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One of the things that I really liked about German, as I was studying it in college, was the very orderly grammar, which actually helped me to understand my native English better.

As a non-native speaker, one of the hardest things for me to do is remember the correct noun genders. When I speak German, I am intelligible, but I'm sure it sounds to a native speaker much as English as a foreign language sounds to me.

Are there tips and tricks to learning genders? Are there patterns that I might not be aware of that will save me from brute force memorization?

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Bei den Worten, die mit unterschiedlichem Geschlecht gebraucht werden, ist mein Favorit > Der 1. Band von Harry Potter ist relativ kurz. > (männlich) > > Die Band spielte laute Musik. > (weiblich) > > Sie hatte das blaue Band im Haar. > (sächlich) –  bernd_k May 28 '11 at 7:24

17 Answers 17

up vote 65 down vote accepted

One obvious way (still worth pointing out) is always learning vocabulary with the "der, die, das" prefix.

If you memorize

Der Hund
Die Rose
Das Haus

instead of

Hund
Rose
Haus

you learn the gender automatically along the way — not unlike Latin (Rosa, Rosae, Rosam).

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Basically, that's exactly what Germans do as well. –  Tomalak May 24 '11 at 19:55
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The frustrating thing about German is that the articles look like other articles depending on the case, so you lose that 1:1 coherence. In French, I will always hear and see "la lune" no matter what the structure of the sentence is. In German, I will hear "die Rose" sometimes and "der Rose" other times (dative/genitive case). –  Kosmonaut May 24 '11 at 20:03
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In addition to studying the article along with the noun, you should probably also include the plural form on your flashcards (or however you're studying). –  user2013 May 24 '11 at 20:10
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@Kosmonaut: learning the article like Pekka suggests, is a good way. It is always understood as the nominative and there is a 1:1 correspondence in this case between gender and article. The frustrating thing about German from a French perspective is that the gender are not always the same :-). –  ogerard May 25 '11 at 7:13
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@Markus "the plural of german nouns are always female" - No, the plural article is always "die" - that does not mean it is female. It just means it's plural. –  Tomalak May 25 '11 at 9:14

I'd like to add a more complete answer:

It's not the actual person, place or thing that has gender in German, but the WORD that stands for the actual thing. That's why a “car” can be either "das Auto" (neut.) or "der Wagen" (masc.).

After searching about noun genders, from here:

  • Always MASCULINE (der/ein):

    Days, months, and seasons: Montag, Juli, Sommer (Monday, July, summer). The one exception is das Frühjahr, another word for der Frühling, spring.

    Points of the compass, map locations and winds: Nordwest(en) (northwest), Süd(en) (south), der Föhn (warm wind out of the Alps), der Scirocco (sirocco, a hot desert wind).

    Precipitation: Regen, Schnee, Nebel (rain, snow, fog/mist)

    Names of cars and trains: der VW, der ICE, der Mercedes. (But motorbikes and aircraft are feminine.)

    Words ending in -ismus: Journalismus, Kommunismus, Synchronismus (equal -ism words in English)

    Words ending in -ner: Rentner, Schaffner, Zentner, Zöllner (pensioner, [train] conductor, hundred-weight, customs collector). The feminine form adds -in (die Rentnerin).

    The basic "atmospheric" elements that end in -stoff: der Sauerstoff (oxygen), der Stickstoff (nitrogen), der Wasserstoff (hydrogen), plus carbon (der Kohlenstoff). The only other elements (out of 112) that are masculine are der Phosphor and der Schwefel (sulphur). Note: All of the other chemical elements are neuter (das Aluminium, Blei, Kupfer, Uran, Zink, usw.).

  • Always FEMININE (die/eine):

    Nouns ending in the following suffixes: -heit, -keit, -tät, -ung, -schaft - Examples: die Freiheit, Schnelligkeit, Universität, Zeitung, Freundschaft (freedom, quickness, university, newspaper, friendship).

