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How one Europe-bound Duolingoer managed the 475 ways to say “the” in German.

I was reading an article by an English speaking reporter named Matt Crossman. Matt was learning German on Duolingo, to prep for a job.

THE ASSIGNMENT THAT TOOK ME TO EUROPE IN THE FIRST PLACE was to write about a NASCAR race in Belgium. (There’s NASCAR in Belgium? you ask. That’s what I was there to write about, I answer.)

AS I USED DUOLINGO BEFORE THE TRIP, I remembered that German supports approximately 475 ways to say “the” (der, die, das and more besides), and the rules about them are extremely complicated.

Say WHAT?!? O.O Ok, so that boggled my mind. I wondered how exactly are people coming to German as a non-native language are supposed to navigate that. So, I kept reading to see if Matt had any advice for other Duolingo German users. And it looks like y'all are in luck!

I decided not to try to re-learn them. I figured the person listening to me would know what I meant. My instincts proved correct. Andre told me that even Germans don’t how to use der, die, das, so they just cheat and say de.

Read Matt Crossman's full article by clicking here. (Content warning: Matt uses drug-related metaphors in the article when talking about positive reinforcement and exhaustion.)

For any of y'all who have traveled to Europe and used German, or who are native German speakers, does this align with your experiences of using "de" as a catchall replacement for the plethora of other German articles for "the"?

December 3, 2017



No, I totally disagree. There might be some Germans who are not able to use correct articles, but this is really lower class, close to illiterate. There are a lot of dialects in which the articles sound different, but I never came across one where they all sounded the same. To me this article seems like a stupid joke, starting with the 475 ways to use an article. I assume the author just wants to be funny.


I assume the author just wants to be funny.

If you have that impression after reading the article, ok. But, outside of lighthearted, I didn't take the article as a parody piece. They've made the notable mention section of Best American Sports Writing five times, travel internationally for their job, have written for Rolling Stone magazine, and so forth.

That matter aside, thanks for your feedback about article usage. Matt is a new comer to the language. So, I appreciate feedback from folks who are better acquainted with the language. :)


Hi Max,

I can't fully agree with you. It is not only a 'problem' of the lower class. We have some words people are very often discuss which article is right. And the mix of local dialect/accent and correct High German confused many people sometimes. When it comes to declination you can hear here and there Germans making mistakes also with a higher education. Nobody is perfect and German grammar and declination can be mean.

Best regards Angel


We have some words people are very often discuss which article is right.

Is it der, die oder das Nutella? ;) And is it der oder das Joghurt?

But yes, even university professors sometimes just don't use the genitive after "wegen" or make mistakes in their sentence construction after "weil". Or mix up articles. It really depends on where you grew up, sometimes there are grammar rules that differ from High German in a certain region and they are used no matter the class and level of education.

Deutsche Sprache, schwere Sprache.


Hi Sue,

Nutella is a classic. Here in Bavaria you can discuss with people about der or das Radio, der or die Butter, der or die Kartoffel. Other examples are 'wegen Dir' instead of 'Deinetwegen' and 'größer wie' instead of 'größer als'. In Bavarian you can also hear the construct 'ois wia' 'größer als wie'. With a guy from Hamburg I had the discussion if 'Ich geh zu die Eltern' or '...zu den Eltern' is correct. My friends from Cologn have a totally different view of the right use of articles and prepositons :-))

Deutsche Sprache, schwere Sprache.


The articles for "Butter" and "Kartoffel" aren't clear in Baden-Württemberg either. :D Same with "wegen dir" and "deinetwegen" or "wegen mir", "meinetwegen", and "als" and "wie". It's made more difficult with us using "als" as "früher" sometimes. "Das habe ich als auch gemacht." Even worse we also use "wo" alot for people "Der, wo das gemacht hat". It's completely wrong and I know it, but it's the dialect.

