Learning German on Duolingo (or similar) seemed so fun and easy until you hit a wall with der, die, das, right?
I hear ya! What’s that all about anyway?
In English, we learn: the apple, the dog, the man, the woman, the the the … whatever. Simple.
In German, not so much.
All nouns — from tree, to dishtowel, to mansion, to unicycle — all have an assigned gender.
This is what der, die, das is about. It is three different ways of saying ‘the’ depending on the gender of the noun.
- tricks that simplify the concept of der die das
- shortcuts for memorizing nouns with der die das
- tips for correctly using der die das in a sentence
Section 1: The Basics of der die das.
der die das & noun gender
As mentioned above, der die das are simply 3 ways of saying ‘the’ in German dependent on the gender of the noun.
So, if you want to understand the differences between der die das and learn when & how to use them correctly, you need to learn about noun gender!
And when I say need to learn about noun gender, I mean NEED!
So, why is der die das so important? Let’s talk about that first. 👇
Why does knowing der die das even matter?
It would be convenient if learning der die das were just some optional extra bonus thing with German. But it isn’t. It’s essential.
As you continue learning German, you will discover that a heckuva lot of words take on slight grammar changes (for which we have no equivalents in English).
Knowing how to make these changes is vital to speaking German well …
And knowing whether a given noun is a masculine (der), feminine (die), or neuter (das) noun is one of the factors that influences those slight grammar changes!
So, if you don’t care about speaking German well, then go ahead and forget about der die das.
But if you want native German speakers to enjoy interacting with you (without either correcting you constantly or at least inwardly gritting their teeth in pain as you butcher their language), then I would suggest getting a handle on der die das, which is partially about noun gender.
What is noun gender?
Why does German make the distinction between der, die, das?
Because all (let me repeat that: ALL) German nouns have an assigned gender.
We can’t relate the concept of noun gender to English, but if you took high school Spanish or French, you came across gendered nouns there: el (masculine) and la (feminine) in Spanish, and le (masculine) and la (feminine) in French.
German also has masculine & feminine nouns, but it has a third gender, too: neuter — the genderless gender!
What is assigned noun gender?
Now, what do I mean by assigned gender?
Exactly this: there are no inherent qualities of the noun that make it ‘male’, ‘female’, or ‘neuter’.
It’s not that soft, pretty things are feminine and strong, sturdy things are masculine, etc. It doesn’t mean that tools, trucks, and bugs are masculine; but dolls, lipstick, and dresses are feminine. It doesn’t mean that things used by both men & women are neuter (e.g. table, chair).
No no no. It doesn’t work like that!
Regardless what the noun is, its gender doesn’t mean anything about the noun itself (only exception: most of the time, people & animals have the genders that are intuitive, e.g. both woman & cow are female, and man & bull are male, etc.).
So, don’t expect that you can somehow reason through German noun gender like I don’t know, “fork” just seems like it’d be neuter… ← 😬 That line of thinking will get you in trouble!
Signalling noun gender
In German, the noun’s assigned gender is ‘flagged’ by the words that come in front of it … for example, by … der, die, das!
Der indicates that the following noun is masculine [M].
Die, that the noun is feminine [F].
Das, that the noun is neuter [N].
Notice how der, die, das indicate gender in German, but in English it’s simply ‘the’ each time:
der Mann (the man [M])
die Frau (the woman [F])
das Kind (the child [N])
These examples are pretty straightforward. And, again, most people & animals do have intuitive genders … But how we go about learning the genders of table, door, pillow, etc.?
The der die das chart
To us, it just seems so, well, foreign to think of even objects having gender. In English, we still use gendered pronouns (e.g. he, she, it) … but that’s it. German takes things to a whole new level!
conventional der die das chart
One way to wrestle with noun gender is to try to memorize every noun connected with either der, die, or das so that you (hopefully, maybe, probably don’t) remember what gender that noun has: der Tisch (table), die Tür (door), das Kissen (pillow).
And then you’d work with a conventional chart like this one, to try to pick out the right variant of ‘the’ (<– notice 3 more: den, dem, des) so you could actually use der die das in a sentence:
If that’s for you, OK.
However, disclaimer: you probably won’t ever speak German freely, effortlessly, or fluently if you use this conventional approach to der die das.
der die das, the better way
Memorizing hundreds (if not thousands) of individual German nouns is enough work already — but to try making a random association between each one and either der, die or das? Good luck.
Random associations are hard for our brains to cling to, so your fail rate (<– how often you mess up the gender by picking the wrong version of ‘the’) would likely be high.
But there’s good news! You can learn why a noun has the gender it does. And …
- whether a noun is paired with der, die, or das is NOT random!!!
- there are just a few dozen tips & tricks you can memorize (vs. thousands of individual der / die / das + noun pairings) that will save you gobs of time & energy
- working with these clever shortcuts majorly ups your odds of not making gender mistakes!
Intrigued? Keep reading!
When & how to use der die das.
