the ball to the cat.

Das Futter der Katze ist dort.           The cat’s food is over there.

It may seem as if feminine nouns like Katze are sometimes accompanied by the masculine article der. In fact, der in this case shows that the feminine noun receives or possesses something. The two forms simply happen to be identical.

With neuter words, you only need to remember that the dictionary form das is also used when the noun is directly affected. But dem is used when the noun receives something, and des is used for possession, just like with masculine words:

Das Kind streichelt das Schwein.     The child is stroking the pig.

Ich gebe dem Schwein den Ball.      I give the ball to the pig.

Das Futter des Schweins ist dort.     The pig’s food is over there.

There are two ways to remember the endings of the definite articles. The first is a cool mnemonic, which also works for the possessive adjectives and has been explained by Ulrike Carlson. For the mnemonic, you simply need to remember the following “magic spell”:

RESE NESE MRMN SRSR  
You say: “Ree-see, nee-see, merman, sir sir!”
(Think: The sorcerer's apprentice, a spell, and a disgruntled merman. Help, Sir!)

Apply these endings to the table of articles in the order of masculine, feminine, neuter, and plural and read it from top left to bottom right:

Screen Shot 2022-03-16 at 5.30.14 PM

The second way to remember the correct definite articles is a colorful table. For this, it makes sense to group the genders like this: masculine, neuter, feminine, and plural, since masculine and neuter have many similarities and so do feminine and plural.

Screen Shot 2021-09-26 at 10.07.04 PM

  • When the noun does the action, the dictionary forms der, die, and das are used, depending on the grammatical gender of the noun.

  • When the feminine, neuter, or plural noun is directly affected by the action, you choose their dictionary forms die and das, respectively.

  • When the masculine noun is directly affected by the action or when the plural noun receives something, you choose den.

  • When the masculine or neuter noun receives something, you choose dem.

  • When the feminine noun receives or possesses something, or when the plural noun possesses something, you choose der.

  • For possessions of male and neuter nouns, you choose des.

Done! Now you know all of the definite articles!

Let’s summarize what you’ve learned about the German definite article:

  • Think of articles as little helpers to know the gender and the role of a noun. They are not your enemies!

  • Whenever you would use “the” in English, choose one of the following six forms in German: der, die, das, dem, den, or des, depending on the gender and role of the noun.

  • When you learn a noun, also learn the corresponding article.

  • Remember the mnemonic RESE NESE MRMN SRSR or a colorful table to always choose the right article.

If you want to practice all forms of the definite articles, we have prepared some exercises for you!

Check out these links to find out even more about definite articles:

https://germanwithlaura.com/german-articles/
https://learn-german-easily.com/german-articles

Unpacking the grammar

  • What is noun gender? In German, nouns can be in one of three groups distinguished by the form of the article: masculine or der-nouns, feminine or die-nouns, and neuter or das-nouns

  • Number represents the quantity the noun refers to, meaning if it is singular or plural.

    • das Kind (s.), die Kinder (pl.) the child, the children 

  • Case is a way to show the role of a noun in the sentence. German has the nominative case for the actor (the noun does something), also called “subject,” the accusative case for the direct object (the noun is directly affected), the dative case for the indirect object (the noun receives something), and the genitive case for possession (the noun owns something).

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