    Nouns ending in -ie: Drogerie, Geographie, Komödie, Industrie, Ironie (often equal to words ending in -y in English)

    Names of aircraft, ships and motorbikes: die Boeing 747, die Titanic, die BMW (motorbike only; the car is der BMW). The die comes from die Maschine, which can mean plane, motorbike and engine. - Helpful reminder: Ships are often referred to as "she" in English.

    Nouns ending in -ik: die Grammatik, Grafik, Klinik, Musik, Panik, Physik - But see German Noun Suffixes and Gender for some exceptions!

    Borrowed (foreign) nouns ending in: -ade, -age, -anz, -enz, -ette, -ine, -ion, -tur: Parade, Blamage (shame), Bilanz, Distanz, Frequenz, Serviette (napkin), Limonade, Nation, Konjunktur (economic trend). Note: Such words often resemble their English equivalent. A rare -ade exception: der Nomade. Cardinal numbers: eine Eins, eine Drei (a one, a three)

  • Always NEUTER (das/ein):

    Nouns ending in -chen or -lein: Fräulein, Häuschen, Kaninchen, Mädchen (unmarried woman, cottage, rabbit, girl/maiden)

    Infinitives used as nouns (gerunds): das Essen, das Schreiben (eating/food, writing)

    Almost all of the 112 known chemical elements (das Aluminium, Blei, Kupfer, Uran, Zink, Zinn, Zirkonium, usw.) - except for six that are masculine: der Kohlenstoff (carbon), der Sauerstoff (oxygen), der Stickstoff (nitrogen), der Wasserstoff (hydrogen), der Phosphor and der Schwefel (sulphur). Note: Most of the elements end in -ium, a das ending.

    Names of hotels, cafés and theaters: Das Ritz, Das Starbucks and Das Hilton

    Names of colors used as nouns: das Blau, das Rot (blue, red)

    the letters: das A, das B, etc.

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+1... I think this should be the real answer :). Anyway as far as names are concerned the neuter examples are neuter because hotel, cafe and theater are neuter words in German and thus it is also das Cinemax because it is das Kino. Accordingly it is der Aldi, der Kaiser's because it is der Supermarkt and that's what they are. It is also der McDonalds and der Burger King but I think the reason here is that the names strongly indicate a male person. It is das Subway as far as I would say but for KFC I am actually not sure. Anyway it also is die CeBit (die Konferenz) and die Ray Ban (die Brille) –  Emanuel Mar 6 '12 at 11:01
    
While these rules are true, I'm not a fan when it comes to learn German, because if you want to be fluently communicating, you can't be thinking in rules while speaking for example. Thinking in the rule blocks your brain, so in order to avoid that, it is recommendable to learn the article and the noun as one element. In your mind, it has to be "der Hund" not "Hund, maskulin also 'der'". –  konkret May 13 at 14:45

Generally I think we have to just learn them, but here are some patterns I've been told:

  • Word ends with "a" -> feminine (die Sauna)
  • Word ends with "e" -> feminine (die Tasche, die Küche)
  • Word ends with "ung" -> feminine (die Entscheidung)
  • Word ends with "chen" -> neutral (das Mädchen, das Märchen)
  • Word comes from a foreign language -> neutral (das Hotel, das Restaurant)
    Though I feel that rule doesn't always work so well (der Computer?)

Not related to genders, but also one rule I like:

