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I wonder if there's a rule for which form of "hair" should I use, For example:

Sie hat dunkle Haare.

I'd use the singular form there, as in the English equivalent:

She's got dark hair.

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6 Answers

up vote 4 down vote accepted

Of course there is a difference in using singular or plural form of "Haar". All dictionaries are consistent in that using "Haar" in singular means all of the scalp hair of a human being. And they all say that it ought to be used in singular in that meaning:

Wiktionary:

2 ohne Plural: Gesamtheit der Kopfhaare

Charakteristische Wortkombinationen: blondes, braunes, dunkelblondes, dunkelbraunes, fettiges, gefärbtes, gekämmtes, gepflegtes, geschnittenes, gewaschenes, hellbraunes, kurzes, langes, lockiges, mittellanges, schulterlanges, schwarzes, ungekämmtes, ungeschnittenes, ungepflegtes, ungewaschenes Haar

Duden:

2.a. die Gesamtheit der Haare auf dem Kopf des Menschen; das Kopfhaar
Grammatik
ohne Plural

Beispiele

  • sie hat schönes, blondes, rotes, braunes, schwarzes, helles, dunkles, lockiges, krauses, glattes, volles Haar
  • das Haar lang, kurz, offen, [in der Mitte] gescheitelt tragen

DWDS-Wörterbuch:

2. Haar, Haare ♦ Gesamtheit von 1, alle Haare, besonders die des menschlichen Kopfes

  • er, sie hat blondes, (kastanien)braunes, brünettes, schwarzes, rotes, graues, graumeliertes, (schnee)weißes H.
  • dickes, volles, schweres, starkes, hartes, dünnes, feines, weiches, schütteres, langes, kurzes H.
  • glattes, krauses, lockiges, gewelltes, gelocktes, glänzendes, seidiges, stumpfes, starres H.
  • strähniges, fettiges, trockenes, zottliges, zerzaustes, struppiges, schmutziges H. schönes, gepflegtes H.
  • Mit fliegendem Haar und erhitzten Gesichtern liefen gerade die vorbei, die es noch nicht gewohnt waren, zu spät zu kommen — Böll Haus 207
  • abgeschnittenes H. wird aufgekauft
  • eine Puppe mit echtem H.
  • sie trägt ihr H. lang, kurz, offen, in einem Knoten, (in der Mitte) gescheitelt
  • das Haar war zu einem griechischen Knoten geschlungen — Musil Mann 95
  • (jmdm.) das H., die Haare kämmen, überkämmen, zurückkämmen, hochkämmen, bürsten, in Ordnung bringen
  • sich das H., die Haare kämmen, überkämmen, zurückkämmen, hochkämmen, bürsten, in Ordnung bringen
  • (jmdm.) das H., die Haare machen umgangssprachlich
  • sich das H., die Haare machen umgangssprachlich
  • sie kämmt ihr goldenes Haar — Heine Ich weiß nicht
  • das H., die Haare waschen, spülen, einrollen, fönen, trocknen
  • jmdm. das H., die Haare (ab)schneiden, frisieren, legen, toupieren
  • sich das H., die Haare tönen, färben, blondieren, bleichen, lacken lassen
  • ich lasse (mir) das H., die Haare wachsen
  • mein H. wächst (nach), bricht (ab)
  • meine Haare wachsen schnell, langsam, fetten leicht, fallen mir ins Gesicht, fliegen im Wind
  • meine Haare fallen aus, gehen aus, werden dünn
  • jmdm. (freundlich lächelnd) mit der Hand über das H. streichen
  • sich aus Nervosität durch das H. fahren
  • die Kinder trugen Kränze im H.
  • der frißt mir noch die Haare vom Kopf (= ißt so viel, daß ich arm werde)

Note that in the majority of examples given (including references from well-knownGerman authors) Haar is used in singular. Exceptions may be when it is not about the hair on the head as a whole but when something is done with every single hair of them.

Therefore the grammatically correct usage of "Haar" in the meaning of the question would be using it in singular. When teaching German grammar we need to take care that we don't teach colloquial usage even if this may be used and understood widely.

The only grammatically correct usage in the example sentence therefore is:

Sie hat dunkles Haar.

