Is Learning the Gender of German Nouns Necessary?

YES. When you start out learning German, you might be tempted to take shortcuts. The most popular shortcuts are ignoring cases, not learning the gender of nouns, and not learning the plural form of nouns.

By taking shortcuts like this, you might save a bit of time, but you’re setting yourself up for massive failure later on. Knowing the gender of a noun is absolutely essential in order to use that word correctly in a sentence. There are so many things that rely on gender – which articles to use, how to change the noun in different cases, which adjective endings to use, which pronouns to use. It’s an absolute nightmare – unless you know the noun’s gender. (I mean, it’s still a bit of a nightmare, just a much less scary one.)

When I started learning, I thought I could just skip the gender and learn more nouns instead. I figured I would just pick up the gender later on. I thought it was a waste of time. In fact, learning the genders of nouns isn’t a waste of time at all. It’s one of the easiest and most effective things you can do to speak German more accurately.

Don’t be this guy

Words where the gender is especially important

As well as noun gender being generally important, there are also some words where the gender shows the meaning of the word.

der Band -¨e
die Band -s
das Band -¨er
volume, tome (of a book)
band (music group)
ribbon, band, strap etc.
der Leiter –
die Leiter -n ladder
das Golf
der Golf -e
der Golf -s
golf (the game)
gulf (Gulf, e.g. Gulf of Mexico)
Golf (VW Golf)
die Butter
der Butter
butter (in Germany)
butter (in Austria)

How to learn the gender of nouns

Instead of seeing a noun’s gender as a burden and an extra thing you have to learn, start seeing it as an integral part of the noun. Mentally, you can simply remove the space between the article and the noun. Instead of der Baum, think derBaum. It’s no harder to learn this than to learn a word without its gender. In fact, the gender can act as a memory crutch.

Another trick is to imbibe the noun with a certain feeling corresponding to the gender. For example you could imagine all feminine nouns as being red, masculine nouns as blue and neuter nouns as green.

Don’t get confused and think it’s the actual object that has the gender. We know that tables aren’t actually masculine – it’s the noun itself that has the gender. In fact, thinking of it as gender at all can be confusing and counterproductive. It’s better to think of three arbitrary types. One analogy that a lot of people find useful is to think of them as colours. Just because a table is blue, doesn’t mean it’s male, but it does mean that all the blue things are different in some way from all the red things and green things.

Unreliable rules and reliable rules

For most nouns, there is a rule that will allow you to guess the gender fairly reliably. For example, nouns ending in -e are usually feminine. Notice I said usually. I have a problem with rules like this because they encourage laziness when learning genders. There are countless exceptions to the -e rule – das Interesse, der Biologe, der Friede, das Getriebe. It’s good to be aware of the rule, but you’d be better off learning nouns with their gender, even if they seem obvious.

Rules like this are meant as a crutch. If you don’t know the gender, they give you an idea of which one to guess in an emergency, if you really really have to, but you shouldn’t use them to actually learn the genders.

On the other hand, there are also rules you can follow which won’t come back to bite you later on. Some rules are absolutely watertight, and I would encourage you to make use of them. One example is the -keit and -heit rule. Every word that ends in these is feminine.

The problem with general rules like the -e rule is that they aren’t always reliable. Instead of wasting time learning all the rules, which often have exceptions, it’s easier to just learn each gender with the word. You will get a much better return on investment and won’t have to worry about learning dozens of rules that you can’t rely on.

The other advantage is that by learning the gender of every noun, you will start to notice patterns naturally, and learning the gender of new nouns you encounter will get easier and easier. You also won’t have to worry about exceptions to rules, because you’ll be blasting through nouns so easily you won’t even care whether they follow a particular rule or not.

How to review the gender of nouns

If you get into the habit of paying attention to what you read and listen to, you will be reviewing the gender of nouns in every sentence. You will have thousands of chances to make the gender stick. The key is to pay attention. Don’t be tricked into thinking you will pick them up automatically. Don’t just read while skimming over the articles. Der, die das… meh who cares, right?!? For some very common nouns, it’s possible to pick the gender up, but people who use this strategy make a lot of mistakes, and find it difficult to learn the correct gender once they’ve learned the wrong one.

If I see a sentence, for example:

Der Regen trommelte auf das Dach.The rain was drumming on the roof.

Then I know that Regen is masculine and Dach is neuter.

Be careful though! Masculine and neuter nouns often use the same articles, so you can’t tell them apart. Take a look at this sentence:

Ein Fuchs schläft auf dem Dach.A fox is sleeping on the roof.

From this we can only deduce that Fuchs and Dach are not feminine (because the feminine articles would be eine and der in this case). If you read a sentence like this and aren’t sure of the gender, you should look the words up.

How to record nouns in your vocab book or in Anki

When writing nouns in your vocab book, or in Anki, make sure to note down the gender and plural form. I usually do it like this:

r Igel –hedgehog
e Uhr -enclock, watch
s Fahrrad -¨erbicycle

From this I know that Igel is masculine and its plural form is the same. Uhr is feminine and you add -en for the plural, and Fahrrad is neuter and the plural is Fahrräder.

If you’re wondering what r, e and s mean, they indicate the gender and come from the last letters of der, die and das. It’s just the most efficient way of writing it.

In summary:

  • Always learn nouns with their gender (and their plural form!)
  • Pay attention to the gender of nouns you encounter
  • Only use rules that have no exceptions
  • Be aware of general rules, but don’t rely on them
  • Don’t be a pink panther