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I know I should probably understand it, but I don't fully understand when to use der, die, das, and den, not where they all contrast. What are all of their differences? I'm so confused! T^T

All three of them can mean 'the' at points, but das can also mean 'that'? And is 'den' like 'an' English, where you can only use it preceeding a word that starts with a vowel? Would someone be willing to explain it to me? Please?

[PS: I'm tyically bad at understanding and memorizing language terms. So I would really appreciate it if you tried to write in an easy-to-understand way. Please, don't just say something like "...a conjunctions." without giving me one or two examples of conjunctions.

While I do know the differences in usage between esse, essen, and isst, I tend to forget that they are related to tenses, I don't even know what those different types of forms are called...! >-<]

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The German definite article (that would be the in English) varies by gender and case. You probably know that every German noun has a gender: masculine, feminine, or neuter. Hopefully you also know that there are four cases in German. This concept is maybe hard to grasp for someone coming from the English language. In a sense, English has three cases, but you notice them much less often. But you know in which situations you say he, him, his. These would correspond to the subjective case (also called nominative case), the objective case, and the possessive (or genitive) case. German has one case more: where English uses the objective case, German has the dative case and the accusative case. Often the dative case corresponds to to him and the accusative to a simple him, but of course this is only a guideline, not a rule.

I almost forgot number, the plural (talking about many things, not just one) also uses different articles. Fortunately, the plural forms do not depend on the gender.

In the nominative case (somehow the easiest) we have:

der Ball (m), die Hand (f), das Haus (n),

with the plural forms

die Bälle, die Hände, die Häuser.

In the accusative case, these become:

den Ball, die Hand, das Haus, die Bälle, die Hände, die Häuser.

In the dative case:

dem Ball, der Hand, dem Haus, den Bällen, den Händen, den Häusern.

And in the genitive case:

des Ball(e)s, der Hand, des Hauses, der Bälle, der Hände, der Häuser.

Of course, these are better presented in a table.

If you are not already familiar with German case system, then this answer will probably not be very helpful, but hopefully it points you in the direction of what you have to learn.

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You really have to know what the four German cases are and what their function is to truly understand when to use each form of the definite article (den, der, das, die, dem or des). Once you have got that, you just need an easy way to remember which gender to use.

The previous answer summed up the cases pretty well, but I am going to add a bit more to help you to know when you should use which of the three genders (masculine, feminine and neuter).

Each gender can oftentimes be used for every item in a whole category of things. Here are some of the common ones:

Masculine:

  • times of day, time of the year, months and days of the week (Morgen, Mittag, Abend, Frühling, Sommer, Januar, Februar, Montag, Dienstag…); Exceptions: DIE Nacht (night), DIE Mitternacht (midnight)
  • directions: Süden (south), Norden (north), Osten (east), Westen (west), Südwesten (southwest)…
  • weather-related words: Hurrikan (hurricane), Monsun (monsoon), Regen (rain), Schnee (snow), Wind (wind); Exceptions: DAS Eis (ice), DIE Kälte (the cold), DIE Hitze (heat), DIE Wolke (cloud) [But then, for Kälte, Hitze and Wolke you already know that they’re feminine, because they end in –e, right? ☺]
  • alcoholic beverages: Cognac, Rum, Wein (wine); Exception: DAS Bier (beer)
  • car brands: Audi, Fiat, Ford…

Feminine:

  • motorcycle brands: Honda, Kawasaki, Yamaha…
  • names of ships: Titanic, Queen Elizabeth…
  • names of cigarettes: Camel, Marlboro
  • numbers used as nouns: die Zwei, die Hundert, die Million…

Neuter:

  • names of colours: Blau, Rosarot, Schneeweiß…
  • nouns that originate from verbs: Essen (eating), Lernen (learning), Reisen (travelling)…

(excerpt taken from this article which has heaps more info about when to use which article)

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