Have you ever heard the story of John F. Kennedy accidentally declaring himself as a jelly doughnut due to a tiny grammatical error that involved a German article?
Articles are short little words, often overlooked and underrated but they can make a big difference - as JFK would have told you after his famous speech in 1963’s Berlin.
In English, no matter what noun you’re using, the definite article is “the” and the indefinite article is “a” (or “an”) but not all languages are that straightforward as you’ll know it you’re a German learner,
The big difference is that German articles change with the noun’s gender, number and case, so there are many variations.
Some of these might surprise you - like the fact that the word for "girl" in German, "Mädchen," has the neutral article "das," even though it refers to a female. These linguistic gems are bound to keep you on your toes. So grab a pen and your notebook as we teach you all about genders, the difference between definite and indefinite articles in German and shed light on the jelly doughnut debacle.
What are articles in German grammar?
German articles are small words that accompany nouns. They change according to three factors:
- Gender (masculine, feminine, neuter)
- Number (singular, plural)
- Case (nominative, accusative, dative, genitive)
When a word changes based on these factors, it’s called declension.
German declensions are changes in the form of nouns, pronouns, adjectives, and articles to indicate their grammatical case, gender, and number. These changes help to convey the function of a word within a sentence.
In German, there are three grammatical genders:
Two grammatical numbers:
- Singular (One)
- Plural (Multiple)
And four grammatical cases:
- Nominative (the subject)
- Accusative (the direct object)
- Dative (the indirect object)
- Genitive (showing possession)
What is a definite article in German?
A definite article in German is the article that accompanies a specific noun. If you’re referring to a known person or item in English, you use the article “the”.
English: These are the flowers my friend gave me.
German: Dies sind die Blumen, die mir mein Freund geschenkt hat.
In German, there are three definite articles:
- der (masculine)
- die (feminine)
- das (neuter)
These also change with number and case as the following chart shows:
Definite articles chart in German
Here's the same chart with matching nouns: “der Mann” (the man: male), “die Frau” (the woman: female) and “das Tier” (the animal: neuter).
|Single||Der Mann||Den Mann||Dem Mann||Des Mannes|
|Die Frau||Die Frau||Der Frau||Der Frau|
|Das Tier||Das Tier||Dem Tier||Des Tiers|
|Plural||Die Männer||Die Männer||Den Männern||Der Männer|
|Die Frauen||Die Frauen||Den Frauen||Der Frauen|
|Die Tiere||Die Tiere||Den Tieren||Der Tiere|
Don’t get discouraged! That might look like a lot of “der, die, das” with different meanings but you’ll get the hang of it. Just make sure you study the charts and learn the correct gender of each new word as they’re usually hard to guess.
What is an indefinite article in German?
An indefinite article in German is the article that accompanies a non-specific noun. In English, if you’re referring to an unknown person or item, you use the article “a” or “an” if the noun starts with a vowel.
English; I just received a flower bouquet and I don’t know who gave it to me.
German: Ich habe gerade einen Blumenstrauß bekommen und ich weiß nicht, wer ihn geschickt hat.
In this case, it’s the first time you’re referring to the bouquet, so it’s indefinite.
In German, there are three indefinite articles:
- ein (masculine)
- eine (feminine)
- ein (neuter)
Indefinite articles chart in German
Notice that indefinite articles have no plural form in English or German:
|Single||Ein Mann||Einen Mann||Einem Mann||Eines Mannes|
|Eine Frau||Eine Frau||Einer Frau||Einer Frau|
|Ein Tier||Ein Tier||Einem Tier||Eines Tiers|
As you saw, indefinite nouns have no plural. So when referring to a category or a group, no article is used:
For example, "Hunde sind treu" (Dogs are loyal).
There are some other instances when no article is used with a noun in German.
- With proper nouns like names of people or places
For example, "Ich besuche Mila" (I'm visiting Mila).
- With indefinite quantities
For example, "Ich habe Zeit" (I have time) or "Sie hat Geld" (She has money).
- With general expressions of time
For example, ”nächste Woche" (next week) or "letztes Jahr" (last year).
- With certain fixed expressions
For example, "Zähne putzen" (to brush one’s teeth) or "zu Bett gehen" (to go to bed).
- After the prepositions “ohne” (without), “um” (around), and “bei” (at) when referring to a general idea
For example, "ohne Grund" (without reason) or "bei Gelegenheit" (at some opportunity).
- Using “spielen” (to play) in combination with a musical instrument or sport
For example, “Ich spiele Gitarre” (I play the guitar) or “Ich spiele Tennis” (I play tennis).
- When stating a general affiliation or nationality
For example, “Ich bin Tennisspielerin” (I’m a tennis player), "Ich bin Deutsche” (I’m German) or “Ich bin Berliner” (I’m a resident of Berlin).
Ich bin ein Berliner
On June 26, 1963, John F. Kennedy gave a speech in West Berlin. In a city separated into East and West by the wall, he talked about the struggles of the Soviet-controlled East and stated his support for West Germany, expressing solidarity with the city and famously proclaiming “Ich bin ein Berliner”.
In English you might say “I’m a New Yorker” but as you know now, in German, you generally leave out the article for such statements. That means a native speaker wouldn’t say “I’m a Berliner”.
They would just say “Ich bin Berliner” (male) or “Ich bin Berlinerin” (female).
Obviously, little mistakes like this happen when you’re speaking a foreign language. The only reason this became a funny story is that a “Berliner” is also the name of a popular German dish: the delicious jelly-filled doughnut. Some people argued that JFK’s sentence would have been grammatically correct if he had in fact been talking about that dish.
If you ever wondered how to say “I’m a cookie” in German, for example, the answer is “Ich bin ein Keks” - and as you can see, here you do use the article.
Of course it was clear from context that JFK was just trying to create a feeling of belonging and connectedness with the city of Berlin. Needless to say, he was a president. Not a jelly doughnut.
Mistake your way to mastery
This just goes to show that context and a healthy portion of common sense can get you very far when communicating with or as a foreign language learner. Sometimes it’s easier to guess what someone is trying to say than it is to understand.
Little mistakes are inevitable and easily forgiven - but if we’re honest, making mistakes usually makes for better stories. So just have fun with it either way!
Visit our comprehensive German language blog for more fun facts and stories about German history and culture.