October 6, 2010 | German

The Capricious German “The”

Definite articles stymie students of German.

One of the great gifts of the English language is the word “the.” No matter what, the definite article is “the.” Subject? The. Object? The. Plural? The. Gender? Irrelevant. The the the the the.

Head over to German, however, and your “the” options multiply. With three genders (masculine, neuter, and feminine) and four cases (nominative, accusative, dative, and genitive), plus plural forms, the non-fluent speaker of German has quite a few possibilities to sort through in his head each time he arrives at a “the” situation. Which is often.

German Definite Articles: Scary

German Definite Articles: Scary

Table of English Definite Articles

Table of English Definite Articles

Here’s the mental process you have to go through to get your German “the” right:

  1. Is the noun that is currently staring me down masculine, neuter, or feminine?
  2. Is it singular or plural?
  3. Is my noun nominative, accusative, dative, or genitive? Let’s use the noun “woman” as an example. The four cases would be represented, respectively, by the following: “the woman studied German” (“woman” is the subject, so nominative), “German frightened the woman” (“woman” is the direct object, so accusative), “studying German gave the woman bratwurst cravings” (as the indirect object, “woman” is dative), and “the woman’s German was not all one might expect from a former German major” (“woman’s” is possessive, and therefore genitive case). 

As a non-native sort-of-speaker of German, I don’t know how terrible it sounds to native speakers when people constantly churn out incorrect definite articles. I do know that when I feel a definite article approaching in a German sentence, I tend to slow down and run through the above questions, thus making it annoying to talk to me.

Since I can’t remember gender for a healthy number of German nouns, my ability to produce correct articles is rather limited. One tiny example of German gender challenges: the word “girl” in German is not feminine, as one would expect, but neuter. 

On another subject: I got my German test results today. I took these on October 1, the first day of my German review month. The results were not bad. Definitely better than I expected.

For my testing needs, I have been using ALTA Language Services, whose client list includes Delta, John Deere, Pfizer, Bank of America, and many other large companies. On both my oral and my written German tests, I scored a 10 out of a possible 12 points. This is considered “advanced plus.”

However, just as a point of comparison, I scored slightly higher than that on my Italian tests after just three months of studying, and I mean total studying, in my entire life.

I am going to retest at the end of October. My goal: to raise my German scores to 11 by Halloween.

Comments (3)

Julie • Posted on Sun, October 10, 2010 - 8:02 pm EST

It’s like I’ve always said: The English are simple.

Ed Alton • Posted on Tue, October 26, 2010 - 1:20 pm EST

Made me think of this classic Simpsons moment:

For some reason it only exists on YouTube in German… but maybe that’s better anyway?

Ben Kreider • Posted on Sun, November 25, 2018 - 6:20 pm EST

As a fellow native English speaker who speaks German, I enjoyed this post.  It’s true-English speakers are spoiled when it comes to definite articles.  Indefinite articles can be tricky in German as well!

I’ve found Germans to be pretty forgiving when it comes to articles.  I lived in Germany a total of about 1.5 years and have visited many times, and I have found that there are a good number of words for which even native Germans may not know the articles, for what it’s worth…

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