Definite and Indefinite Articles

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Written by Laura Bennett
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- 11 minute read
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Remember when you first started learning German?

It felt so exciting – all the traveling you’d do, the new experiences you’d have, being able to talk in another language (<– COOL!), and all the opportunities that would come your way.

But then came all the ‘fiddly bits’ of learning a new language.

Like definite and indefinite articles.

Why does grammar always have to sound both so intimidating and also boring?

Well, although I’ll do my best, I’m not sure anyone can make grammar super-duper fun … but I do promise that I can help with the intimidating part!

In fact, below I’ll show you shouldn’t even think about definite and indefinite articles.

Key Learnings:

  • the difference between definite and indefinite articles
  • why this difference even matters (<– important!)
  • a smarter way to learn all articles & other determiners
  • correct declensions for all articles & other determiners
  • an efficient system for always knowing which declension you need

What You Need To Know

Definite articles is “grammar-speak” for ‘the’.

That’s right. Definite articles in German are just the collection of different ways to say ‘the’.

Indefinite articles is “grammar-speak” for ‘a’ — all the different ways of saying ‘a’ in German.

What do I mean with “all the different ways to say …”??

How to say ‘the’ and ‘a’ changes based on the gender & caseof the noun that follows!

I know. Fancy!

What are the definite articles?

Have you already seen this chart?

This is how the definite articles are conventionally taught.

The way you say ‘the’ changes based on the noun’s…

  • gender (masculine, feminine, neuter, or plural)
  • case (nominative, accusative, dative, or genitive)

What are the indefinite articles?

Similarly, the many ways of saying ‘a’ in German are usually taught with this chart:

You can see how these indefinite articles change — just like the definite ones — based on the gender & case of the noun they are preceding (coming in front of).

(NOTE: of course, one can’t say ‘a / an’ in front of a plural noun, but I’ve included a plurals column with the word ‘kein’ [not any] so that you can still see the declensions in the plural. You could insert a ‘k-‘ in front of any form of ‘ein-‘ in the rest of the table to have the correct form of ‘not a / an / any’ for the other genders / cases!)

Articles, the smarter way

As you’ve gotten a taste of with the conventional definite articles and indefinite articles charts above, traditionally, German students are introduced to lots and lots of separate charts for all the various words that come in front of nouns (the technical term for these words is modifiers).

You’d have all these charts thrown at you:

Indefinite Pronouns
Demonstratives (der-words)
Demonstrative/Relative Pronouns
Possessive Pronouns
Possessive ‘Adjectives’
Strong Adjectives (No Determiner)
Weak Adjectives (With Determiner)
Mixed Adjectives (with ein-word Determiners)

So, imagine the two conventional articles charts from above … but with another 8 charts on top of them with just itty bitty changes that somehow you have to remember.

Are you feeling overwhelmed yet? I hear ya.

The good news is that all these charts have much more in common than not.

That means that it’s possible to combine them all and just mention a handful of special exceptions. All our bases are covered and you’ve got a solid foundation in German that doesn’t involve 10 mind-numbing, overwhelming, unnecessary charts.

Definite & Indefinite Articles Charts, Compared

First, compare the definite & indefinite articles charts to each other. Can you see the similarities and differences?

That’s it! As a rule, the very last letter of each version of ‘the’ and each version of ‘a’ is the same.

There are only 3 spots (<– out of 16, not bad!) when that isn’t the case, in the:

There is much more that the two conventional charts (and the other 8 I mentioned!) have in common than not — that’s why we can combine the charts into one that simply has 3 exception spots.

All-In-One Chart Combines Both Articles Charts!

Now, look again at the definite articles and indefinite articles charts with this new All-In-One Chart below them for easy reference.

The All-In-One Chart overlays them both!

The same final letters on the various ‘the’s and ‘a’s are the same letters you see listed under the    in the All-In-One Chart. COOL!

What about our 3 exception spots when dealing with indefinite articles?

Those are taken care of, too! There is a    listed in the same three exception spots where the indefinite article chart is not identical to the definite articles, in the:

  • masculine nominative
  • neuter nominative
  • neuter accusative

How exactly to read & use the All-In-One Chart will be covered in depth below. Keep reading!

Forget About Definite & Indefinite Articles

Whew. I’m so glad we got to this part. I hate talking about definite and indefinite articles.

To talk about definite and indefinite articles is to categorize things all wrong!

So, please please please forget all about definite and indefinite articles. It’s a useless distinction.

I’m pretty sure you’ll have no problem remembering how to say ‘the’ (e.g. der, die, das) and ‘a’ (e.g. ein, eine, etc.) in German. But there’s absolutely ZERO reason to remember the grammar-speak terms.