  • Word ends with "er" -> plural form also ends with "er" (ein Rechner, zwei Rechner)
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These are nice, +1, but to be taken with a grain of salt. The "e" one has exceptions, e.g. Das Gelage, Der Eine, but is mostly correct. The "ung" rule works as long as it is formed from a verb (Bebauung, Bedachung) but not if it just happens to be the end part of the word (Der Sprung); I would forget the foreign one - too many arbitrary genderizations here (Der Bra, Die Gendarmerie, Der Coupon) –  Pekka 웃 May 24 '11 at 19:50
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Loanwords often take the gender of a native synonym or equivalent. e.g. Der Bra (Der Büstenhalter), Die Gendarmarie (Die Polizei), Der Coupon = (Der Gutschein). –  misterben May 24 '11 at 20:35
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@Christopher: you can also add all words in "heit" as feminine (die Wahrheit, die Gesundheit, die Krankheit). Even die Arbeit :-) –  ogerard May 25 '11 at 7:18
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@Pekka and Christopher: To me it seems that the rule for loan words works more often the less the word is ingrained in the language. So words like der Cappucino, der Computer, and der Coupon should be considered German, but words like das Tikka Masala, das Sushi and das Taekwondo are truly foreign and hence neutral. –  Stovner May 25 '11 at 7:39
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@misterben: I think this is a quite useful hint, as it also explains why artficial words like "Nutella" have more than one gender. ("Der Aufstrich", "Die Creme", "Das Zeug aus der Werbung" ^^) –  ladybug May 25 '11 at 15:17

As the others have said, at the end of the day, you really just have to memorize them. I found a little list of generalizations regarding regular, genitive, and plural noun endings and their associated genders, but I stress that they are no more than generalizations. That does not mean that there are no exceptions!

I'll go ahead and copy them below, but it's easier to read at the source. Hope it helps. :)

  • Masculine -ant, -en, -en; -ar, -(e)s, -e; -ent, -en, -en; -eur, -s, -e; -ist, -en, -en; -ius, -, -se; -ling, -s, -e; -mus, -, men; -tor, -s, -en; aber: das Mobiliar

  • Feminine -anz, -, -en; -ei, -, -en; -elle, -, -en; -enz, -, -en; -ette, -, -n; -euse, -, -n; -heit, -, -en; -ie, -, -ien; -ik, -, -en; -in, -, -nen; -ine, -, -n; -ion, -, -en; -ive, -, -n; -keit, -, -en; -schaft, -, -en; -tät, -, -en; -ung, -, -en; -ur, -, -en; aber: Der Kranz, der Lenz, das Bohei

  • Neuter -chen, -s, -; -ium, -s, ien; -lein, -s, -; -ment, -s, -e aber: Der Zement

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It really is learning-by-heart, for the most part. There is no clean method to guess your way though, and no reliable pattern to learn.

There is one simple rule though to determine the gender of a composite noun - it always has the gender of the last noun in the composition

der Donaudampfschifffahrtsgesellschaftskapitän
---------------------------------------^^^^^^^ der …Kapitän

Sometimes you can make an educated guess. Nouns that describe "traditionally" male things (like being the captain of a ship) very likely also have a male gender. This works very well with nouns for professions - der Schmied (blacksmith), der Bäcker (baker), der Fahrer (driver). You could extend that to "male" traits like boldness, aggressiveness, bravery, which would explain why it is der Löwe (lion) or der Hirsch (deer).

Words that end in "…mann" are also very easy ;) - both for obvious reasons and as per the rule for composite nouns explained above.

But already with neuter/female it's not that simple, since it's die Frau (woman, female) but das Mädchen (girl, neuter!) but die Schaufel (shovel, female again!).

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That would be two Fs instead of three :| –  lowerkey Nov 20 '11 at 15:52
    
@herrturtur You are right, with the old orthography rules it would. I usually write in old orthography, but for this case I figured it would be better to use the official version. –  Tomalak Nov 20 '11 at 15:58
    
Just learned the new word Orthography, I take it to mean Rechtschreibung? Three Fs just looks better. I don't know what they were thinking. –  lowerkey Nov 20 '11 at 16:01
    
@herrturtur Yes, that's what it means. ;) I think "fff" is a pain to look at. I've learned in school that two is right, and so I'm sticking to it. See canoo.net –  Tomalak Nov 20 '11 at 18:43
    
Strange, for some reason I had the before/after of the reforms mixed up. Thanks for the link! Do you ever use dict.leo.org? Not exactly on topic, but a great resource nonetheless. –  lowerkey Nov 21 '11 at 18:51

As a tip or trick, it may be worth considering the technique proposed by Dominic O'Brien in his book How To Develop A Perfect Memory.