You now understand that you’ve been coming across der, die, das all over the place because they are just 3 different ways to say ‘the’ in German. ‘The’ is a word that gets used a lot, right? 🙂
You also learned that German nouns have gender (masculine, feminine, neuter) and that it is CRUCIALLY IMPORTANT to know the gender of each noun if you care about speaking German well (<– and this is totally possible!)
So, you have the what&why under your belt.
Now, to figure out the when & how, we need to talk about those tips & tricks, those marvelous shortcuts that will have you learning German nouns like a native speaker!
Keep reading for info on:
- der die das rules
- how to know the gender of any noun
- how der die das relates to the case system
der, die, das Rules
When we think of the rules for der, die, das, we mean two things:
- How do I know which gender each German noun has?
- How do I use this information in a sentence?
Coming up next, we’re going to talk about the tips & tricks surrounding noun groups & noun forms: the shortcuts to learning noun gender authentically, like a native speaker.
Then, we’ll touch base on how the case system ties together with noun gender to give you the patterns to follow when plugging der die das into a sentence.
This means that another way to word the der die das rules is like this:
Rule #1: Know the gender of your noun (<– ✅ knew that!)
Rule #2: Know the case of your noun (<– this is new!)
These two rules are the starting point for nailing der die das (<– and those three other ways of saying ‘the’ in German) in any given sentence.
How to know the gender of any noun
OK, quick review time!
Remember: German noun gender is NOT random and senseless!
True, the vast majority of the time, noun gender doesn’t have anything to do with some inherent quality of the noun …
BUT there are still patterns behind whether the noun you’re learning is paired with a der (masculine), die (feminine), or das (neuter).
German noun genders are most often determined by either what category of thing we’re talking about OR — even more likely — how the word is spelled. Let’s dig in …
Learn Noun Groups
Memorizing categories of nouns that have a particular gender is obviously a big time-saver over memorizing each individual noun.
Here is a nearly exhaustive list of various categories of nouns that can be associated with one of the three genders with few exceptions:
- Male persons and animals
- days of the week, months of the year
- seasons, and most weather elements
- car makes
- monetary units
- non-German river names
- rocks and minerals
- mountains and mountain ranges
- and alcoholic and plant-based drinks
- Female persons and animals
- Rivers within Germany, Austria, Switzerland
- Airplanes, motorcycles, ships
- Numbers used as nouns
- Trees, fruits, and flowers
- Nouns formed from measurement or size adjectives
- Young persons and baby animals
- metals and chemical elements
- names of continents, cities, provinces, and most countries
- scientific units & measurements
- letters of the alphabet and music notes
- hotels, cafes, restaurants, and movie theaters
- other parts of speech used as nouns (gerunds, colors, languages, English -ing forms).
Learn Noun Forms
Learning the noun groups is very helpful, but memorizing noun forms is even more so!
Again, it is so much more efficient to memorize over-arching noun gender categories vs. the gender of each, isolated German noun.
Important note: Most of the time, the various guidelines of the noun groups and the noun forms peacefully coexist. But, if there’s a conflict, most noun form guidelines you’ll see below trump those for noun groups!
The important part of any noun (for determining its gender, anyway) is the end of it, or, its suffix. 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
With just the fewest of exceptions in any of these instances, you can know which gender to use when you come across nouns with these suffixes!
der die das & the German Case System
Now that you know how to look at a noun’s group or form to figure out if it’s a masculine, feminine, or neuter noun, your next step is to learn how to use der die das in a sentence.
And learning how to do this is best done while learning the German case system. Starting with the nominative case.
My guide on the nominative case will introduce you to all the terms & concepts you need to know in order to use der die das correctly.
These 2 guides ^^ will also walk you through a different chart for der die das that is much better to use than the conventional one you’ve seen here in this guide!
Last, but not least, whenever you use a German noun as the subject in your sentence, it will have to be paired with a verb (the action the subject is taking). Take the next steps in sentence-building by learning how to conjugate German verbs!
- der, die, das are three ways of saying ‘the’ in German.
- ALL nouns have a gender: either masculine (der), feminine (die), or neuter (das).
- You need to always know the gender of every noun you learn — otherwise, you won’t be able to use it correctly in a sentence.
- The gender of nouns is not determined by some quality of noun being “masculine”, “feminine”, or “neuter” — but, rather, by what noun group the noun belongs to (e.g. is a type of tree? Then it’s probably a feminine noun) OR what noun form it has.
- Noun forms are suffixes (word endings) that are associated with one gender over the other two, e.g. the suffixes -chen and -lein are always neuter, so nouns that end with either of these forms will be neuter nouns (that you learn with ‘das’).
- We learn der die das paired with nouns because der die das is how you say ‘the’ in the nominative case.
- Of the 4 German cases, the nominative is the most basic, neutral, and standard.
- The are additional ways to say ‘the’ in German: den, dem, des
- Picking out the correct form of ‘the’ to use at the right time is a matter of knowing the gender & case of the noun.
There are various principles & shortcuts that make learning how & when to use der die das (or den dem des, too!) much easier. Hint: the conventional approach is not the way to go!