German is complicated enough if we just say focused on what you need to know!

And you need to know that it’s sooooo much better for you to learn about determiners.

Determiners = Better Concept, Better Term

Determiners is a big, overarching category that includes both definite and indefinite articles plus a bunch of other words that all function within German the same way.

Determiners are all sorts of little words — like some, many, a few, every, not any, this, and that — that tell us how many or which one.

Example: Which apple? This one? Or that one?

Example: How many apples? A few apples? Many apples? Every apple? Not any apples?

In German, all those italicized words (determiners!) take slight changes called declensions that vary dependent on a host of factors (<– we’ll totally unpack this soon)

Words that need declensions

The words that come in front of nouns need declensions.

There are two types of words that come in front of nouns: determiners and adjectives (but adjectives are for another article).

Determiners are split into two groups: ein-words & der-words. And this distinction is worthwhile (you’ll find out why later)!

EIN-words: ein(a), irgendein (any), kein (not a / any), and all possessives.

DER-words: der/die/das(the), welch- (which), dies- (this), jed- (every), jen- (that), einig- (some), wenig- (few) and all other determiners!

Tip: if the determiner is not an ein-word, it’s a der-word by default.

Notice how ein-words includes ‘a’ (along with other words) and how der-words includes ‘the’ (along with other words).

Types of Declensions

There are 2 types of declensions:

  1. Strong declensions better (but not flawlessly) indicate the gender/case of the noun because they are the most varied.
  2. Weak declensions do not indicate the gender/case of the noun because they have almost no variation (there are just two options: -e or -en).

All the bolded declensions in the above examples are strong declensions:

Der Mann gibt der Frau das Kind. (‘The man gives to the woman the child’)
Dem Mann gibt die Frau das Kind. (‘The woman gives to the man the child’)

In a very limited number of instances, there might also be no declension at all (keep reading!)

Coming up, after we talk about how to use declensions with the same All-In-One Declensions Chart you discovered above.

Digging Deeper

This section is all about using our handy-dandy All-In-One Declensions Chart. Here we go!

How to Use Declensions

To properly use declensions in German, you need to know the following:

  • what gender is the noun?
  • what case is the noun supposed to be in?
  • which (of 3) basic declensions patterns are you using?

If you can answer these questions, you will always know which declension is needed on each determiner and/or adjective.

How to Know the Gender of Any German Noun

One way to wrestle with German noun gender is to simply memorize every noun connected with either der, die, or das so that you (hopefully) remember what gender that noun has:

der Mann (the man [masculine])
die Frau (the woman [feminine])
das Kind (the child [neuter])

BUT there are some clever shortcuts that can save you a lot of time.

German noun genders are determined by either by group or by form.

Noun Group Examples:

Masculine (der):

  • Male persons and animals
  • days of the week, months of the year
  • seasons, and most weather elements

Feminine (die):

  • Female persons and animals
  • Airplanes, motorcycles, ships
  • Trees, fruits, and flowers

Neuter (das):

  • Young persons and baby animals
  • metals and chemical elements
  • hotels, cafes, restaurants, and movie theaters
Noun Form Examples:

The end of nouns, or, the suffix is what determines the gender of the noun.

There are certain suffixes that are almost exclusively masculine, feminine, and neuter.

Masculine: -ant, -ast, -ich, -ig, -ismus, -ling, -or, -us

Feminine: -a, -anz, -enz, -ei, -ie, -heit, -keit, -ik, -sion, -tion, -sis, -tät, -ung, -ur, schaft

Neuter: -chen, -lein, -icht, -il, -it, -ma, -ment, -tel, -tum, -um

How to Know Which Case to Use

The case of each noun in a sentence indicates what role it is playing in the sentence and therefore also shows its relationship to (i.e. how it’s interacting with) the other nouns in the sentence.

Think of the four cases as ‘slots’ in a sentence that we must/may fill up with nouns.

The general rules of thumb are:

  1. Always fill up the nominative ‘slot’ first — every sentence needs a subject! (And a conjugated verb!)
  2. Default to filling up the accusative ‘slot’ next unless…
  3. If you’re using a dative verb, preposition, or adjective: the associated noun must be in the dative ‘slot’, not the accusative.
  4. You can pretty much forget about the genitive case.

Basic Declension Patterns

In this guide, we are focusing on determiners (we talk about adjectives here). 

All you need to know about the declensions determiners need is this:

ALL determiners will ALWAYS take the strong declension

Except … if you’re using an ein-word determiner (do you remember this distinction from above?) with a noun in the:

  • masculine nominative
  • neuter nominative 
  • neuter accusative

Only ein-words only in these 3 spots behave differently by taking no declension.

