How to Tell If a German Word Is Masculine, Feminine, or Neuter

German verb conjugation illustation.

Claire Cohen © 2018 ThoughtCo.

Most world languages have nouns that are either masculine or feminine. German goes them one better and adds a third gender: neuter. The masculine definite article (“the”) is der, the feminine is die, and the neuter form is das. German speakers have had many years to learn whether wagen (car) is der or die or das. It's der wagen, but for learners new to the language it's not so easy to know which form to use.

Forget linking gender to a specific meaning or concept. It's not the actual person, place, or thing that has gender in German, but the word that stands for the actual thing. That's why a “car” can be either das auto (neuter) or der wagen (masculine).

In German, the definite article is much more important than it is in English. For one thing, it is used more often. An English-speaker might say "nature is wonderful." In German, the article would also be included to say "die natur ist wunderschön." 

The indefinite article ("a" or "an" in English) is ein or eine in German. Ein basically means "one" and like the definite article, it indicates the gender of the noun it goes with (eine or ein). For a feminine noun, only eine can be used (in the nominative case). For masculine or neuter nouns, only ein is correct. This is a very important concept to learn. It is also reflected in the use of possessive adjectives such as sein(e) (his) or mein(e) (my), which are also called "ein-words."

Although nouns for people often follow natural gender, there are exceptions such as das mädchen (girl). There are three different German words for "ocean" or "sea," all with a different gender: der ozean, das meer, die see. Gender does not transfer well from one language to another. The word for "sun" is masculine in Spanish (el sol) but feminine in German (die sonne). A German moon is masculine (der mond), while a Spanish moon is feminine (la luna). It's enough to drive an English speaker crazy.

A good general rule for learning German vocabulary is to treat the article of a noun as an integral part of the word. Don't just learn garten (garden), learn der garten. Don't just learn tür (door), learn die tür. Not knowing a word's gender can lead to all sorts of other problems. For example, das tor is the gate or portal, while der tor is the fool. Are you meeting someone at the lake (am see) or by the sea (an der see)?

There are some hints that can help you remember the gender of a German noun. These guidelines work for many noun categories, but certainly not for all. For most nouns, you will just have to know the gender. If you're going to guess, guess der. The highest percentage of German nouns are masculine. Memorizing these rules will help you get gender right without having to guess—at least, not all the time!

Always Neuter (Sachlich)

Traditional German cottage.

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Articles for words in these categories are das (the) and ein (a or an):

  • Nouns ending in -chen or -lein: fräulein, häuschen, kaninchen, mädchen (unmarried woman, cottage, rabbit, girl/maiden).
  • Infinitives used as nouns (gerunds): das essen, das schreiben (eating, writing).
  • Almost all of the 112 known chemical elements (das aluminium, blei, kupfer, uran, zink, zinn, zirkonium, usw), except for six that are masculine: der kohlenstoff (carbon), der sauerstoff (oxygen), der stickstoff (nitrogen), der wasserstoff (hydrogen), der phosphor (phosphorus) and der schwefel (sulphur). Most of the elements end in -ium, a das ending.
  • Names of hotels, cafés, and theaters.
  • Names of colors used as nouns: das blau, das rot (blue, red).

Usually Neuter

Newborn baby being held by smiling woman.

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  • Geographic place names (towns, countries, continents): das Berlin, Deutschland, Brasilien, Afrika. But learn non-das countries, such as der Irak, der Jemen, die Schweiz, die Türkei, die USA [plur.])
  • Young animals and people: das baby, das küken (chick), but der junge (boy).
  • Most metals: aluminium, blei, kupfer, messing, zinn (aluminium, lead, copper, brass, tin/pewter). But it's die bronze, der stahl (bronze, steel).
  • Nouns ending in -o (often cognates from Latin): das auto, büro, kasino, konto (account), radio, veto, video. Exceptions include die avocado, die disko, der euro, der scirocco.
  • Fractions: das/ein viertel (1/4), das/ein drittel, but die hälfte (half).
  • Most nouns starting with ge-: genick, gerät, geschirr, geschlecht, gesetz, gespräch (back of the neck, device, dishes, sex/gender, law, conversation), but there are many exceptions, such as der gebrauch, der gedanke, die gefahr, der gefallen, der genuss, der geschmack, der gewinn, die gebühr, die geburt, die geduld, die gemeinde, and die geschichte.
  • Most borrowed (foreign) nouns ending in -mentressentiment, supplement (but der zement, der/das moment [2 diff. meanings]).
  • Most nouns ending in -nis: versäumnis (neglect), but die erlaubnis, die erkenntnis, die finsternis.
  • Most nouns ending in -tum or -umChristentum, königtum (Christianity, kingship), but der irrtum, der reichtum (error, wealth).

Always Masculine (Männlich)

Umbrellas on a rainy day in Germany.
Precipitation, such as der regen (rain) is always masculine.

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The article for words in these categories is always "der" (the) or "ein" (a or an).

