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I'm just starting with German and got a bit lost when one should use der/die/das and when ein/eine. I suppose it should be something like "a" or "the" in English depending if we're talking about something concrete or something in general.

P.S.: consider nominative only.

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9  
You gave the answer yourself. Is there a special case why do you think your assumption is incorrect? Then put it into your question. – John Smithers Mar 23 '12 at 14:54
    
@John, that was just a feeling of how it should be (which apparently was correct), no specific cases so far. – Denys S. Mar 23 '12 at 15:45
up vote 7 down vote accepted

You are right, most of the time you should use "der/die/das" when you would use "the", "ein/eine" when you would use "a/an", and none when you would use none in English. Giving exact rules is nearly impossible (try it for "the" and "a").

Generally if you talk about something which was already mentioned, or which is common knowledge, you should use "der/die/das". If you introduce new information, you should use "ein/eine". If you are talking about unique, singular things like "Frankreich", you don't use any article at all (but strange enough it is still "das Universum/Weltall"). Sometimes you leave out the article as well when you talk about general concepts like "Freiheit".

Getting a feeling for the correct use of articles is really hard for people who speak non-European languages. Speaking fluent, natural English will be very helpful for chosing the right German article.

[Edit]

As you see in the comments, the situation isn't even clear for countries, so as a little bonus here a link to a list of countries with article: http://deutschlernen-blog.de/blog/2007/07/11/grammatik-liste-der-laendernamen-die-mit-artikel-gebraucht-werden/

Of course, if you have an official country name including something like "Republik" or "Königreich", you need an article, too. E.g. "die Bundesrepublik Deutschland" :-)

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a better strange counter evidence for Frankreich would be die Schweiz, die USA, der Irak ... ;p – Em1 Mar 23 '12 at 15:40
    
@Em1, isn't it den USA? (sorry for off-topic) – Denys S. Mar 23 '12 at 15:48
    
@den-javamaniac Not for nominative. – Em1 Mar 23 '12 at 16:05
3  
@den-javamaniac We use the abbreviation USA as well, but it's spelled out as "die Vereinigten Staaten von Amerika", so we use the plural article. – Landei Mar 23 '12 at 19:03
    
Der Rhein, die Charité and das Weserstadion are also unique, singular things. I'm not sure if this concept helps. – Hendrik Vogt Mar 23 '12 at 19:06

First, let's call things by their right name to avoid confusion: der, die or das can mean different things depending on the context: They can be definite articles, relative pronouns, or I could take the question to mean "when are things masculine, feminine or neuter"?. As I understand your question, what you're asking really is "when should I use a definite article instead of an indefinite article"?

Given that both German and English have the same features when it comes to definite and indefinite articles, I can't think of any general case where you would use one in English and the other in German. However, there are cases where the usage of each type of article differs.

Professions: No article is used in German when stating someone's profession.

He's a doctor

Er ist Arzt

Nationalities: Whereas the English sentence works with the article, the equivalent German sentence doesn't.

I'm [an] American

Ich bin Amerikaner/in

Quantities

A gram of safron costs $8
(Saffron costs $8 per gram)

Safran kostet 8 € das Gramm

Names: For certain names it is common for some Germans to use a definite article. This doesn't happen in English (that I'm aware of).

Ich habe gerade mit dem Maxi telefoniert!

Hair: In English, hair is almost exclusively a non-countable noun; in German it can be used in the plural (usually to the amusement of English-speakers)

My hair was standing on end!

Die Haare standen mir zu Berge!

Places/locations like work and church are not written with articles in English; in German, they are.

I'm going to church

Ich gehe in die Kirche
Ich besuche den Gottesdienst

Fixed expressions Canoo has a list of fixed of expressions which can deviate from the normal rules for articles (the page is in German, though). It also a lot of examples of both definite and indefinite article usage.

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»Ein Gramm Safran kostet acht Dollar.« »Meine Haare sind mir zu Berge gestanden«. In diesen beiden Fällen kann man den Satz auch umstellen, auch wenn die eigenen bergestehenden Haare weniger idiomatisch sind. – Jan May 26 at 9:20
    
Sure, they can be formulated in a way that matches the usage in English. But as I mentioned in the post, the list attempts to highlight cases where the usage differs. – ardila May 26 at 9:41

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