This graphic shows you what I mean (and gives you a sneak peek into how adjective declensions work, too!) For info on declension patterns #3 and #4, read my Declensions Guide.

Notice below the    for the strong declensions, the    for the weak declensions, and the    for the no declensions! (<– keep reading for the full explanation!)

All-in-One Declensions Chart

Working with the All-In-One Chart is all about learning German smarter, not harder.

Again, if you know your noun’s gender & case and whether you’re using an ein-word in one of the 3 exception spots, you will always know which declension your determiner needs.

REMEMBER: Determiners always use the strong declension unless the determiner in an ein-word and it’s being used in the masculine nominative, neuter nominative, or neuter accusative.

Here, again, is the abbreviated chart (no weak declensions listed). For the full chart and how to use it, read my guide on declensions.

Heads Up!

Because the All-In-One Chart replaces not only the definite articles chart and the indefinite articles, but also a whopping eight additional charts, we have to boil declensions down to their very basics.

And the basics is this: the very last letter.

That is why the All-In-One Declensions Chart has just one letter in each spot.

What you need to remember is: almost always add an ‘e’ in front of the listed declension.

For a complete discussion of this point (and its exceptions), read this guide on declensions!

Example Using This Chart

All right. Let’s put this into practice. I’m going to now …

  • give you a noun phrase to translate to German
  • supply the noun’s gender & case
  • walk you through finding the correct area of the chart 
  • remind you how to pick the correct declensions

Noun: Kind
Gender: neuter
Case: accusative

Find the right area of the chart:

  1. Go to the green-shaded big ‘neuter’ column in the middle.
  2. Find the accusative row 2nd from the top. 
  3. The spots shared in common have a strong and a weak declension listed.

Pick the right declensions:

We will take the same example, but split it into 2 parts. First, we’ll say the child in the accusative case. Then, we’ll say a child, still in the accusative case. Let’s go!

Part 1: the child

The ‘root’ of the determiner ‘the’ is just the letter ‘d’! All the ways of saying ‘the’ in German start with ‘d’ and end with a strong declension. The vowel in the middle is usually an ‘e’ (but sometimes an ‘i’ or ‘a’ as in die and das. Read more here.) 

Since we’re working with a neuter noun and we want to say ‘the’, we need the word das. So, this is one of our exceptions!

We take the ‘d’, tack on an ‘a’ (<– breaking the standard ‘e’ rule), and then sandwich with the provided strong declension (-s) because …

Remember: Except in 3 instances, we have to always take the strong declension first.

So, we need das for ‘the’ in this neuter accusative example.

Answer: das Kind

Now, what if we want to say a child — still in the accusative case?

Part 2: a child

We’re still working with the same section of the chart. But! Now we’re using an ein-word! And neuter accusative is one of our 3 exception spots.

Do you see the no declension   listed as an option? That’s what we need!

As we talked about in part 1, the determiner will always take the strong declension except in three special instances. 

If we have an ein-word determiner (ein, kein, irgendein, possessives) in the masculine nominative, neuter nominative or neuter accusative, we will put NO declension onto the determiner!

Answer: ein Kind

Main Takeaways

  • The definite articles der die das (and others) are different ways of saying ‘the’ in German.
  • The indefinite articles (e.g. ein, eine, etc.) are different ways of saying ‘a’ in German.
  • The different ways of saying ‘the’ and ‘a’ change based on the gender & case of the noun that follows.
  • Both definite and indefinite articles are types of determiners.
  • The distinction between definite and indefinite articles is not important — forget it!
  • Determiners are split into ein-words & der-words (<– important)
  • ein-words & der-words are usually used the same way except in 3 special instances
  • We can combine the conventional definite articles & indefinite articles into one chart, that is more efficient and simpler to use (see above)

Study Tips

  1. Always make note of the gender of each new noun you learn. You can memorize the gender of each noun individually OR you can work smarter (not harder) by memorizing noun groups & noun forms and then relating the new noun to either one (or both) of them.

    For example: you could simply memorize die Freiheit (freedom) OR you could recall that the noun form –heit is a feminine suffix … therefore, Freiheit must be a feminine noun!

  2. Become well-versed in at least the nominative, accusative, and dative cases (genitive is not nearly as important for everyday communication in German).
  3. Practice understanding the German you come across through the lens of the all-in-one declensions chart! It will be your best friend. You will need it constantly! Use it, too, to practice writing in German, making sure that you’re putting all your nouns into the right case (and reflecting that properly with the declensions you put on your determiners & adjectives).