  • Days, months, and seasons: Montag, Juli, sommer (Monday, July, summer). The one exception is das Frühjahr, another word for der Frühling, spring.
  • Points of the compass, map locations and winds: nordwest(en) (northwest), süd(en) (south), der föhn (warm wind out of the Alps), der scirocco (sirocco, a hot desert wind).
  • Precipitationregen, schnee, nebel (rain, snow, fog/mist). 
  • Names of cars and trains: der VW, der ICE, der Mercedes. However, motorbikes and aircraft are feminine.
  • Words ending in -ismusjournalismus, kommunismus, synchronismus (equal -ism words in English).
  • Words ending in -nerrentner, schaffner, zentner, zöllner (pensioner, [train] conductor, hundred-weight, customs collector). The feminine form adds -in (die rentnerin).
  • The basic "atmospheric" elements that end in -stoffder sauerstoff (oxygen), der stickstoff (nitrogen), der wasserstoff (hydrogen), plus carbon (der kohlenstoff). The only other elements (out of 112) that are masculine are der phosphor and der schwefel (sulfur). All of the other chemical elements are neuter (das aluminium, blei, kupfer, uran, zink, usw).

Usually (But Not Always) Masculine

Wine shop sign written in German.

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  • Agents (people who do something), most occupations and nationalities: der architekt, der arzt, der Deutsche, der fahrer, der verkäufer, der student, der täter (architect, physician, German [person], driver, salesman, student, perpetrator). The feminine form of these terms almost always ends in -in (die architektin, die ärztin, die fahrerin, die verkäuferin, die studentin, täterin, but die deutsche).
  • Nouns ending in -er, when referring to people (but die jungfer, die mutter, die schwester, die tochter, das fenster).
  • Names of alcoholic drinksder wein, der wodka (but das bier).
  • Names of mountains and lakes: der berg, der see (but Germany's highest peak, die Zugspitze follows the rule for the feminine ending -e, and die see is the sea).
  • Most rivers outside of Europe: der Amazonas, der Kongo, der Mississippi.
  • Most nouns ending in -ich, -ling, -istrettich, sittich, schädling, frühling, pazifist (radish, parakeet, pest/parasite, spring, pacifist).

Always Feminine (Weiblich)

A collection of German newspapers.
Die zietung (the newspaper) is always feminine.

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Feminine words take the article "die" (the) or "eine" (a or an).

  • Nouns ending in -heit, -keit, -tät, -ung, -schaft: die gesundheit, freiheit, schnelligkeit, universität, zeitung, freundschaft (health, freedom, quickness, university, newspaper, friendship). These suffixes usually have a corresponding English suffix, such as -ness (-heit, -keit), -ty (-tät), and -ship (-schaft).
  • Nouns ending in -iedrogerie, geographie, komödie, industrie, iIronie (often equal to words ending in -y in English).
  • Names of aircraft, ships, and motorbikes: die Boeing 747, die Titanic, die BMW (motorbike only; the car is der BMW). The die comes from die maschine, which can mean plane, motorbike, and engine. Ships are traditionally referred to as "she" in English.
  • Nouns ending in -ikdie grammatik, grafik, klinik, musik, panik, physik.
  • Borrowed (foreign) nouns ending in -ade, -age, -anz, -enz, -ette, -ine, -ion, -turparade, blamage (shame), bilanz, distanz, frequenz, serviette (napkin), limonade, nation, konjunktur (economic trend). Such words often resemble their English equivalent. A rare 'ade' exception is der nomade.
  • Cardinal numbers: eine eins, eine drei (a one, a three).

Usually (But Not Always) Feminine

A field of daisies close up.
Daisies are feminine in German.

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  • Nouns ending with -in that pertain to female people, occupations, nationalities: Amerikanerin, studentin (female American, student), but der Harlekin and also many non-people words such as das benzin, der urin (gasoline/petrol, urine).
  • Most nouns ending in -eecke, ente, grenze, pistole, seuche (corner, duck, border, pistol, epidemic), but der Deutsche, das ensemble, der friede, der junge ([the] German, ensemble, peace, boy).
  • Nouns ending in -eipartei, schweinerei (party [political], dirty trick/mess), but das ei, der papagei (egg, parrot).
  • Most types of flowers and trees: birke, chrysantheme, eiche, rose (birch, chrysanthemum, oak, rose), but der ahorn, (maple), das gänseblümchen (daisy), and the word for tree is der baum.
  • Borrowed (foreign) nouns ending in -isse, -itis, -ive: hornisse, initiative (hornet, initiative).

Using Das in German

One easy aspect of German nouns is the article used for noun plurals. All German nouns, regardless of gender, become die in the nominative and accusative plural. So a noun such as das jahr (year) becomes die jahre (years) in the plural. Sometimes the only way to recognize the plural form of a German noun is by the article, for example das fenster (window), die fenster (windows).

Ein can't be plural, but other so-called ein-words can: keine (none), meine (my), seine (his), etc. That's the good news. The bad news is that there are about a dozen ways to form the plural of German nouns, only one of which is to add an "s" as in English.