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When do you refer to nouns by articles and when can/should you refer to them by their gender (ie, “er,” “sie,” “es”)? Why should or shouldn’t you in a given situation? Does referring to a noun by its gender affect the meaning or change anything about the sentence in any way?

Example:

Ich stehe auf dem Boden. Der ist kalt.
Ich stehe auf dem Boden. Er ist kalt.

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These aren't "gender" or "article" words.

"der" is a demonstrative pronoun, which inflects like the definite article but isn't the same thing. For instance, the pronoun always carries phonological stress, and the article never.

"er" is a personal pronoun, which encodes not just gender, but also person, number and case. (In fact, next to the possessive pronouns, personal pronouns are the most inflected words in the entire language.)

The difference in meaning is not big, but it's not particularly subtle either. It's similar to the difference between "I had a dog like that - he was a good dog" vs. "I had a dog like that - that was a good dog".

  • That becomes a bit clearer if phrasing the example with a relative clause, "Ich stehe auf dem Boden, der Kalt ist", because it doesn't permit the substitution, that would work with "Der (Boden) ist Kalt". The rhymes der~er, die~sie are of course rather important for this to work, and hence the difference is less than with "a~that", though the relative clause shows that that that is suitable analogy. I wonder what was first, er or der (der as da+er or das+er, deriving the definite article from that??). – vectory Feb 17 '19 at 20:47
  • @kilianfoth Can you clarify a bit about what you mean when you say “It's similar to the difference between ‘I had a dog like that - he was a good dog’ vs. ‘I had a dog like that - that was a good dog’.” Would you only use “er” for biological gender (ie dog) or does “er” kind of “put distance” between whatever you’re talking about and the object taking the personal pronoun? – Aaron Feb 21 '19 at 17:15

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