The basic idea is that you take advantage of the natural human ability to memorize locations and spatial relationships.

Specifically, you choose a town that you know very well and divide it into three 'districts,' each of which corresponds to one of the genders of the German language. As you learn a new word (always with gender, as others have suggested), you will assign it a 'key image' and place it somewhere in the appropriate district.

An example from the text (all of which is available at the above link):

Die Tür (a door): My key image is of a sign saying 'detour' with a big arrow pointing left. It's a feminine word, so I go somewhere in the feminine district of town where there is a door. The museum has a grand old oak entrance (location). I imagine that a big sign has been stuck on the outside of the door announcing a 'detour'. People are filing past, tut-tutting, as they make their way round to a side entrance.

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If you're curious, this seems pretty similar to the "method of loci" I learned about in a psychology class a couple of years ago. –  kitukwfyer May 25 '11 at 19:39
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+1 for the unusual idea. One of the other students in my German course associates colors with the various genders. –  nibot Mar 5 '12 at 10:41

As a long-time active learner of German language I can tell you that all these rules about how the gender of a certain word can be inferred using its ending or its category: they can help you to come up with a good guess if you don't have a dictionary at hand, but they won't help you much during a conversation or while writing an email. At least I couldn't make any use of them after several attempt to memorize these groups. So, they are very useful as a reference or a rule of thumb, but not for learning words.

The most useful that worked for me, a person of a visual type mostly using his eyes for memorizing new words, is to write down the words without translation a the A4-page folded twice (so that it becomes A6) and cut on one side for easier browsing. For every word you write down you just add the last letter of the corresponding article before it, like for example "r Name", "r Bedarf", "e Mail", "s Taxi", "r Schein" etc. Looking at those helped me a lot later to remember the correct gender just by remembering what letter I had before the word on my cheat sheet.

Another good method I used for some time is to use some Firefox add-ons for training. One add-on called "Artikeltrainer" allows you to turn all articles on every webpage into drop-down lists, so you can easily test yourself how good you remember the genders.

Even better I found another Firefox Add-on I do not find anymore which colorized the words on the current webpage depending upon their gender. It is a pleasure to read Wikipedia article in German and see the genders of every word immediately, it helps later on to recall the gender by just trying to remember what color the word was marked with.

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This is a nice addon for learners indeed. –  Takkat Nov 20 '11 at 10:11

When I was learning French in school, there was basically the same problem.
What my teacher wanted us to do was learn vocabulary with the article (like Pekka suggested) and also color the words in gender-specific colors.
As you can imagine we used blue for male and red for female words, but since there were no neutral words in French (as far as I remember), you may come up with a corresponding color yourself :)

This visual aide seemed to work pretty fine.

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I've learned the genders by heart, but they're somehow grouped in my memory so that I remember that a certain class of words belong to a certain gender.

So far nobody has pointed out that there are homophonic words having different gender. Luckily there are some rules to differentiate them, such as "-er is masculine when it denotes somebody/something that does, neutral if it doesn't": Der Messer ("gauge") mißt etwas, das Messer ("knife") mißt nichts, Der Leiter ("leader") leitet etwas, die Leiter ("ladder") leitet nicht.

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Dann gibt's natürlich noch die Leiter, die leiten. –  René Nyffenegger May 31 '11 at 22:05
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+1 for the der/die Messer example. Curious how many stumbling blocks there are that you aren't even aware of as a native speaker. –  Tomalak Nov 20 '11 at 16:03

There are some patterns:

Some endings often demand a certain gender, e.g. -nis, -ung, -age

Another rule of thumb is that abstract words are often female.

But the "rules" cover only a very small percentage of words.

