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When To Use En / Ett

The tips for basics 1 confused me completely. I've asked like three times in the discussions below practice sentences and have gotten responses explaining to me that there are genders in Swedish. At least they condescendingly ended their explanations with, "I'm sorry, but you're just going to have to learn them. There's no way around it like you think."

So I'm still confused. When do I use en and ett? There's weird talk about "natural gender", and ett being the same as "an" in English, but that seems completely different than anything I've learned about gender... Unless en and ett aren't genders?

If en and ett are gender words, which one is masc. fem. neu? I tried looking it up on Google Translate so I put in "the woman" to Google Translate hoping for en kvinna, but it obviously came up with kvinnan, however the only suggestion with something in front of it was "att kvinna" -- so is "att" also a word?

I'm completely confused on this. If anyone could explain every case when I use en or ett, I'd greatly appreciate it. Or if you can give equivalents in German or Dutch, that'd be great too.

Thanks! :)

December 31, 2014


  • 2321

So, I read through the posts you made on the sentence discussions ... and I'm not entirely sure where you are getting the impression that those who responded were being "condescending".

The remark from Arnauti ("I'm sorry, you're just going to have to learn them") was right; just as with German or Dutch there may be trends toward being able to guess what the gender of the word is, but for the most part it is down to memorization.

I haven't gotten very far in the Swedish tree, so I can't answer all of your questions, but I would advise you to disregard the comment about "ett" being like "an" (in the sense that "an" is always used before a vowel).

Basically, Swedish treats it's indefinite articles (en/ett = English: a and an) like Dutch treats it's definite articles (een/het = the). In Dutch, as you know, "een" is "the" for words with common gender (having been condensed from separate masc. and fem. like what occurs in German), and "het" is "the"--but used for neuter/uncommon words. In Swedish, (and using the same terms for ease of comparison) "en" is "a/an" for common words and "ett" is "a/an" for neuter/uncommon words.

  • en kvinna = a woman
  • en man = a man
  • en flicka = a girl
  • en älg = an elk
  • ett barn = a child
  • ett vin = a wine
  • ett salt = a salt

As with German and Dutch, grammatical gender doesn't always align with "natural" gender.

When you got "kvinnan" out of Google translate it actually gave you the translation for "the woman". I'm not sure how far you are on your Swedish tree, but Swedish appends the indefinite articles on to the noun to get the definite form:

  • kvinnan = the woman
  • mannen = the man
  • flickan = the girl
  • älgen = the elk
  • barnet = the child
  • vinet = the wine
  • saltet = the salt

As to "att", I wouldn't be surprised if it is a word in Swedish but I don't have enough knowledge about the language to give you any valuable input one way or the other, so I'll leave that for someone else to answer.


Thank you! So it is as simple as ett being neutral and en being common.

I took their explanations as condescending a bit because if they see the flags by my username, it doesn't make sense to tell someone, "Sorry you just have to learn the genders" because it's likely I'd know that from the information provided. Maybe I just got butthurt, that happens a lot.

Also, if you know, what makes it "mannen" and not "mannan" since it is kvinnan and flickan? (I'm on basics 2, I just started yesterday and I'm getting over the flu so I can't think very much)

  • 2321

Precisely as simple as that. :)

I'd hazard to guess that they just didn't take your flags into consideration and decided to give as much information as possible (too much information being better than too little in this instance) as how to recognise gender is such a frequent question.

I don't know if there is a definitive explanation for why the ending vowel sometimes changes, I would guess that it may just be an idiomatic quirk of the language (and by "idiomatic quirk" I mean "something way over my head at this point") ;). Saying "mannan" aloud it doesn't seem to flow as well as "mannen", maybe it's to avoid repetition of the same sound? Your guess is as good as mine.


Okay, I understand. I guess it's the same as using -er -e or -en for German plural. No functional reason other than sound, maybe.

Thanks for the info! By any chance would you know if "en" encompassed both masculine and feminine, but maybe the Swedish combined them? That's the way it was with Dutch.

  • 2321

You're hitting the end of my Swedish knowledge here, I'm afraid I don't have an answer for that.

I hate to admit it, but I haven't done a lot of research when it comes to the history of the Swedish language ... Having said that, you're doing a fine job of peaking my sense of curiosity, so it's one of those things that I'll have to put on my to-do list. :)

Edit: Wikipedia has this to say about Early Old Swedish:

"The gender system resembled that of modern German, having masculine, feminine and neuter genders. The masculine and feminine genders were later merged into a common gender ..."

So it does look like it went the same way as Dutch.


It's "mannen" because it's from "man", "mannan" is from "manna", the a is not part of the definite ending, which is -(e)n.

There are no absolute rules regarding what gender to use. There are some tendencies, however, that are introduced in the Definites lesson. These are:

  • Most words are en-words
  • Most words designating a person are en-words ¹
  • Have a look at the ending, many endings take the same article (e.g. –a² , –ing and –het are always en-words)

¹ One common exception is ett barn a child
² The only exceptions are ett öga, ett öra and ett hjärta.


What about ett tema and ett schema?


You're absolutely right, I forgot about those when writing that text. A lot of (most?) originally Greek loans in -ma are neuter: tema, schema, stigma, panorama, etc. The good part is that even though that rule isn't absolute, the words concerned are easily recognized and gone through :)


"Att" is a word, but as far as I can understand "att kvinna" doesn't make sense. "Att" usually means to/that. It's often paired up with base verb forms. For example: to run - att springa, to talk - att prata, to be - att vara. "Att" can also be used like... She said that I stink. - Hon sa att jag stinker.

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