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In German there is some confusion on the gender of "Virus" where both masculine and neuter are used:

Das Influenzavirus ändert jährlich seine Oberflächenstruktur.
Ich habe mir den Virus im Schwimmbad gefangen.
Der Virus wird von ihrem Computer gelöscht.

Duden does not help much here:

"das, außerhalb der Fachsprache auch: der Virus; des Virus, Viren"

At some point back in time I learned that a virus in a medical sense always is "das Virus" whereas it is always used as "der Virus" in computing. However I couldn't find any reference for this, and I have heard both variants in both settings.

Can both genders be used alike in modern German or is there any preference when to use one or the other?

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bei Sirup und Ketchup hab ich auch schon des öfteren das/der gehört. –  Hauser Oct 7 '11 at 15:09
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What is it you don't understand about the Duden entry? –  Phira Oct 7 '11 at 15:28
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@Phira: They don't define "Fachsprache". Computing does have technical terminology too, we all know that ;) –  Takkat Oct 7 '11 at 16:52
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There is no doubt that this refers to medical language. Also, "Fachsprache" does not mean that a doctor will always use "das". –  Phira Oct 7 '11 at 16:56
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Das Blog ist tot, es lebe der Blog sehr interessant Ansichten eines Sprachwiss. zu der Thematik –  Hauser Oct 8 '11 at 13:30

4 Answers 4

up vote 10 down vote accepted

I think the Duden entry is very explanatory. Doctors and the like tend to use only das whereas laymen use both der and das. However I can't exactly confirm the former; I know/visit too few doctors.

Based on my experiences it looks like this:

  • when the medical term is meant, people tend to use der or das interchangeably
  • when the computer virus is meant, people (almost?) exclusively use der
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You can use both, so who cares?

Ok, ok, some data:

Google results for der Virus shows 1,130,000 hits.
Google results for das Virus shows 1,410,000 hits.
The first results show both variants, because they ask which version is correct ;) But the "medical" gender wins by close vote (yeah, this is no election, I know, I know).

Now let us look at the special term for computer virus:
Wikipedia tells us, that both genders are allowed, but der Computervirus is only colloquial used. Looks like they orientate themselves at the Duden and the medical use.

But Heise with its popular German IT Magazine c't shows a different story:
For das Virus we got only 6 results, for der Virus 30 (why so few? It's a paper-, not an online magazine).

So your guess seems right, masculine is preferred in computing. Nevertheless you can use both.

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Google Ngram Viewer "der Virus, das Virus" enter image description here

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Now this is an interesting (disturbing?) graph. I'm not sure if I want to know the reason for that spike. –  Hendrik Vogt Jan 23 '12 at 14:41

Well, Germans tend to try to keep the original gender of a loan word (if known and if possible).

Virus is Latin (meaning poison), and of neutral gender!

This is why people who try to remember their (especially humanistic) education will always try to keep it as a neutral gender: das Virus, and this is especially true in medicine, because in this field, Latin language has still a quite strong influence.

Contrast to this, the use of this word in computer technology is rather new. My impression is (without wanting to take the time to google for statistics) that IT technology is dominated by people to have a rather low (almost non-existing) interest for classic languages. Therefore the word Virus has been re-interpreted by people who were simply inspired by the fact that it ends with -us. Even in Latin, most -us words are masculine. (Virus and domus are the only exceptions I know.)

Due to what I said above, Germans also tend to believe that all -us words should be masculine. Therefore people who do not know the real Latin gender (or do not care) tend to use it as a masculine word, and since the number of such people has been constantly increasing over the years, the use of das Virus is slowly decaying. Probably medicine is the main refugium for the neutral gender.

Since the Duden has always had the policy of accepting general habits, it tends to simply accept both genders.

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1) “Virus and domus are the only exceptions I know” – There are quite some of third-declension neutral Latin words ending on -us, e.g., corpus, genus, opus. Also, there is the feminine humus. 2) Note how virus is special insofar as it is the only neutral second-declension word ending on -us. –  Wrzlprmft Mar 5 at 8:49

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