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As you can see there are patterns, certainly; however, with the time it takes to memorize each "pattern" and their exceptions, you could have simply memorized the article with the word.

One thing that I did was write all Der nouns on a white index card, all Das nouns on a red card, and all Die nouns on a blue card. And it really did get me to associate the noun with the color.

If someone said "Buch", I would think red.

Coincidentally, I did this with the cases, too:

Nominative case = white Accusative case = red Dative case = blue

The color choices were from some mnemonic device that I came up with for myself -- and it made sense for me.

That would probably be better than trying to memorize patterns of noun gender and their many, many, many exceptions.

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This is rather late in the day, but I recently stumbled upon a post on "Belles Lettres" on this very topic and was much impressed.

(Note: The video is 84 minutes (!) long and includes pretty in-depth background information on linguistics, language history etc. - a lot of the things he says won't make sense if you haven't at least a nodding acquaintance with this stuff. Also, his choice of examples is sometimes a bit off, but he makes several excellent points.)

This guy does offer a (for me) somewhat surprising view on the topic:

He shows that the grammatical "genus" has only a more or less coincidental connection to "gender", because "Mann" and "Frau" were thought to be somehow "representative" of their grammatical category (genus). What had happened in early history was that people started to use additional endings to express certain aspects.

  • The first addition was a group of endings to say that "this is an inanimate object" - this became the "neuter" genus.

  • The second addition was a group of endings to say "this is a group of things/people" - this became the "feminine" genus.

  • The nouns that didn't take a new ending stayed in the "old" default form - later called the "masculine" genus.

So, no real gender, just grammatical categories that got rather muddled over time.

What this means for the question in hand is this: There are basic guiding rules but also a ton of exceptions - the rules will help somewhat, but you'll still make mistakes. This shouldn't bother you too much, because it happens to everyone. :)

The bit of the video that was really stunning was how he showed the way this allows pretty accurate predictions of what genus new words will likely develop over time. (around the 00:34 mark). This will blow your mind. :)

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You should learn the words like they all told you, but there's one rule for the nominative case which will always be correct:

Singular: der Hase, die Tochter, das Fenster

Plural: die Hasen, die Töchter, die Fenster

So, every noun in this kind of plural have "die" as article. It's pretty easy and there are no exceptions.

Learning the articles of the nouns won't be hard with all those tipps and tricks you already got from the others. But you should remind yourself that german people actually don't use all those rules, they've learned to get this feeling by hearing the words with their articles. So you should learn the articles by writing and saying them. To hear what article belongs to which noun will help you a lot to get this feeling, too.

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Careful. This only applies to nominative. in the other cases the articles differ again –  Vogel612 Oct 10 '13 at 20:04
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@Vogel612: But it is true that all genders behave the same in plural. –  chirlu Oct 11 '13 at 7:30

I don't have much to add to the previous answers, but since I'm trying to relearn French the question is relevant to myself, too.

Learning any language necessarily involves memorizing, be it one or more alphabets, vocabulary, grammar, colloquialisms, you name it. In my experience, flash card apps using spaced repetition (like the free Anki) work quite well. Rather than (grimly) grinding through decks, you give feedback on how easy it was to come up with each answer and the app will adjust the frequency in which you'll see individual cards again. Chances are you'll get better results on spending a couple of minutes with such an app whenever you get a chance than with extended cramming sessions.

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Since you asked 'how' to learn, I'll answer with a little technique that has proven well with my students: Domino

Domino is a game where you have to combine two pieces that, as defined by the rules, belong together. So 1:1 / 2:2 etc. and not 1:2. You get the idea.

Basically what you do if you want to modify this game for language learning purposes, is to substitute the numbers for the words, or parts of sentences, that you want to learn. So in our case would make the stones like this: [Hund | das] [Auto | die] etc... and then you grab your German learning buddies and start playing Domino.

This works well with other phenomenons as well.

Here is a link to an image search, that should get you thinking.