And I still think the people I know who come from the North where there's actual Hochdeutsch have their own little mistakes, they often pronounce a "g" at the end as "ch" so it's "Könich" instead of "König" and what sounds like "Teich" could either be a lake or dough. Well, it was good to mock them for once. ;) (One of them always made fun of me for saying "Ich gehe auf den Bus.", which I didn't even realize was wrong until I moved to university.)


I agree that nobody speaks perfectly in accordance with the grammar books 100% of the time (in German or any other language), but there's a huge difference between "sometimes using dative for genitive" and "replacing every definite article with »de«". I've never met a German or Austrian who does that.



try dialects from Saarland or Pfalz, there everything might be possible.


I know that with German dialects, anything generally is possible :). But I think it's fairly clear that the writer here is talking about standard German varieties -- they're unlikely to be encountering broad Moselfränkisch on Duolingo, in an American classroom, or on street signs in major cities...


right, but he said he was given this information in Belgium by a journalist, so that seems close enough. Anyway, it sounds like a wee exaggeration on the journalist's side to boost the man's self confidence. In all, the story seems to be a call to use what you have already learned instead of waiting (in vain) until you are perfect.



>..a call to use what you have already learned instead of waiting (in vain) until you are perfect.

I'd say it's a good call, considering my various and most recent experience with having to use Spanish. So, thank you for highlighting that. :)


The takeaway point is about how fun and satisfying it is to try out whatever fragments of language you know and find that you're sort-of understood by natives. No doubt about it, 100% agree.

He's presenting himself as a tourist, the natives appreciate that he's making an effort and are being polite. It doesn't matter if he's slow and imprecise, because breaking the ice is the goal and his mistakes can be taken as charming and funny.

If he was trying to use his German to do actual work, or the people he was talking to were trying to work, then speed and precision would matter, people would be less patient, and he'd find the whole experience more frustrating. As a professional writer, he especially should know that there are times and places when sloppiness of language isn't tolerable.

If you're an English speaker, what would you say to a foreigner who struggles to distinguish they're/their/there? (Ok, a foreigner will probably get those right, because sentences have to parse for them, but just for the sake of an example..) You'd say not to worry too much because even native English speakers get it wrong. Even if the sloppiness annoys you, you're not going to take it out on a non-native speaker who's at least making an effort.

And the issues of dialects, of formal/informal usage, or language being a dynamic changing medium have nothing to do with you as a German learner. You're not doing anyone any favors with bad schoolbook German - nobody mistakes you for a linguistic innovator or a native speaker of a dialect. The natives, as we see in the article, are doing you a favor by putting up with you, but you have to try to meet them more than half way by learning your schoolbook German properly.


My German teacher who has been to Germany a couple times also mentioned this, but of course they made us learn the correct ones, but it's reassuring to know I really can fake it till I make it!


When I came across that bit about so many different ways to say "the", I was just thinking about how, even after I've "learned" something, often it can escape me under pressure. Sitting behind a computer or on a phone and typing in answers on Duolingo is one thing. Face to face interaction another. So, I'm glad there is an alternative for some of the higher pressure situations!

fake it till I make it!

Omg as a shy person, it's a strategy I've totally had to employ before! (And it's helped me many a time!) Pretending I'm not mortified making mistakes using a language I'm not strong in helps me to continue the conversation even if it's riddled with my mistakes. Hold tight to that one. It can serve you well in the right circumstances!


Hi Usagiboy,

I've heard people saying 'de' instead of 'der,die,das' ect. but in my region ist is not common (south of Germany). I would say it depends on the dialect a person speaks. In the middle of Germany you can hear that more often. In the north they use very often 'die' even if it wrong for the rest of us. It's in their dialect. Many migrants have another stragedy they just drop the article. Not elegant but common.

Best regards Angel


does this align with your experiences of using "de" as a catchall replacement for the plethora of other German articles for "the"?

