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I gather that, unlike the English "wihtout", you usually don't use an indefinite article with ohne:

Es ist zu kalt ohne Mantel. -- "It's too cold without a coat."

But it you do use a definite article if applicable:

Es ist zu kalt ohne den Mantel. -- "It's too cold without the coat."

But sometimes an indefinite article is used.

Ich bin zur Zeit ohne einen Cent. -- "I'm currently without a cent."

Is there a rule for this? I tried Wiktionary, DWDS, Duden, and this Grammis entry, but other than some examples I didn't see any rule formulated. Obviously for uncountable nouns you wouldn't need an article anyway, but apparently even for some countable nouns (e.g. Mantel) you don't need one here either.

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  • Your first example is rather no article at all and not just "no indefinite article" - isn't it? The german sentence itself sounds proper for me. – Shegit Brahm Oct 9 '20 at 19:46
  • Well, you could argue that no coat is not countable and rather an abstractum. – tofro Oct 9 '20 at 20:04
  • In the first sentence, Mantel is used as an abstract concept. – Polygnome Oct 9 '20 at 20:19
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    In your last example there are more possibilities: einen can be a number (like ich habe nur fünf Euro), can be the opposite of keinen (ich habe keinen Cent; since you probably can't put on more than one coat, this example seems different). I also find nothing wrong with Es ist zu kalt ohne einen Mantel and if the coat was discussed previously ohne den Mantel also is correct. – guidot Oct 9 '20 at 21:29
  • @guidot -- I like the idea that einen actually means "one" in the second example. As if to emphasis how much money you don't have: "No, at the moment I'm without a single cent." But it doesn't fit with one of the examples given in German wiktionary (per DW): ...ohne Rechte und ohne eine geregelte medizinische Versorgung. In that case you could argue that the noun is uncountable in this sense and so should never get an article. – RDBury Oct 10 '20 at 2:28
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Usage of the Nullartikel (that is, omitting the article) is an area in German grammar where you could argue there's more exceptions than rule-conformant constructs.

In your specific example, you could argue "ohne Mantel" is actually a "by-example"-abstractum, because "ohne Mantel" could also mean "ohne Windjacke", "ohne Anorak" or more generally, the abstract concept "ohne warme Kleidung". (If the guy would wear a thick woolen pullover, he would definitely not go out "ohne Mantel", but also not "mit einem Mantel", but probably "nicht ohne Mantel").

Note you can go out without a definite piece of clothing (like "deinen Mantel" or "deinen alten Mantel, den du von deinem Onkel geerbt hast") or without any (thus indefinite) piece of warm clothing (like "ohne irgendeinen Mantel" or rather "ohne Mantel"). So, both are possible and both are common.

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  • I see your point but I'm not fully convinced..By that argument you would drop the article with mit as well. But you'd usually say Es ist zu heiß mit einem Mantel not Es ist zu heiß mit Mantel. In any case, any noun can be made abstract by putting "something like a" in front of it, so the explanation doesn't really tell you when to use the article and when not to. – RDBury Oct 10 '20 at 3:56
  • Auf mich wirkt "Es ist zu heiß mit Mantel.", zumindest umgangssprachlich, sehr geschmeidig. "Wieso gehst Du raus?" "Es ist zu heiß mit Mantel!" Welcher Mantel, das sieht man ja dann. "Es ist zu heiß mit dem Mantel." wäre eher ungewöhnlich, wenn nicht draußen ein alternativer Mantel bereitliegt, mit dem es nicht zu heiß wäre. – user unknown Oct 12 '20 at 3:16
  • @user unknown -- Ja, "mit Mantel" und "mit eine Mantel" scheinen etwa gleich wahrscheinlich zu sein. Aber das Argument in der Antwort scheint zu besagen, dass "mit eine Mantel" unmöglich ist. Ich habe viele Kombinationen in Google NGram ausprobiert, aber ein klares Regel hat sich nicht gezeigt. Nur das "Ohne eine (Substantiv ohne Adjektiv)" ist ungewöhnlich. – RDBury Oct 12 '20 at 6:37
  • @user unknown -- Übrigens ist "Substantiv ohne Adjektiv" ja ein weiteres Beispiel. lol. – RDBury Oct 12 '20 at 6:37
  • @RDBury: Vielleicht wären die Ergebnisse mit "ohne eineN Mantel" ergiebiger gewesen. ;) – user unknown Oct 13 '20 at 1:00
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Here is my possible explanation and "rule". I think they're relatively simple and fit the data I was able to find, though I could be biased, confused or both.

Sometime in the distant past, the word that would evolve into ohne was used less like a preposition and more to form an adjective, something like the way you use "-free" in English or "-frei" in German. At least that seems to be consistent with what I was able to decipher of the etymology on DWDS. The word evolved into a preposition but it still has some vestigial characteristics of an adjective forming affix. You wouldn't say Ich bin eine mantelfrei, just Ich bin mantelfrei; in other words you don't use an article when the noun is turned into an adjective. But in some cases, such as with a definite article, the word behaves more like a preposition, something like frei von or "free of", which would explain why the you'd use an article in some cases and sometimes not. Another case where you can't form an adjective is when the noun already has an adjective attached, so you'd use ein(e)(en) in that case as well.

Here is the proposed rule:
It's unusual to use ohne with an indefinite article for an unmodified noun, even if the noun would normally require one.

Es ist zu kalt ohne Mantel. -- "It's too cold without a coat (coat-free)."

In some cases, ein, eine or einen, in the sense of "one", or "a single" can be added for emphasis:

Ich bin zur Zeit ohne einen Cent. -- "I'm currently without a single cent."

If the noun is modified by an adjective then an article is used.

Es ist zu kalt ohne einen schweren Mantel. -- "It's too cold without a heavy coat."

Anyway, at this point I don't know if this idea is completely off the wall or not, so I'm willing to listen to other theories and proposals.

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  • "Es ist zu kalt ohne dicken Mantel", "es ist zu kalt ohne Mantel", "Es ist zu kalt ohne einen dicken Mantel", "es ist zu kalt ohne einen Mantel" are all valid. I think your theory is wrong. – tofro Oct 26 '20 at 11:02

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