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Simple, non-derived words have to be learned together with their inherent gender. They often have just one syllable or a complex one followed by a weak schwa syllable (or syllabic sonorant) and occur quite frequently.

Derivation rules

The rightmost part of a compound always determines its gender and its noun class (for inflection). This rightmost part may be a derivational morpheme that does not exist isolated and may not be productive any more. The list of these, which includes native and adopted foreign ones, is finite and should be learned by examples early on. Each suffix only works with one kind of stem (noun, verb, adjective) and there are ones for every relation, but some look alike at first. Many of these can be chained [see diagram], but nominal ones only in masc.-fem.-neut. order, and each one has to obey the previous rule; combinations of three or more derivational suffixes are rather rare, but plural and case suffix (GenSg or DatPl) may follow.

wichtigste native kategorienverändernde Derivationsmorpheme des Deutschen nach Eisenberg

Some affixes look and sound ambiguous, e.g. ending -er appears in non-productive indoeuropean kin marker {+ter|+der} as in Schwester, Bruder and in strong masculine adjectives used as nouns like Erster, Grüner and in agent markers {+er|+ner|+ler} (which has non-native variants {+er|+eur|+ör|+or|+ier|…} and may be followed by female marker {+in}) and in certain umlaut plurals like Kind+er, Wäld+er and in certain non-masculine high-frequency words like die Butter, das Wetter.

General rules

There are five regular nominal plural forms in German: E, N, R, S and ∅. The final, empty allomorph is often really one of the others with the stem already ending that way. The consonants are often either syllabic or succeed a schwa that may or may not be present in NomSg. IIRC, umlauted plural stems only occur for E and R (and their ∅ variants), hence Ë and R̈. You can construct noun classes from that which somewhat correlate with gender. A lot of words are regular, but not every ending is a definite indicator for a noun class. Unless noted otherwise, the following regular native neuter words are ∅, native masculines and foreign neuters are E, foreign masculine and all feminine words are N.

Old animate male words may end in +hold, +bold, +ling, +ing and +rich, most of which are rather uncommon. Few native masculine have an ending of +ig or +ich that otherwise indicates an adjective. Singular nouns ending in +en are male with empty plural like most similar words ending in {+er, +ner, +ler} or el. Of the latter ones, -er and -el also appear with different gender. The agent morpheme {er} has the French variant {+éur, +ör} with same plural, whereas foreign alternative íer is rare S and +or is N like the Romance +ánd, +ánt, +ént, +ist, +ism-us and Greek +e, +∅.

Unambiguously native feminine suffixes are +heit, +keit, +schaft, +ung and with slightly less certainty {+ei, +lei, +rei} and, of course, animate +in that often follows +er. Foreign feminine suffixes are as numerous as regular, +énz, +ánz, +íe, +ik, +ík, +ítis, +sis, +is, +túr, úr, +atión, +ión, +itä́t, +ä́t. Just e, áge, áde, … requires more attention.

All diminutives are neuter, the usual native endings being dialectal or poetic {⸚lein, ⸚le, ⸚li, ⸚[e]l} and standard ⸚chen. Verbal infinitives with +en (otherwise a masculine indicator) used as nouns are also neuter as are most derivates with Ge+ prefix and optional +e suffix. (Action stems without obvious suffix are usually masculine, however.) Another neuter derivational morpheme ist productive +tum with R̈ and sometimes E plural. Foreign neuter suffixes are mostly regular with +át, +étt, +ín, +on, +ón and Latin +mént, whereas French and English +mént has S plural and +ium, +um often have no plural at all or retain their foreign one.

Irregularly masculine nouns ending in +e (also foreign ones) and feminine ones ending in (seemingly masculine) +er or +el also have N plural, whereas neuter words with the same endings or +en have empty plural as usual.

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Based from my experience you must memorise all the nouns with the article. for more information you can go to http://german.about.com/library/weekly/aa042098.htm and find out more.

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