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nix für ungut, aber deine "Regel" versagt doch schon bei Wimpern, die treten auch immer in Mehrzahl auf, der Singular wird aber weitaus weniger genutzt als Plural, besonders in Formulierungen sagt Tante Google. Da kann man auch noch so viele Obrigkeiten zitieren, wie die ganzen Beispiele hier zeigen, gibts nicht nur wenige sondern zig Ausnahmen von der Regel wo Singular/Plural unpassend ist, aber beides nicht irreführend oder gar falsch. Wo Regeln nicht helfen können sollte man vielleicht gesunden Menschenverstand walten lassen. Sonst benutzt ja die Hälfte der Deutschen den angeblich –  Hauser Nov 18 '11 at 14:22
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falschen Plural. Man kann auch grammatische Regeln auch an den Haaren herbeiziehen, da scheinen wir deutsche Bürokratiefetischisten und Obrigkeitsghorsame ja sowieso ein Faible für zu haben :) –  Hauser Nov 18 '11 at 14:23
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IMHO the only rule applying here is: if you want to refer to certain, "particular" hairs, plural is necessary:

Bei ihm zeigen sich die ersten grauen Haare.

In every other case i can think of, the singular form is fine, and it's even better in matters of style:

Sie hat dunkles Haar.

sounds better to me than

Sie hat dunkle Haare.

Wictionary tells that "Haar" is a singulare tantum - i'm not sure about it, because there's also a plural form commonly used besides the singular.

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But "Sie hat dunkle haare" is what's written in my dictionary, in plural form. Could you please explain why "Sie hat dunkles Haar" sounds better to you? –  user508 Nov 17 '11 at 18:29
    
++1 für dunkles Haar, denn nur das ist gepflegtes Deutsch, vor allem, wenn Kopfbehaarung gemeint ist. Hier noch ein Link zum Thema (sogar wer Udo Jürgens nicht mag, kennt dieses Lied). –  Takkat Nov 17 '11 at 19:10
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@Gigili: it's really hard to explain since it's a matter of linguistic style. Using the plural isn't completely wrong in matters of grammar, but it's "near the border" to be wrong: in the context of color it may be ok, but to say "Du hast schöne Haare" sounds quite odd. Again a question of taste, not of right or wrong. –  tohuwawohu Nov 17 '11 at 19:27
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@tohuwawohu: Wouldn't that be "Du hast die Haare schön"? ;) But really, I also think that it's a matter of taste rather than of right or wrong. Though I'd like to see a source for singular being "better". For colors, it's fine to use plural - after all, if someone's hair is gray, all the individual hairs are also gray. And they may also be schön. They're not voll though, which has therefore be used singular, as Hauser explains in his answer... –  OregonGhost Nov 17 '11 at 20:03
    
@tohuwawohu Please state your formative language region. –  Phira Nov 18 '11 at 14:41
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It's really hairsplitting if you use

Er mag Frauen mit rotem Haar/roten Haaren (Google-Hits are nearly 1:1)

and imho more a question of convention/linguistic evolution which one is more used. In English hair seems more common ("Hair" musical comes to my mind)

Haare machen

also wins vs. "Haar machen" in Google

volles Haar (thick & dense hair)

is a very common phrase (volle Haare not!)

jemandem kein Haar krümmen

a common idiom. Here plural makes no sense as you want to point out you didn't bend a single hair. Same with Haarspalterei


A interesting similar case are the

Wimpern (eyelashes)

Here the plural is normally used in most formulations. So I don't see any grammar rule solving this "issue", when Haar/Wimpern has to be used in Singular/Plural (as objects with same structure), again it's hairsplitting to me...

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"Wimper" is not used in singulare tantum - therefore this example does not at all fit here. –  Takkat Nov 19 '11 at 11:59
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I'll try to contribute another view, since I don't think the previous answers have addressed all the subtleties.

It's already been mentioned that there are cases where only one form is appropriate. Adjectives like "volles" (full), "schütteres" (sparse), "dichtes" (dense), "lichtes" (sparse) that apply to the body of hair as a whole only go with "Haar" in the singular; you'll find some hits for the plural forms on Google, but I'd say that borders on being wrong. On the other hand, anything that treats the hairs individually requires the plural; I think a realiable rule for this is that one would always use the plural in German if one would use it in English: you find hairs in the drain, not hair, and you split hairs, not hair; the same in German.

The cases that allow either usage are the ones where the adjective could be applied either to the individual hairs or to the body of hair as a whole. Examples are "rote(s)", "wellige(s)", "lange(s)", "dunkle(s)".

In a comment, tohuwawohu wrote that "Du hast schöne Haare" sounds quite odd. I disagree; I would probably rather say "Du hast schöne Haare" than "Du hast schönes Haar", and Google also has a lot more hits for the former. If I'm right on that, then that could be seen as an exception from the general rule I described above, since being beautiful seems more like something one would apply to the body of hair as a whole than to an individual hair.

