If I had a penny for every time someone asked what the score is with the articles [der Artikel; pl. die Artikel], I’d—well, actually—I wouldn’t really have a lot because a penny is sod all!
This is quite a big subject, because it’s not just which letters [der Buchstabe; pl. die Buchstaben] come after ein, rather, there’s also kein, the definite article [der bestimmte Artikel], the cases [der Fall; pl. die Fälle], and, basically, declensions [die Beugung] to deal with. It’s really quite a lot. Brace yourself for some uncensored, hardcore learning.
Disclaimer: rated S for Supervision, because you’ll need to be medically supervised while you read the following material, in the event you go into shock. You continue at your own risk. Taut with Thought takes no responsibility for any brain damage.
Now that the legal business is out of the way, we can begin, but don’t worry, you’ll probably be fine.
As you probably know, English has the definite article and the indefinite article [der unbestimmte Artikel], which is quite a normal language quality. German is no different, … kind of. In English, the definitive article is the and the indefinite article is a or an. Since we don’t have genders [das Geschlecht; pl. die Geschlechter], they just stay their same boring selves, never really grabbing any real interest from anyone, and living a life of utter mundanity. You can stop crying now.
This is quite a basic part of the topic, which I’m going through to make sure there’s an understanding from the get-go, so if you’re not that new to German, bear with me.
German has 3 genders:
- Male [männlich] such as der Hund.
- Female [weiblich] such as die Katze.
- Neuter [sächlich] such as das Auto.
This trips many German learners up as they struggle to remember the right gender for the right word; I won’t go into that one as that’s a different, albeit somewhat related topic.
If a cat is die Katze, it’s eine Katze. If a dog is der Hund, it’s ein Hund. If a car is das Auto, it’s ein Auto. You might have wondered why der Hund isn’t einer Hund. Well, sometimes it is, but not in the nominative [der Nominativ] which translates to the English sentences [der Satz; pl. die Sätze] formed like this, “I am a cat.” The cat is a cat, it doesn’t have anything, it doesn’t do anything, and it doesn’t even affect anything, because it’s simply a cat. I am a person. You are a dog. This is green. It’s all nominative because nothing else really happens.
It’s the same idea with German. Ich bin ein Mensch. Du bist ein Hund. Dies ist grün. It’s all nominative. Don’t worry about the dies, that varies with gender and case too and translates to this.
Let’s bump it up a gear. You have declensions.
“Ich habe den schnellen Hund.”
Why is it den? The reason is because to simply have something [etwas haben] requests the accusative [der Akkusativ] case. I have a dog. It would have been the nominative but haben got involved, it all got flipped; turned upside down. So, you might have realised that der words [das Wort; pl. die Worte/Wörter] get turned to den when in the accusative, and you’d have assumed correctly.
So what happens if you have a dog, rather than the dog? Some of you will have already guessed, but it does in-fact get changed to einen. Here are the indefinite article usages in the accusative, with the 3 genders, including the plural [die Mehrzahl/der Plural], to which, by the way, is almost always referred as die:
- Male: “Ich habe einen Hund.”
- Female: “Ich habe eine Katze.”
- Neuter: “Ich habe ein Auto.”
- Plural: “Ich habe Hunde.”
“Ich habe einen Hund.”
It’s still the accustive, regardless of the article, because remember, etwas haben requests the accustive.
OK, so this is probably weak-sauce simple to you and you’re right about ready to give up and eat a dictionary in hopes of gaining magical linguistic abilities. Well, first and foremost, it’s not possible—there’s not enough flavor.
The 4 cases you come across in German goes as follows:
- Nominative [Nominativ] such as, “Ich bin ein Mann.”
- Accusative [Akkusativ] such as, “Ich habe die Schokolade.”
- Dative [Dativ] such as, “Ich schreibe mit meiner rechten Hand.”
- Genitive [Genitiv] such as, “Das ist die Schokolade meines Freundes.”
I realise I may have lost you with the dative and genitive, but bear with me here. It might sound daunting but when you talk or type in German, you have to take into account the gender, the case, and the declensions.
“Ich habe eine grüne Katze.”
Do you have a green cat? If you do, you should probably stop pouring green paint over it. This is a nice, simple sentence that translates to “I have a green cat.” You already know that the cat is die Katze, and I presume you figured out that a cat is eine Katze based on the information provided. With this in mind, to have a green cat becomes eine grüne Katze haben— if you’re confused about that example, haben is written at the end because like saying “to have a cat”—and is also in the accusative. There is a declination and that’s the adjective [Adjektiv] grüne. Here is a similar sentence as above in the 4 cases:
- Nominative: “Es ist eine grüne Katze.”
- Accusative: “Ich habe eine grüne Katze.”
- Dative: “Ich spiele mit der grünen Katze.”
- Genitive: “Ich sehe die Katze meines Freundes.”
Dative and genitive is where most of the action happens, in my opinion. Genitive was the hardest case for me to get my head around, with dative being the 2nd hardest case.
So, with all of this said, as one large prefix to the title, you need to know when to use ein, eine, einer, eines, einem, or einen. So I’ll wander over to the general gist, because you’ve probably had enough of all this bush-beating.
The nominative for each gender using the indefinite article:
- “Es ist eine Katze.”
- “Es ist ein Auto.”
- “Es ist ein Hund.”
The accusative for each gender using the indefinite article:
- “Ich habe eine Katze.”
- “Ich habe ein Auto.”
- “Ich habe einen Hund.”
The dative for each gender using the indefinite article:
- “Du spielst mit einer Katze.”
- “Du spielst mit einem Hund.”
- “Du spielst mit einem Auto.”
The genitive for each gender using the indefinite article:
- “Die Knochen einer Katze.”
- “Die Knochen eines Hundes.”
- “Die Knochen eines Autos.” (don’t ask, …)
So there you have it, but what happens when you flip it around to a negative? Well, it’s basically the same, but you stick a k on the front of the indefinite article, for example “ich habe keine Autos,” “ich sehe keine Katze,””ich spiele mit keinem Hund,” and “das Auto gehört zu keiner.” OK, the last one was me cheating because I couldn’t think of a genitive example for kein, if there even is such a structure of words.
I know what you’re thinking: “Why didn’t you just tell me that right at the start?!” You’re probably right, but I like to add information tied to the primary bit of knowledge because, at least with me, it helps me better understand and remember something, so too will it perhaps help you.
I hope I did this topic justice. If I left something quite big out please let me know in the comments below and I’ll consider a part two to this entry.