No, absolutely not, neither in Austria nor in Germany. And the line about 475 ways to say "the" is also nonsense. (Just to be clear on this point: there are a total of six different forms for the German definite article. Claiming 475 is not just wrong: it's massively, ludicrously, utterly wrong.)

As others have said: once in a while, a native might use a grammatically "incorrect" article (at least according to formal grammar rules), or slur the ending if they're talking quickly or casually, but I've never met anyone who consistently used "de" as a universal definite article.


Hi Pond,

I didn't either met any person who only uses 'de'. But I think you are right many slur 'der' and 'die' to a 'de' and if the person is speaking quick and sloppy (many Germans do) it can sound to a non-native speaker like everything is 'de'.

Best regards Angel


Yes, I have to wonder if the writer was told something like "people sometimes slur it to »de«" or "as a foreigner, you can get away with »de« and be understood", and somehow interpreted it as "everyone uses »de« in practice". Considering the "475 articles" claim, I think they're either very misinformed on some points, or trying to write a comedy piece :).


Thank you everyone for engaging this topic! You've given feedback that can be really helpful for people just learning to navigate German. I'm definitely not trying to take a stance, just share an article I found fun and to get further feedback on an aspect of it. (I don't speak German. My main exposure to the language was as a kid.)

Matt Crossman also notes that they are a beginner. I've taken their article as excitedly sharing their adventure and the feedback they got from native German speakers. I also wonder about the aspect of politeness towards a tourist, and also perhaps if they'd misunderstood a native's comedic exaggeration of the number of articles for "the".

I hope folks here will also be kind to one another if mistakes and misunderstandings in learning happen. :)


Please take everything in that article with a grain of salt.


Native German here!

Yes and no. In the Swabian dialect there's no difference in indefinite articles. It's "a" just like in English. ;)
There is a difference in how the male and the female definite articles are pronounced however. (Female is "de" with a veeery short e, it's more like "d'", the male article is "dr", the r is short and sort of rolled, they can sound similar especially when talking fast), but the neutral article is different being a simple "s". Even if that weren't the case, using "de" would only help so much - we do decline the articles (and nouns and adjectives).

That's all a bit heavier dialect though, which you wouldn't hear as much in bigger cities even ones in the region, mostly because there are more people that moved there from somewhere else it might happen though, switching is sometimes not that easy (and I would know, I can speak heavy Swabian and what I count as High German, with only little hints to my dialect, but it takes effort to switch on command and depends on the people around me).


I can see why they say "de". In my native language (Yiddish), there are two main dialects. In my dialect we replaced all "der/das/die" with "de". In the other dialect they still use all of them (YIVO).


Also ich habe den gesamten Artikel gelesen und habe die gesamte Zeit darauf gewartet, wo das mit den 475 Arten erklärt wird, aber nichts. Statt dessen eine, in meinen Augen ziemlich weinerliche, Beschreibung der sprachlichen Erfahrungen eines Amerikaners mit der deutschen Sprache.

  1. als gebürtige Deutsche kann ich sagen: Es gibt definitiv keine 475 Arten, „the“ zu übersetzen.

  2. wie in dieser Diskussion steht, gibt es Gespräche darüber, welcher Artikel wann richtig ist oder nicht, oder auch andere Grammatikfragen. Diese Diskussionen sind völlig überflüssig und führen zu keinem Erkenntnisgewinn. Aber es gibt für die deutsche Sprache ein sehr vertrauenswürdiges Buch, das sich „Duden“ (dieser hat verschiedene Unterarten) nennt, in dem alles, was man über die deutsche Sprache wissen will, steht. Da schaut bei Bedarf auch jeder Deutsche nach.


Thank you for recommending the resource!


Great writing, thanks for mentioning it. Very inspiring. I would recommend reading it before being annoyed over single paragraphs of it. I'd agree with Usagiboy, it feels lighthearted, not "witzig auf Teufel komm raus".


Thanks for mentioning it here, that was really interesting.

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