German Articles: Your Essential Guide

If you’re searching for info on German articles, it means two things:

  1. You’re serious about learning German
  2. You’ve hit the same roadblock that every German student does!

German would be a heckuva lot easier to learn if we didn’t have to worry about tricky little topics such as articles, am I right?

But we couldn’t say anything without the words the and a, for example. So articles are a must!

The good news is that there is an efficient, effective way to learn all these German articles. It doesn’t have to be tedious, overwhelming, or even very time-consuming. Intrigued?

You’ll learn the following:

  • all types of German articles
  • how to use articles in sentences
  • why conventional teaching of articles is all wrong
  • how to avoid using 10 different articles charts!
  • the declensions all articles need
  • a better term than articles (sneakpeek: determiners)
  • and more!

What You Need To Know

German is classified as a different type of language from English: German is an inflected language and English is an analytic language.

Part of that difference means that, in German, we must learn slightly different ways to say the same words — for example, different articles!

Articles are little (but important) words such as ‘the’ and ‘a’.

There are six slightly different ways to say each of them in German.

I know that can be hard to compute for us English speakers. We have just the and a/an. 

That’s 3 English options to 12 German ones. So, we’ve got some work to do! 😊

What Are Articles?

Ooh. Tough question! The true (but unsatisfying) answer is that there can be a lot of overlapping vocabulary here. So, if you’re feeling confused, you’re not alone!

Generally speaking, what we can say for sure is that the categorization “articles” will always refer to definite articles (the 6 ways of saying ‘the’ in German) and to indefinite articles (the 6 ways of saying ‘a’ in German).

Beyond that, the waters get murky. Some people use the same term ‘articles’ to refer to other words come in front of nouns (e.g. this, that, some, all, etc.).

But you’ll also see the terms determiners, pronouns, and even adjectives coming up in discussion, with all the lines of definition between them very frustratingly blurred.

Personally, I advocate for ditching the term articles altogether (read more below!). Instead, I refer to determiners AND pronouns AND adjectives all as very clearly different types of words.

More on these useful distinctions in a bit!

Definite articles (der, die, das, etc.)

When a German learner looks for ‘articles’, one of the first things you’ll be introduced to is a chart like this:

Or maybe this somewhat improved version:

Either way, we have a chart that tells us specifically how to say ’the’ in German — six different ways! 

How do you pick out the correct variant of ‘the’? 

In order to pick out the version of the that you need, you have to know two things:

  1. What is the gender of the noun?
  2. What is the case of the noun?

For example, if you want to say the book in German, you have to know that book (Buch) is a neuter noun. Not masculine or feminine (and plural would obviously be books, and that’s different).

With this much information, you know that you need the das, dem, or des version of the neuter ‘the’.

Figuring out which case Buch needs to be in is the 2nd step that then whittles these three options ^^ down to just one!

I walk you through determining noun case in the Digging Deeper section below.

Indefinite articles (ein, eine, einen, etc.)

It’s all well-and-good to learn how to say the in German. And maybe you’re thinking that one chart wasn’t so bad.

But there’s more!

Now you have to learn how to say a (and ‘not a/any’) in German, which is also obviously pretty important.

Of course, in conventional German-learning, there’s another chart for that:

Here you have the same uber-traditional version and a somewhat improved, more ‘modern’ version of the chart. But it’s a lot of tedious memorization either way.

And, of course, just as with the definite articles, you still have to learn how to know the gender and case of every noun in order to actually use the charts. Yikes.

Demonstratives (der-words)

At this point, you might already be feeling a bit overwhelmed. But we’ve barely even gotten started!

Now you need to learn about a 3rd type of articles called demonstratives or der-words, which are words such as every, this, that, many, etc. as in every mouse, this cat, that dog, many snakes.

Most common der-words:

all- (all)
welch- (which)
dies- (this)
jed- (every),
jen- (that)
einig- (some)
wenig- (few)
manch- (many a, some)
solch(-) (such [a])
and all other determiners!

TIP: if the determiner is not an ein-word (<-- defined later), it’s a der-word by default.

Der-word declensions

Hang on, now! What are declensions?

You’ve already seen them in the definite article and indefinite article charts. But here’s a definition for you:

Declensions are endings that get put onto words (including, but not limited to, articles) so that they reflect the gender & case of the noun the follows.

Der-words all take what are called strong declensions <– rather implies that there’s at least one other type of declensions … possibly weak declensions. 😉

For example, if you want to talk about this book (‘this’ is a der-word), you’d have these options:

nominative: dieses Buch
accusative: dieses Buch
dative: diesem Buch
genitive: dieses Buchs

NERD ALERT: Demonstratives are also called der-words (<-- a term we will continue to use!) because of the similarities of these strong declensions (that der-words use) to the different ways of saying ‘the’. Hint: it’s all about the very last letter (regardless of what different vowels might precede it!).