An aspect that hasn't been mentioned yet is that in the cases where both forms are possible, the singular is slightly obsolescent and restricted to more poetic language. For instance, "Ein Jüngling mit roten Haaren" sounds more incongruous than "Ein Jüngling mit rotem Haar" ("Jüngling" being an archaic word), whereas it's hard to imagine a kid coming home from school and telling her parents that there's a new kid "mit rotem Haar" in school.

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Please add a reference for singulare tantum being obsolescent, ty. –  Takkat Nov 19 '11 at 12:06
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@Takkat: I don't have a reference for it; this is just my personal observation. To be precise, I should have said that it's slightly obsolescent in everyday spoken language; it's quite usual in writing, and even preferred in poetic use. I only said "slightly"; one might not even take notice if someone used the singular in spoken language; but it's not what I would expect, and certainly not what I would use myself. Here are similar (and similarly subjective) views: dict.leo.org/forum/… –  Felix Pahl Nov 19 '11 at 12:43
    
Well, leo would be another source where no single example of using "Haare" when it comes to colour is given. All examples describing hair colour are using "Haar" in singular. In colloquial German we would use "Der Felix ist blond.", "Die dunkelhaarige Frau dort." anyway. If used in plural in colloquial(!) German we may hear "Das Kind mit den roten Haaren". –  Takkat Nov 19 '11 at 12:58
    
@Takkat: Thanks for the Leo links. It may well be that my observation is only valid for my immediate environment. Regarding your examples: I was thinking of a situation where someone is asked to describe how someone looks: "Sie ist ungefähr 1.80m und trägt eine Brille; sie hat hohe Wangenknochen, einen schmalen Mund und dunkle Haare." In this context I personally would find it slightly (only slightly) unusual to say "dunkles Haar". –  Felix Pahl Nov 20 '11 at 10:00
    
This is my observation too: in colloquial German there indeed is a shift towards using plural more often. As time evolves we may not even use the singulare tantum here any more (time for another Rechtschreibreform). –  Takkat Nov 20 '11 at 10:07
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If the adjective can only refer to a collection of hairs, then singular is usually obligatory.

Example:

schütteres Haar

sparse hair

If the adjective can both refer to a single hair or to the collection of hairs, then both forms are possible and may convey additional information, in particular, the singular has a more detached flavor.

In informal speech, the singular is practically only used in idioms.

The Udo Jürgens song "17 Jahr, blondes Haar" is a very poor counterexample, because noone uses "Jahr" instead of "Jahre", either, when the meter of the poem does not demand it. Compare the song lyrics "Wir haben noch Wind in den Haaren, Wind von Bergen und See.", for a situation where rhyme and meter does not demand the singular.

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Even today in times of decaying language "blondes Haar" still is used more often than "blonde Haare", at least in books (colloquial usage may tell a different story). The song was intended to help memorizing the appropriate usage - not to proof correct grammar (that would be too silly even for me). –  Takkat Nov 18 '11 at 14:54
    
@Takkat You do realize that while the link shows that blonde hair was an issue in the 1940s, and one certainly wonders what the 19th century peaks were about, it contradicts your narrative of decaying language. The proportion of the two phrases shows no clear trend over the 200 years after 1820. This suggests that the two phrases have either different uses according to the message (as I suggested with flavor of detachment) or different regional usage. A variation of language that was introduced at least 200 years ago and was fairly stable after that is a weak argument for language decay. –  Phira Nov 18 '11 at 15:03
    
Still, why complicate things, when in German the singular usage of "Haar" is used as a synonym for "Kopfbehaarung" just the same way as it is in English? –  Takkat Nov 18 '11 at 15:30
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Perhaps it is worth mentioning explicitly that in this instance German is more forgiving than English:

In English, the use of the plural usually implies that the hairs (!) in question are from a different body part than the head. In German it doesn't.

  • Haare: individual hairs, regardless where they come from. In colloquial speech also all the hair on top of the head.
  • Haar: one individual hair or all the hair on top of the head
  • Behaarung: collective term for body hair

NB: Including animal hair in this discussion would open an even larger can of worms: Kamelhaar is usually singular, Hunde- or Katzenhaare is singular only in compounds like Katzenhaarallergie. My point: looking for rules about how individual words behave sometimes is futile.

Just remember that "Haar" sounds better in writing and as a non-native it's usually a good idea to use standard if in doubt.

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