Possessives

If you’re thinking that this topic of articles is getting progressively harder, you’re right — it sure is.

When it comes to possessives, we have a two-fold problem:

  1. There are two different types (keep reading)
  2. There are inconsistent labeling systems (pronouns? adjectives? determiners? articles?)

Possessives indicate possession, of course, as in that’s MY book.

But, we can also say that book is MINE. 

My and mine. What is the deal with that?

  • The one type — my — comes in front of a noun.
  • The other type — mine — stands by itself, not in front of a noun.

German has the same two types! And YES, there are different charts for that.

You start with the same ‘root’ word, for example: mein (my/mine).

‘Root’ Form of Possessives

mein- (my/mine)
dein- (your/yours)
sein- (his)
ihr- (her/hers, also their/theirs, also Your/Yours [formal]) → I know! Yikes!
unser- (our/ours)
euer/eur- (y’all, y’alls)

But if you want the ‘my’ version, you need to use the declensions (or endings) from this chart, which is for ein-words (vs. der-words –more on this soon!):

If you want the mine version, you’d use the same strong declensions chart from the demonstratives above, or maybe you’d see it all spelled out like this:

If all these charts (and these are just some of them!!!) aren’t making you feel even the slightest bit burnt out on German, that amazes me. I speak German fluently (and so don’t need to use any charts anymore), but just talking about all of this makes my head ache.

Articles, the smarter way

Traditionally — as you’ve gotten a taste for above! — German students are introduced to lots and lots of separate charts for all the various words that come in front of nouns.

Not only would you have those 4 (or 5) charts from above thrown at you, but you’d also have to worry about these charts:

Relative/Demonstrative Pronouns
Possessive Pronouns
Indefinite Pronouns
Strong Adjectives, No Determiner
Weak Adjectives (With Determiner)
Mixed Adjectives (with ein-word Determiners)

That’s a total of 10 charts with just itty bitty changes that somehow you have to remember.

At this point, you might be thinking that German SUCKS.

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, redefine / recategorize some terms (keep reading!) and mention a handful of special exceptions (also coming up!).

The simplified All-In-One Chart you’ll discover below covers all our bases and gives you a solid foundation in German that doesn’t involve tons of mind-numbing, overwhelming, unnecessary charts.

Now, THAT sounds like something I can get behind!

Der-words & Ein-words Charts, Compared

So you can see what I mean about all the separate charts having more in common than not, compare the der-word (a.k.a. strong declensions) chart & chart for ein-words (<– NOT the weak declensions chart … that’s something else and we’ll talk about it later).

Can you see the similarities and differences?

That’s it! Except for in 3 spots, they are exactly the same.

The spots where the declensions are different are:

  • masculine nominative
  • neuter nominative
  • neuter accusative

Now, look back at the definite article chart and the two possessives charts and you’ll see that they line up the same way! All those declensions are the same except for just the same three spots.

So, now the golden question: if there are just THREE exception spots (<–out of 16, not bad!), why on earth do we have to study so many different charts?

I thought you’d never ask. That’s exactly it! YOU DON’T.

ALL of those 10 charts (including the 3 on adjectives that I cover here and the charts on pronouns here) fit together nicely with primarily overlapping material.

All-In-One Chart combines both charts (and MORE)!

Now, look again at the der-words and ein-words charts with this new All-In-One Chart underneath them for easy reference.



The All-In-One Chart overlays them both!

All of the declensions that are shared in common are listed under  for strong declensions.

What about our 3 exception spots? Those are taken care of, too!

There is a  listed in the same three exception spots where the indefinite & possessives article charts are not identical to the definite & demonstrative articles:

  • masculine nominative
  • neuter nominative
  • neuter accusative

In these three spots, the indefinite article, the possessives, and a couple other words don’t take declensions. More on that soon!

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

Digging Deeper

In this section, you will learn how to master declensions with the All-In-One Declensions Chart including learning about:

  • how to determine noun gender
  • how to determine noun case
  • basic declensions patterns
  • types of words that need declensions
  • der-words vs. ein-words
  • types of declensions

You’ll also learn why you can forget about articles and what terminology / concept to focus on instead! Let’s start there.

Forget About Articles

In order to properly use the All-In-One Declensions Chart, you need to forget all about the different charts for definite and indefinite articles, demonstratives, and possessives!!!

Remember instead that all of these words are simply determiners (that, of course, each have their own distinct meanings of the, a, this, my, etc.).

Determiners is a big, overarching category that includes all the different types of ‘articles’ plus a bunch of other words (e.g. pronouns) that all take the same declensions in the same way (even if their function within the sentence is different, as in the case between determiners & pronouns).

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 as in ‘many apples’ or ‘this apple’

ALL determiners are split into JUST two groups: ein-words & der-words (<– you’ll find out why this is an important distinction soon)!

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

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.

All determiners — because they come in front of nouns as part of the noun phrase — need to have declensions. The only other type of word that needs declensions are adjectives, covered separately.

Types of Declensions

Instead of stressing out over many types of kinda-different, kinda-the-same declensions, when we cleverly combine it all, there are actually only two 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).

You’ve already seen an example of the conventional strong declensions chart:

And the conventional weak declensions(and also a mixed declensions chart, that is part-strong, part-weak) applies only to adjectives, not determiners.

Using the All-In-One Declensions Chart

Instead of memorizing chart after chart of the many possible solutions, we can simply memorize the formula which lets us ‘plug in’ any word that needs a declension.

We can replace ALL of the conventional charts listed above.

How The Chart Works

What all the charts on that long list above have in common are the very last letters that get put onto the words.

And those letters (-r, -e, -s, -n, -m) are the declensions or endings. We add them to the ends of determiners & adjectives to ‘flag’ the roles of the nouns that follow.

Initially referencing individual charts that add the declensions onto the determiners for you might arguably make sense for a very, very new German learner.

BUT it is a crutch that will hold you back in your German studies in the long-run.

So, I strongly recommend working with the All-In-One Chart as soon as possible!

Instead of attempting to memorize those 10 charts (up to 160 words!!!), you can learn smarter, not harder by memorizing just the declensions themselves.

How to Pick the Right Declension

When you work with the full All-In-One Declensions Chart (I’m sharing just the relevant portion with you in this article!), there are additional directions-for-use that go into it.

But when it’s simply a matter of picking the right declension for your determiner (so, we’re saving the discussion on adjectives for another day), then the process is extra easy.

You need to know:

  • the gender of the noun you’re using
  • which case it’s supposed to be in
  • if the determiner you’re using is an ein-word in one of the 3 exception spots

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 Hund (the dog [masculine])
die Katze (the cat [feminine])
das Pferd (the horse [neuter])

BUT there is actually a lot of pattern behind the German noun gender system — and knowing those patterns can save you a lot of time, guesswork, and mistakes.

We can categorize German nouns according to group or form.

Noun Group Examples (<– click for full list!):

Masculine (der):

  • Male persons and animals
  • rocks and minerals
  • monetary units

Feminine (die):

  • Female persons and animals
  • Rivers within German, Austria, Switzerland
  • Trees, fruits, and flowers

Neuter (das):

  • Young persons and baby animals
  • names of continents, cities, provinces, and most countries
  • letters of the alphabet and music notes
Noun Form Examples (<– click for full list!):

The end of nouns, or, the suffix frequently 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.

Chart on how nouns work in a sentence with their cases, roles, and description.

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!
  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 declension’s 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 (note: patterns #3 & #4 aren’t covered here and can be saved for a later date in your German-learning!):

BONUS: Now you have a sneak-peek into which declensions adjectives take in those 2 declension patterns, too! 😀

All-in-One Declensions Chart

Learning how to work with the All-In-One Chart will still save you heaps of time and energy compared to working with ten different charts!

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 replaces10 charts, we have to boil declensions down to the essentials that are all shared in common: 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.

Exceptions (i.e. When NOT to add an ‘e’):

  • if an ‘e’ is the listed declension itself, you don’t need to add another one!
    • feminine & plural nominative & accusative
  • if using the chart to form ‘the’, remember to use different vowels (not ‘e’) here:
    • feminine nominative & accusative: die, use an ‘i’
  • also plural nominative & accusative: die
  • neuter nominative & accusative: das, with an ‘a’

Click for a complete discussion of this chart detail in my guide on declensions.

Examples Using The All-In-One Declensions Chart

In this guide on adjectives and this guide on pronouns, we’ll thoroughly discuss how the All-In-One Chart replaces those charts from our scary list of 10 from way above.

But now, let’s look at specific examples of the other determiners (that you may hear referred to as articles) can be ‘plugged in’ to the chart to give you the results you need!

Definite Articles (‘the’)

Let’s take the noun Tür (door) and plug it into chart!

Tür is a feminine noun — die Tür.

If we put it into each of the possible cases, it would look like this:

nominative: die Tür
accusative: die Tür
dative: der Tür
genitive: der Tür

Notice the strong declension each time, of course!

Then, for example, let’s say we want to make door plural → Türen (doors) and re-plug it in under the plurals column:

nominative: die Türen
accusative: die Türen
dative: den Türen
genitive: der Türen

Here’s another example on how to use the determiner ‘the’ with the All-In-One chart.

Indefinite Article (‘a’)

Now, let’s work with a masculine noun: Teller (plate) and plug it into the 4 cases:

nominative: ein Teller
accusative: einen Teller
dative: einem Teller
genitive: eines Tellers

Do you see the one (of 3) exceptions spots at play here? YES, in the nominative! We need to use just ein Teller, with no declension on the ein! But then in the rest of the spots, we’re back to our regular, strong declensions we always put on whatever determiner we’re using. Nice work.

NOTE: Read here if you’re curious why there is an ‘s’ on the end of Teller in the genitive.

Of course, we can’t mix the determiner ‘a’ with a plural noun (we can say ‘a plates’), so we have to skip that!

Demonstratives (der-words)

I gave you a good list of der-words above (and there are more!), but let’s look at the common jed- (every) now and pair it with Teller still.

nominative: jeder Teller
accusative: jeden Teller
dative: jedem Teller
genitive: jedes Tellers

Since jed- is not an ein-word (obviously, right? :p), we don’t have to worry about any possible exceptions — just strong declensions straight through!

Possessives

OK, so here we need to look at examples for our two types of possessives. Remember, we have the one variety (my, your, our, etc.) that comes in front of nouns and the other (mine, yours, ours, etc.) that stands alone.

The possessives that come in front of nouns could most accurately be called possessive determiners. They belong to our category of ein-words! That means they will take strong declensions except in our 3 exceptions spots.

Possessive Determiners Example:

Let’s say the phrase my pillow in every case. Pillow is Kissen (a neuter noun). And our ‘root’ possessive determiner (that is the basis for both the possessives my AND mine) is mein.

nominative: mein Kissen
accusative: mein Kissen
dative: meinem Kissen
genitive: meines Kissens

Do you see the regular, strong declensions in the dative & genitive cases? But the nominative and accusative cases are two of our three exception spots!

Possessive Pronouns Example:

Technically, the best term for the ‘stand-alone’ possessives is possessive pronouns (because pronouns take the place of nouns / noun phrases).

For example, instead of saying That pillow is my pillow (<–redundant!), we can use the possessive pronoun mine and say That pillow is mine. The possessive pronoun mine replaces the noun phrase my pillow.

Whenever we use a possessive pronoun, the strong declension is needed!

nominative: meins
accusative: meins
dative: meinem
genitive: meines

So, that is how you’d say mine for a neuter noun (e.g. Kissen) in each case. Do you see it?

Main Takeaways

  1. German is an inflected language that uses declensions to indicate the case of each noun (who is doing what to whom) in any given sentence.
  2. Since German nouns also have gender, this feature also has to be taken into account when figuring out the right declensions to use in each situation.
  3. It is specifically determiners & adjectives (the words that come in front of nouns)that take declensions that indicate the noun’s gender & case.
  4. It is more accurate to refer to articles as determiners. Determiners are little words (the, a, some, few, etc.) that tell us which one or how many.
  5. There are strong and weak declensions AND also 3 instances when no declension is used.
  6. All possible declensions are r-, n, -e, -m, and -s.Which one you use when depends on if your noun is masculine, feminine, neuter, or plural AND whether it’s in the nominative, accusative, dative, or genitive case AND which declensions pattern you’re using (e.g. do you need to put declensions on just a determiner? just an adjective? on both? etc.)
  7. Determiners always take the strong declension except in those 3 instances!
  8. Declensions follow two standard patterns, and then there’s a 3rd exception pattern that occurs in just 3 instances when specifically an ein-word determiner is used.
  9. Rather than studying 10 different charts of various words with their attached declensions, you can memorize just ONE chart of declensions only and learn the simple rules for how to know when to use which one.

Study Tips

  1. If you are a super-duper newbie, I could see using the conventional declensions charts (with the declensions put on the desired word, e.g. the, for you) for a while. But not forever! Switch over to using the All-In-One Chart as soon as possible. The conventional charts help you crawl forward, but the All-In-One Chart lets you run!
  2. Practice using the right terminology: forget about articles, and use the term determiner instead. Make sure that you learn the ‘root’ determiner so that all you have to do it plug it in anywhere in the chart to get the answer you’re looking for!
  3. Memorize the short list of ein-words: ein, kein, irgendein, and all of the possessive determiners (<– possessives USED as determiners vs. used as pronouns). Remember that EVERY other determiner (the most common and also the most rarely used!) will be a der-word by default, which means it will ALWAYS take the strong declension — no exceptions!
  4. Drill into your head the THREE exception spots on the chart where it actually matters if your determiner is an ein-word or not: masculine nominative, neuter nominative, neuter accusative. Invest extra practice into writing sentences with masculine / neuter nouns in those cases so that you get super-used to the difference between using the strong declension for the der-words and no declension for the ein-words!
  5. Write write write. Write lots of noun phrases, lots of complete sentences. Be repetitive at first, always reusing the same nouns, but changing up the determiner and/or case. Be systematic. Keep the phrases / sentences boring on purpose because you’re focusing on the grammar. Once the grammar is properly seeped through to your very core, then you can get into creative writing!